What happens when the volunteers are gone?

I’ve been giving a bit of thought lately to the structure of our racing clubs and our heavy reliance on volunteers.

Having been one in three instances with clubs at various levels of the totem pole I think I am pretty well qualified to comment on what I have seen while in those positions and subsequently.

In my first committee incarnation I was not only the first female but also the youngest – by the proverbial country mile.  As things went on that theme of age was an on-going one.

Every club I was associated with was conscious of the need to attract younger members or even race attendees and apparently, I was the one who was going to bring those young people on board.

While I had friends who were happy to commit to a day at the races, asking them to devote time – usually on a work day – to sweeping out tote buildings and doing other cleaning up in preparation for a race day, or even spending a couple of hours one evening a month at a committee meeting and they ran for the hills.

I understood totally.  In the end my decision to stand down from the committee of the second club I was involved with (after around six years) came down to the fact my service to the club was eating into my holiday leave and time spent with my kids.  Three of the club’s race days fell on weekdays which meant each one required me to take three day’s leave for clean-up prior and post race day and the race day itself.  The majority of our committee was either retired or self-employed and it was easy to see why.

So, fast-forward to the present and it came as no surprise to me that regional meetings of racing clubs I have attended over the past couple of months provided a sea of grey-heads.  The younger brigade was virtually invisible and while I can understand that I do wonder why the ones I hear about aren’t making their voices heard.

I hear rumblings about young racing people wanting to have a say and make an impact, yet they are letting the ideal opportunity to do that pass them by.

How, you ask?  Well, quite simple really.  Clubs are always saying they are desperate for younger committee members, their bright new ideas and the new racegoers they can provide.  Most clubs seem to have problems finding people wanting to put themselves forward for positions on committees.  Given that, it is not like they would have to serve the lengthy apprenticeship as a long-term member which was normally required by those who came before them.

If you want change things, then get involved and drive the change from within.  I know it’s difficult and I know it requires a time commitment, but I know from experience that it is do-able.

One thing I ask of those who might be considering getting involved with a racing club committee is that they thoroughly acquaint themselves with the structure of the industry and specifically how the funding flows.

There is a glaring need on many club committees for people with a clear understanding of where the money comes from.  A proliferation of volunteers seems to think that because they don’t get paid then their particular club doesn’t cost the industry anything.  The concept of just where the money that keeps the show on the road seems to have totally bypassed them.

Without the younger brigade stepping up and taking up the challenge I see the volunteer structure of our clubs lasting five to 10 years at the most.  While I understand those clubs who felt their futures were threatened following the release of the Messara report and this year’s NZTR Venue Plan consultation document, I do wonder who they are expecting to be running their club in five to 10 years’ time.

Perhaps rather than clinging onto their past and rigidly refusing to examine an alternative future, they need to look at their own succession plans and determine whether their club actually has a future.

After all, what will it mean if a club wins the battle to race at its traditional venue if there is no one left to volunteer?





A reminder of what drew me to racing

Watching Saturday’s racing from Trentham I was reminded of what it was that first got me hooked.

There were some great moments from the champagne turf last weekend, as befitting a premier race meeting.

There was Emily Margaret toughing it out to dominate the boys in the Group Two Norwood Family Wellington Guineas in the closest of photo-finishes.  That was a win made even more significant with her owners, Rodger and Emily Finlay, donating their winnings to the repair of the Canterbury mosques.

The Roger James-Robert Wellwood trained Concert Hall lived up to her favouritism as she stormed to victory in the Wentwood Grange Cuddle Stakes (Gr 3) and added to her sire Savabeel’s ever-expanding roster of Group performers.

Volks Lightning added another black type win to her earlier Group Three victory in the Sweynesse Stakes when taking out the gavelhouse.com Lightning Stakes.  The six-year-old mare has been a consistent performer in our top sprints over her career and few would have begrudged her that win.

The day’s feature race also provided plenty of opportunities for those looking at the Al Basti Equiworld Dubai New Zealand Oaks to generate media opportunities.  The Group One fillies feature maintained the female theme with the two Lisas – Latta and Allpress – combining in a sterling win with Sentimental Miss.

