What first drew you to racing? Two very different horses led me to this place!

Here’s a question for regular readers – what was it that first drew you to racing?  What planted the seed which has obviously (if you’re reading a blog this obscure!) blossomed into a continuing interest?

I was thinking about this the other day, when I decided I needed – for my own sanity – to remember what first drew me into an industry which has now become a passion.  I guess hanging out with a range of academics daily has led to me not just accepting this as something which just “happened” but searching for an underlying reason.

Why is it that I care so much about the future of this industry?  That I, like other friends who have despaired at the Racing Minister’s ponderous approach to its protection and return to prosperity, currently feel deflated and defeated.

Since the launch of the Messara report all I have read, viewed and heard in the general media and on the industry’s “own” channel are negatives and reasons why it shouldn’t be adopted in toto.  Missing have been the voices of our thoroughbred industry leaders – I exclude those associated with the NZRB from that fold, the only place they have led us is into the abyss.  Obviously, working behind the scenes has been taken to the extreme?

So, feeling glum and borderline wanting to just chuck it all in and put my energy into something more rewarding, I got to questioning how a passion for thoroughbreds became so embedded.

I’m going to be self-indulgent, but its my blog and I can do what I want, however I’d love to hear your stories too so feel free to leave a comment or some feedback.

According to family lore, I sat on my first horse at 18 months old.  It was a racehorse, it was at Trentham and said horse – whose name has been forgotten in the mists of time – was trained by my grandfather and had just won a race. Perhaps that was what set my course?

While that is what I was told, my own earliest memories stem from Tauherenikau where my grandfather was training.  We lived over the road and my father would occasionally let me accompany him to the track in the morning.

At the time he had entrusted my grandfather with the training of a filly by Red Marlin (it was a VERY long time ago), her stable name was Poppy, and she wasn’t very fast, but she did like to eat.  A usual part of the stable routine back then used to be that the boys took a few of horses out for a walk around the nearby roads in the afternoon but one day they were rather late returning.  So late that my father was sent out in the car to look for them.

Nothing was awry, Poppy’s appetite had got away on her and, no matter what was tried, the poor apprentice was unable to prise her head up from the lush grass on the side of the road.  Poppy’s racing career was neither lucrative nor lengthy.  My grandfather, recognising her innate lack of ability, sacked her early.  My father, though, in the manner of most young men, believed he knew better.  He continued to train her himself – from my grandfather’s stables, using his gear, his staff and his feed.  My grandfather was proven right though, and it was off to the broodmare paddock for Poppy.

While Poppy may not have reached great heights on the racetrack she may have indirectly affected my career choice.  A story I wrote about her when I was around 10 was published in the children’s pages of a Sunday paper and was my first ever paid contribution.  A friend of my father’s who raced many of Poppy’s offspring told me many decades later that he had kept a clipping of the story.

Poppy’s banishment to the broodmare paddock and the subsequent need for stallion selection was responsible for my interest in breeding.  I had school exercise books full of pedigrees of every horse in my grandfather’s stable and found the differences between the many full and half-siblings which came through his care intriguing.

My visits to the track also became more regular as I grew older and around the age of eight I became a real pest.  I was usually thrown up on something quiet that my father could lead but my favourite was always Roodyvoo.  Not the more recent jumping version, this one was a half-brother to the Melbourne Cup runner-up Howsie and had fashioned an impressive record himself before breaking down prior to the Easter.

Sent to the paddock, Roody had been enjoying the life of Riley for 18 months before my grandfather decided to have the affected leg x-rayed again.  With no sign of the original injury and full of his usual vim and vigour it was back into training for Roody.  He never reached the heights for which he may have originally been destined but he did amass a great record racing up until he was around 10.

Once retired finally, he took up residence in the back paddock – which opened on to the course proper – here he would stand intently listening to Jack O’Donnell’s commentaries on race day.  It was on that gate in the back paddock where my grandmother and I were positioned one day watching what was Roody’s last race.  The field jumped and my grandmother, binoculars focussed on the gates said, “Something’s dropped the rider…. it’s ours.” By the time she’d got that out Roody was lining up at the gate waiting for us to let him in.  It was as though he decided, blow this for a joke, I’m done and took himself off to retirement.

