Have you ever been at the races in New Zealand and looked around and thought about how things could be done better?
Who dictated that our racing needed to be conducted on predominantly oval tracks with the only variation being whether they are left or right-handed? Who decreed that our grandstands would be created to ensure the prevailing wind would sweep into the viewing areas which would also be shaded and bitterly cold? How come the only places to go racing were these mausoleum-like places?
Look around our tracks and it is abundantly clear that once a template for racecourse construction was established, other than a few tweaks, it was stuck to. But what if things were different, what if we could come up with a brand-new concept of how to take racing to the people?
Back when I used to ponder such things, I wondered about the possibility of a rotating grandstand which was situated, along with all the facilities for the horses, on the infield of the track. Don’t judge me, I had a lot of spare time.
It was quite possibly this enthusiasm for examining something different which led me to get a little excited reading two differing stories online recently.
The first I stumbled across at the end of August. A Las Vegas casino executive had come up with an idea to put fans up-close with the racing action by including a novel feature on a yet-to-be built racetrack in New Mexico.
Daniel Lee, chief executive of Full House Resorts, claimed a “moving grandstand” would be “the next best thing to being in the race as a jockey.”
Proving that there is no such thing as a new idea, Lee said that the inspiration for the feature came from a special train which operated during a rowing race on the Hudson river in 1934. Apparently, the train travelled along tracks beside the river and the sideways-facing seats meant the spectators were able to keep up with the rowing action as it happened.
The modern version proposed for New Mexico would cater for around 200 spectators seated in a glass-walled electric-powered vehicle which would move along rails on the one-mile track’s outside.
According to Lee the moving grandstand would keep pace with the horses. “I looked at this and said, ‘They were doing this in the 1920s and ‘30s, so we can do this today,” he said.
For sheer novelty value it would have appeal, surely? Not to some who commented negatively via the Twittersphere. Of course, as is so often the case with naysayers no alternative suggestions were made.
The other story appeared earlier this month. This involved The Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips who fronts City Racing. That company name may ring bells for some who might recall stories earlier this year which talked about possible horse races on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when Racing NSW entered into discussions with City Racing.
By his own admission Phillips has always steered away from horses, but here he is now promoting a concept which aims to bring the excitement of horse racing to major cities around the world.
Just last week three trial races were held in Liverpool down a section of the old F1 grand-prix track at Aintree, an area which doubles as a service road for the Grand National course. The track which was used took 16 hours to lay and was a sand-based, all-weather surface – Equaflow – which is used annually at the Horse of the Year show and was also seen in action at the London Olympics.
The three test-races were run over a mere three and a half furlongs (around 700m) and included eight horses travelling at half-pace with the aim of just proving it was possible.
Phillips told media afterwards that they would take “learnings” out of the trials, “but it is primarily about assuring people that we can run eight horses on the track.”
“The obvious concerns are around equine welfare, that is our single biggest thing. We’re putting together an equine welfare panel and it will be gold standard,” he said. “Whatever the standard for racecourses we have to go above and beyond that, because this has never been done before and we will do everything in our power to mitigate any accidents.”
City Racing has the backing of the Jockey Club and it is hoped that they will have the first two cities to stage races on board in January.
Any agreement would, of course, have to be sanctioned by the local racing jurisdiction and City Racing sees these events, not only as a platform to promote racing but also as a tourism boost.
While the trials were relatively short, Phillips said most of the cities selected to host the races would have a street which was one kilometre long.
The jockeys and trainers involved in the trials were all supportive of the concept with champion apprentice Jason Watson saying the track “rides really well, it’s similar to Newcastle and possibly even better.”
Of course, racing horses on streets in the centre of town is nothing new, the Palio di Siena is held twice each year in Siena, Italy and is believed to have its foundations in the 14th century. It draws tourists by the thousands.
The progress of City Racing during 2019, including whether proposed events in London and Paris get off the ground and have the desired effect of exposing millennials to the excitement of racing, will be watched with interest.
FOOTNOTE: Yesterday saw the announcement of the make-up of the newly minted Ministerial Advisory Committee. The five appointees have been charged with providing the Minister with an interim report by the end of February so will no doubt be hitting the ground running. No pressure, but you currently hold our futures in your hands! Following is the release from the Beehive:
Racing Minister Winston Peters has announced a five-member Ministerial Advisory Committee to inform next steps on the Messara Review of the New Zealand Racing Industry.
“This government is committed to reforming the racing industry. The Ministerial Advisory Group will develop a plan to operationalise the Messara Report to deliver better governance and economic outcomes,” said Mr Peters.
“The five people appointed to the Ministerial Advisory Committee bring their personal expertise and ability to provide independent, strategic assessments of the business change proposals for the racing industry. Between them they have experience across the three racing industry codes,” he said.
Mr Peters has appointed Dean McKenzie as Chair. Mr McKenzie is an experienced racing administrator whose dedication and passion to improving the industry make him the ideal choice to lead this very important work. He will be well-supported by Committee members Bill Birnie, Liz Dawson, Kristy McDonald and Sir Peter Vela.
“Collectively, they will identify the technical, legal, financial and process-oriented decision points for racing reform and return the industry to a well-managed and sustainable economic growth path. They will also take into account the feedback received during the public submission process.” said Mr Peters
The Committee will provide an interim report to the Minister for Racing by the end of February 2019, to be followed by Cabinet decisions, and legislation to modernise the industry.
The Committee is being created as a potential precursor to the establishment of a Racing Industry Transitional Agency (RITA), subject to future government decisions.