That was one angle.  Adding to this it was the first (and well-deserved) Group One for Westbury Stud stallion Reliable Man; the win also contributed to the on-going success which is Albert Bosma’s Go Racing; and there was the added fact that one of the Go Racing syndicate members just happened to be a former jockey and trainer of some note.  Former Fairfax journalist Tim Barton has written a great piece on part-owner Merv Andrews which you can read here.

That lot on its own would have added up to a fairly sensational race day however, it was in an earlier race where I was transported back to my formative racing memories.

Race three on the card was the Yealand Family New Zealand St Leger over 2600m.  After 120 runnings of the race, which was initially for three-year-olds and later extended to include four-year-olds, was opened to older horses this season.  That left the way open for the evergreen stayer Sampson, at the grand age of nine, to take his place in the field.

A little bit of history – the St Leger, that is the English original, is the oldest of the five classic races and, as the final leg of the English triple crown remains restricted to three-year-olds.  Other iterations such as the Irish St Leger, the Prix Royal-Oak in France and the Deutsches St Leger are no longer restricted to three-year-olds.  In fact three-time Melbourne Cup runner Vinnie Roe made the Irish St Leger his race, winning it from 2001-2004.  Just for good measure he also took out the Prix Royal-Oak in 2001.

So back to the New Zealand version on Saturday.  With 1400m left to travel the brakes had gone on up front and tactics came into play.  Johnathan Parkes on Sampson took the initiative and sent the big, bold gelding forward and from the 1200m had the field at his mercy.

What transpired was a breath-taking staying performance which the crowd at Trentham obviously appreciated.  While Parkes rode the length of the not-inconsiderable Trentham straight craning his neck as he looked for potential challengers, Sampson romped away to an effortless eight-length win.

Watching online two things were evident – Sampson was having a blast, and the crowd was loving it aided by a Tony Lee race call to match the occasion.

It epitomised everything I love about horse racing.  A horse at the top of his game, maybe not the “name” horse of the day but doing what he is bred to do and doing it in style.

Sampson on Saturday reminded me of the horses of my youth – the ones which might not have made the headlines but the ones through their exuberance and joy in competing captured my imagination and led me on this life-long journey.

As the oldest St Leger winner in the world, Sampson now has a special place in history and perhaps his effort on Saturday managed to attract a few more life-long devotees to racing.







Tone-deaf response to glimpse of industry reality

How do you defend the indefensible?  If you are the NZ Racing Board, it seems to come quite easily.

Last week in the front-page story of The Informant editor Dennis Ryan spoke to Casey and Michelle Dando, who were agonising about their future in the industry. Both have generational links to the racing industry and the desire to continue within it, however the realities of the business are making them question that decision.

They are not the only ones doing it tough now, but they were prepared to speak out and cop whatever reaction might come from that.  Interestingly, the usual online chat forums – aka talk-back radio for those who have mastered the keyboard but aren’t quite smart enough for Twitter – which tend to pick up on all things negative in the racing industry didn’t even register the Dando’s despair.

Instead, it was the CEO of the NZRB John Allen who reacted with a carefully crafted response in this week’s copy of The Informant.

I say carefully crafted because the piece was designed to present Mr Allen and the organisation he represents in the best possible light and ticked all the appropriate PR boxes.  However, it smacked of insincerity.

It is difficult to sound sincere when you are so far removed from the people you are effectively working for you have lost sight of your key role.

A little reminder of what that role might look like can be found in Section 9 of the 2003 Racing Act which, until we come up with something better, is the Act the NZRB is currently operating under.

Section 9

The functions of the Board are—


to develop policies that are conducive to the overall economic development of the racing industry, and the economic well-being of people who, and organisations which, derive their livelihoods from racing

Mr Allen seems to see no relationship between the decisions made by his Board “investing to enable a sustainable future” and the fact “many across the industry who started with a dream and a passion but the current level of investment and participation in racing is at a level they are right now talking about walking away.”

Apparently, he wants the Dandos and those in a similar position to have faith that the NZRB’s “investment” in a new fixed odds betting platform (which wasn’t met with glowing reviews when unveiled) might help create a brighter future.

The other areas of “investment” he mentions in his response – outside broadcast facilities, customer acquisition and racing infrastructure – will apparently all aid the cause when it comes to lifting profitability.  This in turn will “lift distributions to the racing codes and give hope to those people who have a dream and really want to make something of their lives in racing in this country.”