We let him back in the paddock, took his saddle off and gave it to the clerk of the course who had come looking for the missing horse. Other than our morning trips to the track, that was the last time Roody set foot on a racecourse.

In retirement Roody’s role was to socialise the new additions to the stable, but he also set himself up as quality controller.  Every afternoon my grandfather would add freshly cut grass to the hay in each box and one day he heard rustling coming from the box he had just completed, wandering back to check he found Roody undertaking a taste test.  Installed in a yard at the end of the stable block Roody had managed to open the gate and had followed behind my grandfather ensuring all was up to par for his stablemates.

We left the Wairarapa when I was 11 so my future hands-on horse experiences came via school holiday visits to my grandparents or when I could go to Trentham.

The champagne turf wasn’t exactly welcoming to kids back in the day.  You could go in the Leger area if you were under 12, but that was miles away from the horses.  Instead I used to try and tag along with my aunt (on the dam’s side, this one) who was regularly the on-course nurse.  Her office for the day was a tiny hut situated close to the back-parade ring.

Once I hit college age and was officially “allowed” to go racing I was at Trentham every opportunity I got, even if it meant wagging school to get to the mid-week Winter race day.  While I might have been old enough to be in that part of the course the Wellington Racing Club officialdom now had a problem with the fact I was female.

While waiting for the running of the Wellington Guineas where my grandfather had a live chance I was approached by a white coat and informed I couldn’t be where I was.  Where I was, with one of my grandfather’s mates, was on the wrong side of the white line which determined where the men would be and where the women would be banished.  It’s amazing there is anyone left with a passion for racing such was the determination of some administrators to crush our enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm is still taking a beating but despite, in fact more likely in spite, of our very average administrators and their flaccid leadership, I’m still here.

And it’s all because of the horses.  Oddly, I appear to have lucked into a couple of horses which are providing moments of great excitement at present.  I like to think it might be reward for perseverance!

Hopefully, by the time next week’s blog rolls along we will have an inkling of good news around the Messara report and those of us left standing will be rewarded further with some positive action.

Why not focus on the benefits promised in the Messara report?

The difference in attitude between New Zealanders and Australians has never been more clearly on view than following the release of the Messara report.

Presented with a blueprint to success and potential doubling of stakesmoney (should the reforms be implemented in toto) New Zealanders immediately latched onto the perceived “negatives.”  In some areas of the media those negatives were figments of active imaginations which hadn’t been able to grasp the detail of the report.  I have laid two formal complaints with one media company which took a deliberately disingenuous approach to its reporting around the report.  Of course, it could have been driven by ignorance, the eventual responses should provide the answer to that and indicate whether I take the complaint to the NZ Media Council.

But back to the report. What is it with this tendency to focus on gloom, this dour, dismal, desolate outlook which is the antithesis of the bright and sunny outlook of our neighbours across the Tasman?  The fact the report was crafted by an Australian was something which grated with some media commentators who demonstrated their lack of knowledge by whinging about this aspect too. Would they have preferred we gave the task to another failed Kiwi administrator, after all, how do they think we got into this mess?

The report has now been widely available for two weeks and there are still many, some employed in the industry, who have not read and absorbed it. Yet they feel free to pontificate on the “negatives” and what needs to change.  The ignorance and arrogance of this stance is appalling.

Some with an agenda not entirely aligned with those who want to see the industry thrive (read the report and it is abundantly clear just who would fall into this category) continue to angst over track closures and the outsourcing of the TAB.

What they are not highlighting are the benefits this report promises.  In his covering letter, John Messara advises the Minister of Racing: “I calculate that the cumulative impact of the reforms recommended in this Review can enable a near doubling of prizemoney in the thoroughbred sector from $59.4 million in 2017-18 to $100 million.  The overall approach to prizemoney has to be aimed at supporting investment and participation in the sport through equitable funding for the lower tiers of racing, while ensuring that aspirations are fuelled by lifting the rewards of the Group and Listed program.”

The examples which follow provide a mouth-watering picture of what our future might look like with $10,000 minimums jumping to $20,000 in a simplified three-tier racing model which would see the top tier racing for $70,000.  What is not to like there?   Likewise, with Listed races doubling to $100,000 and increases at the top end seeing Group One races carrying stakes of $400,000.

To demonstrate just how these increases would benefit the industry there is a graphic which shows how this “Cycle of Revitalisation” would work.  Increased prizemoney leads to increased returns to owners, leads to incentives to invest in horses (buy & breed), leads to increased race fields, leads to increased wagering, leads to increased industry revenues, which takes us back to increased prizemoney and the cycle continues.

These increases in thoroughbred prizemoney are part of the 17th recommendation, which would also see payments extended back to tenth place in all races.

Another recommendation which should have met with a more enthusiastic reception is recommendation #11: Repeal the existing betting levy of approximately $13 million per annum paid by the NZRB, given that the thoroughbred code is a loss maker overall, with the net owners’ losses outweighing the NZRB’s net profit.”

Anyone still clinging to the belief that the NZRB has been doing a good job should read that again, very slowly (you can even move your lips if it helps with the comprehension).

As the report states, prior to distributing its profits to the codes, the NZRB is required to pay GST and betting levies to the government in accordance with legislation. The amount relating to the betting levy is approximately $13.2 million per annum.

The report argues that it would be in the government’s interests to repeal the betting levy provisions as a revitalised industry would “in turn lead to increased employment opportunities and an increase in the industry’s contribution to the New Zealand economy.”

The report continues: “If the government were of a mind to adopt this strategy it would send a clear signal of its support for the racing industry and its recognition of the importance of the industry to the New Zealand economy.”

“Further, if the levy is discontinued we would recommend that the resultant amount not form part of the Board’s overall profit to be distributed in accordance with Section 16 of the Act but that it should be accounted for separately and distributed directly to the racing codes.  In addition, as this action would represent revenue foregone by New Zealand taxpayers, we are of the view that it should be distributed to the codes in accordance with their respective contributions to the New Zealand economy.  Based on the recent Size and Scope Report prepared by IER in February 2018 the revenue forgone by government would be distributed to the codes in the following proportions: Thoroughbred racing 67.2%; Harness racing 27.10%; greyhound racing 5.7%.”

Following the Racing Minister’s instructions to John Messara, the Racing Act 2003 also came under the microscope and the report addresses, among other areas, the aforementioned Section 16.

Some history – Section 16 has given me nightmares from the moment our code was sold-out by those who purported to be acting in our best interests (those who should remain on the scrapheap of failed administrators).  Back in 2002 prior to the Bill going through its second reading it was originally labelled Section 15 and I wrote this piece:

Some 15 years since the adoption of the Racing Act 2003 we now have the opportunity to create a formula which would bring our industry more in line with those in the sporting codes.  Section 57 sees all sports betting, be it local or offshore, taken into account when determining the amounts payable to the respective sports bodies.

The report also details several precedents when it comes to distribution methods which give equal consideration to local and overseas racing.

Recommended under the heading Governance and Structure of Racing and Wagering Finances & Distribution to Codes is the following:

  1. Repeal the government betting levy and distribute proceeds to codes based on their respective contribution to the New Zealand economy.
  2. Amend Section 16 of Act to provide that NZRB (Wagering NZ) profits are distributed to codes on following basis:
  • Provided the NZRB (Wagering NZ) surplus is sufficient, each code to receive the same amount in any year that it received in the previous year (where the surplus is less than the previous year, the codes will receive a proportionate amount based on their previous year’s receipts)
  • Additional amounts are to be calculated as follows:
  • 25% on gross betting revenue on code domestic racing
  • 25% on gross betting revenue on code overseas racing
  • 50% on each code’s contribution to NZ economy
  1. Provide for the new scheme to be fixed for a period of 10 years unless changes are agreed unanimously between the codes and approved by Minister.
  2. Provide for an independent review of the scheme after 10 years.
  3. Continue to fund the racing integrity services from NZRB (Wagering NZ) gaming profits.
  4. All the NZRB (Wagering NZ) to operate on all sporting events (with or without agreement with National Sporting Organisations) and make payments to sports based on minimum payments prescribed under Section 57 of the Act.