While it all sounds as though it adheres to the spirit of Section 9 the reality is that most in the situation that the Dandos find themselves will consider it lip service.

In the world they occupy there needs to be a return on any investment they make.  This would explain the clients with three or four mares deciding to cut back and just breed from one mare this season.

The impact of this is going to be felt by all of us – even at the NZRB should it still exist – down the track.

Fewer mares being bred means fewer foals being born.  In an industry where our foal numbers are already perilously low this deserves a serious response from the body which controls the industry purse strings.

The old “I hear you and have every sympathy” followed by a smoke and mirrors, “but look at the mega-millions we’ve thrown at these projects which will eventually pay off” is a tone-deaf response.

The Dandos, and others like them, have seen the stories about the $40m-ish betting platform and the fact it is yet to have the desired upward impact on turnovers, so their faith that the NZRB does have their interests at heart is already tested.

Perhaps it is time that more of those whose livelihoods depend upon the policies developed by the NZRB began insisting the reduction in costs Mr Allen speaks about happen.  And they will need to happen quickly as Mr Allen points out somewhat ominously: “this industry does not have the luxury of time.”

Should we mark International Women’s Day in racing?

It’s International Women’s Day and I am somewhat conflicted as to how, whether or even why we should mark the occasion in the racing world.

While it would be great to think racing clubs would embrace and opportunity to celebrate the women in our industry making a fuss just one day of the year does appear somewhat patronising. I’d like to think that racing in New Zealand had evolved sufficiently to recognise that women are just as capable as men.

It’s been a long 40 years since women won the fight to compete as jockeys here and most would have no recollection of those early days of using caravans as changing rooms and being an on-course oddity.

Over the past four years women have either won the jockeys’ premiership (Sam Collett last season; Lisa Allpress in 2015-16) or finished second (Alysha Collett 2016-17; Danielle Johnson 2014-15).  This season Lisa Allpress is currently leading the way, with Sam Collett poised to make a challenge sitting fourth.

It is probably safe to say that Kiwis have embraced female jockeys with more enthusiasm than our Australian counterparts.  Yes, they have women jockeys – one of their most prolific winners is Kiwi ex-pat Linda Meech – but they are not as visible in big races as they are here.  Michelle Payne’s heartfelt comments after her Melbourne Cup win demonstrated the depth of frustration that women in Australia weren’t being given a fair go.

With that in mind I didn’t find it surprising that Sky Racing in Australia decided to mark International Women’s Day with an all-female team presenting their racing.  It seemed to smack of paying lip service to the event – very little effort required on their behalf for a little bit of feel-good.  Call me cynical, but if International Women’s Day fell on a Saturday would they have been as eager to show their support with an all-women presenting line-up on their key race day?

Perhaps I am being a tad harsh, after all Sky Racing did launch a new show earlier this year called Women in Racing, hosted by Lizzie Jelfs.  It might be another case of lip service but at least they are leading the way when compared with our own Trackside!

So, what is happening in NZ racing to mark International Women’s Day?  As far as I can ascertain, a big fat nothing.  And this is where I am conflicted.

In some ways I love the fact that women in our industry are so much an accepted part of the landscape that we don’t feel we have to make a song-and-dance about their involvement.  But then I also believe we are missing an opportunity to celebrate the incredible women who have done the mahi to ensure this has happened.

Why not acknowledge Linda Jones for not backing down; bow down to Marilyn Waring for taking up her constituent’s case and enjoying the battle; and remember those early riding pioneers who set the stage for today’s women jockeys?

Wouldn’t it be great to remember the likes of Rita Jackson, Freda White, Margaret Bull and Kay Bowman (forgive my Central Districts bias but these were the names of my childhood!) who, in their day, were that rare thing, the female horse trainer?

Earlier this week a survey was launched by the NZRB in conjunction with the codes which aims to address the level of engagement of women in all facets of the racing industry.  The survey is anonymous, though one friend did comment that having to respond with her age, location and role in the industry did make her feel as though she had pretty much put her hand up and named herself!

The survey can be found here and all industry participants, no matter what gender, are being asked to take part.

As an acknowledgement of International Women’s Day I guess it is better than nothing!