There is no doubt the Messara report is a document which provides depth and detail.  It also offers us a roadmap out of the mire in which we find ourselves and the recommendations are dovetailed to ensure success.

Enter into discussions about the recommendations, but let’s make sure those discussions are around the “How” and let’s get this report across the line.

It also might be a good time for some former and current administrators to leave their egos at the door.  Yes, we all know you would’ve come up with a plan just as brilliant given a chance, but the fact is you weren’t, and you didn’t.  Suck it up and quit nit-picking!

In the words of the great Vince Lombardi: “Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”

If we are to achieve our goal of a vibrant and thriving industry there should be, as Brian de Lore pointed out in The Informant, more than a little urgency around the next steps.

It might be an opportune time to engage with the Minister and express support of the report and its recommendations and stress the need to get the right people in the right positions to drive the Racing Industry Transition Agency (RITA).  That is going to be, as a friend of mine is wont to say, the key to the operation, at least when it comes to stage one.

As mentioned in Friday’s post the above was written prior to the Minister calling for public feedback on the Messara report, what we can expect in the next five weeks is anyone’s guess.  We are certainly living in interesting times!

Racing Minister calls for feedback on Messara report – two weeks after release

Good news for the slow readers out there – Racing Minister Winston Peters has given you an additional five weeks to get your head around the contents of the Messara report.

Yesterday, a full two weeks after the report’s release the Minister announced a public consultation period of five weeks, closing at 5pm on Friday 19 October.  Feedback can be emailed to racingreview@dia.govt.nz

What will be interesting then is just how long the Minister takes to consider the public submissions and what, if any, weight is given to them.  In the meantime, though, time ticks on.

A date which should be marked on the calendar though, is Monday 1 October, the day the Primary Production committee’s report is due.  This is the select committee which has been considering public submissions to the Racing Amendment Bill 2017 following its first reading last August.

This bill was one of the items the Racing Minister specifically requested John Messara to consider when undertaking his review and accordingly a section of Part 1 of the Report is devoted to this.

Number 10 of the 17 recommendations included in the report’s executive summary states:

  • Introduce Race Field and Point of Consumption Tax legislation expeditiously. These two measures will bring New Zealand’s racing industry into line with its Australian counterparts and provide much needed additional revenue

The more detailed recommendations read:

It is recommended that the Racing Amendment Bill be enacted at the earliest opportunity either as a standalone Bill as presently drafted or as a component of wider legislation. The following changes are recommended to the Bill:

  1. The role of Designated Authority in terms of the Betting Information Usage Charges should be allocated to the three Codes of Racing and Sport New Zealand. The role of Designated Authority in respect of the Consumption Charges should be allocated to the Department of Internal Affairs or such other Department as is appropriate.
  2. Authorisation under each scheme should only be issued to persons licensed or authorised to operate as a wagering operator under the legislation of a relevant Country or State, or licensed by an authorised racing body.
  3. For the purposes of the Consumption Charges, the location of a punter should be determined based on the punter’s home address.
  4. The legislation should also provide for the cancellation, revocation or variation of authorisations where the operator fails to pay amounts due to the Designated Authority or fails to comply with the Regulations or any conditions attached to the authorisation.
  5. The legislation should provide for an administrative review of any decision not to approve an application for an authorisation or of any decision to cancel, revoke or vary an authorisation.
  6. Revenue generated from the Betting Information Use Agreements should accrue directly to the three codes of Racing and relevant Sporting Authorities in accordance with the respective shares of that revenue generated by them.
  7. Revenue generated under the Consumption Charges Scheme and collected by the Department of Internal Affairs should be applied firstly to the administration of the scheme, with any balance distributed in accordance with a formula based on the respective shares of the total investments made currently with the NZRB (Wagering NZ) plus harm minimisation initiatives, etc.
  8. Assessment of fees should be based on turnover and the systems should allow bookmakers to claim bet-back credits where they lay off all or part of a bet made with them but only where the bet is laid off with another operator who is liable for the New Zealand charges.
  9. The wagering operator is to provide information to allow the monitoring of matters relating to the integrity of New Zealand Racing and Sporting events.
  10. The Conditions or Regulations making provision for the inspection of betting records held by the operator to also allow an investigation relating to the integrity of New Zealand Racing and Sporting events. Provision should also be made requiring the operator to allow an audit of the operator’s financial records by an independent auditor approved by the Designated Authority with the costs of such audit being borne by the operator.
  11. Provide for revenue generated under existing authorisations entered into by the NZRB to be directed to the relevant Code or Sport New Zealand.
  12. Consideration should be given to adding custodial penalties for persons found guilty of breaching the legislation.

Submissions to select committee were due by 13 December.  However, as the Minister specifically asked for this to be considered in the Review he commissioned John Messara to undertake, these will presumably be included in the report he tables on 1 October.  If not, what was the point?

We have always been led to believe that no one understands parliamentary process better than our current Minister, so no doubt he has a clear plan as to just how these recommendations would be absorbed into the Bill.  There is a clear process outlined here which should be required reading for those wanting to gain some idea of the mountain we have to climb before we have any chance of seeing some form of this Bill become law

An apology – this was not the post I had planned for today.  I had already largely written that by the time the Minister landed the public submission bombshell on us yesterday.  Instead of writing about a five-week delay while every Joe Bloggs and their half-sister made comment on a document which most won’t have read, let alone understood, I wanted to talk about the aspects of the report the general media had largely ignored.

That post is scheduled to publish here on racingthoughts.blog on Sunday.

Also, a quick mention to those kind souls who have got in touch with me via this blog – it is good to know that my rantings are resonating with some of you and I am not shouting into a vacuum.  The feedback is most welcome!

And finally, with a nod to Te Wiki o Te Reo Maori – te panui I te purongo (Read the Report).

How one club made a bold decision and lived to tell the story (and they put their stakes up!)

 In the wake of the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from those associated with clubs whose tracks are destined for closure I felt it was an opportune time to provide some perspective.

As I said last week, a reaction of grief is not unexpected.  However, I was left with the strong impression, after reading several online stories that some of those affected were yet to read the Messara report in full.  What was more surprising however, was the fact that clubs claimed this was out of the blue and unexpected. I realise that clubs in this country are run by volunteers but, unless they were totally removed from the realities of the industry, I find it difficult to believe they were oblivious to the fact we were operating on borrowed time (and borrowed money).

I’ve been in their shoes.  Of the three clubs where I served on committees two were small, country clubs.  We worked hard to keep those clubs afloat, working bees were the norm and the financials were never pretty.

With that type of personal investment there also comes a sense of ownership.  But committees, through the ages, have never “owned” their clubs they are merely caretakers for future generations.  As such they have a duty of care.

I am hopeful that those club representatives who reacted in a predictable knee-jerk manner when contacted by media after the release of the Messara report have now had time to read and digest the report.  I am also hopeful that they are now looking at the big picture and seeing a different future for their clubs.

Just a note here too, if you are gobbing off about the report without reading it then please refer to this segment of my earlier blog post Time to embrace the process and be part of racing’s solution – “Read it through, breathe, read it again.  Sit back, mull it over and ask yourself one question.  Am I going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem?”

If you insist on being one of those people who prefer to live in ignorance or glean your “knowledge” of the detail of the report from the mainstream media, then do the rest of us a favour and do not share your unenlightened opinions with us.  As of Wednesday, when I made my second formal complaint against a mainstream media outlet which persisted in broadcasting and printing mistruths, I decided that I would ignore comment from those who patently have not read the report. Other than to scream at them – you can do that in the Twittersphere by using all capitals – READ THE REPORT! At this stage I have refrained from becoming sweary.

Anyway, for those associated with clubs whose tracks are earmarked for closure who are beginning to see that this might have to be their future I wanted to demonstrate just how it could pan out.

I have often quoted the Feilding Jockey Club as an example of what can happen when a president, supported by his committee and members, makes a very tough, but very brave decision.

To give a little history – Feilding began racing in 1879 and, as stated in Tapestry of Turf it was one of the most prosperous clubs of the time.  In 1905 its two-day Easter meeting recorded turnover of 30,117 pounds.  To put this in perspective the turnover a two-day fixture at Canterbury was 19,784 pounds, while three-days at the Auckland Racing Club saw 27,994 pounds bet.  Things obviously just got better because a meeting at Feilding in 1920 when Gloaming graced the track the on-course crowd of 8368 managed to clock up an incredible 103,000 in turnover.

The club also boasted something which the racing bible claimed was a New Zealand record with Goodbehere family members filling the secretary’s role from 1891 when Edmund Goodbehere took up the position.  Following on from his 33-year reign Edmund’s son Guy served for 30 years before, Edmund’s grandson Brian stepped into the role. His 22-year tenure concluded in 1976, just three years prior to the club’s centenary.

Given its rich – in more ways than one – history Craig McNeill, the club’s president in 1999 did not approach the task lightly when he looked to reshape the club’s future.

Craig recalled the lead up to the decision to sell the Feilding JC property and relocate to Awapuni thus:

Up until 1998/99 season, the Club was losing money, and basically going backwards and reducing its equity very fast.   A stop had to be put in place for this.

“Within the Committee, various members could recall the closure of Ashhurst Pohangina, Marton and Rangitikei Clubs.   They could see the benefit to those clubs who had gone through the process of centralising racing at one particular venue, namely the Awapuni Racing Centre.

“The decision was made by the then Committee to establish a sub-committee to proceed with the relocating of the Feilding Jockey Club to the Awapuni Racing Centre.

“There was a special meeting called for the purpose of discussing the proposed move. There was a presentation made from various industry personnel, mainly on the pro’s and con’s of staying versus moving.  

“The meeting was then asked to vote on the proposed move and there was a clear majority to proceed with the change of venue to the Awapuni Racing Centre,” he said.

What got the decision across the line, with hardly any opposition, was the fact that the presentation to the meeting clearly showed what would happen if the club stayed.

“What a lot of people do not realise, and the other clubs in the country who are facing closure will come to realise, is that moving made us stronger, not weaker,” Craig said.

“We are focused on the community and sponsors like never before and that sees increased investment and attendance at our meetings.”

The Feilding Jockey Club raced for just over 100 years at their last venue, that land after being sold to the Manawatu District Council in 1999 is now part of Manfeild Park.

The move, which saw the club transfer its racing operations to Awapuni, has been lauded as one of the best decisions made by a New Zealand club in recent decades Craig said.

Back in 1999 the Feilding Jockey club struggled to conduct three low-key midweek race meetings at their course and their feature event – the Feilding Cup – carried a stake of just $8000.

“Today the $50,000 Ricoh Feilding Gold Cup is a Listed open handicap with the club offered $232,500 prizemoney on this day, which is more than they paid out for their three meetings in the 1998-99 season,” Craig McNeill said.

Feilding currently runs three meetings at Awapuni, with the RACE Board allocating them the Manawatu Racing Club’s popular ANZAC Day feature meeting, which has provided the club with a second black type feature day.

“The club is in a very strong financial position and is a major contributor to the RACE concept,” Craig added.

Without making the move he is adamant the club would not have survived and he has no regrets about the decision.

“The club would be long gone,” he said.

To those clubs whose tracks are among the 20 slated to close he offers four bullet points:

  • “Embrace this proposed change”
  • “The Minister has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity – take it.”
  • “Do not be afraid of change.”
  • “Engage now with the venue you are looking to move to and start to agree how you can grow your business.”

“Moving gives the clubs a sustainable future and enables decisions to be focused on the customer and community, not on how to keep a derelict facility going,” he said.

Take it from someone who has been there and, instead of adopting a parochial view which would have heralded the club’s slide into oblivion, took bold action and allowed the club to thrive. History, and future racing generations, will thank you.