Countdown on for Racing Industry Bill submissions

As we count down to the final date for submissions on the Racing Industry Bill it is becoming clear that few of those expressing a view on its contents have actually read it.

Distressingly, those same people also seem unfamiliar with the contents of the Messara Report thus it is incredibly simple to flannel them into believing that the proposed Bill delivers what Messara promised.

One of the results of this is people posting misinformation on racing chat sites which is then swallowed as gospel by those who have neither read nor understood any of what was originally proposed.  The old saying about a lie travelling halfway round the world before the truth has its boots on, has never been more apt.

During the past week the RITA roadshow has been chugging around the country to ease the fears of the racing industry when it comes to the contents of the Bill.  Unfortunately, that task has meant they have had to work to defend the indefensible.

No one with skin in the game would believe that those with racing’s best interests at heart would have supported the mangling of some of the clauses of the current Bill to the extent that the intent of the Messara Report has been neutered.  So if the Racing Minister, who delivered us Messara, and the RITA Board, which the Minister appointed to drive those recommendations through, had the right intentions, the derailing of those intentions has to lie with DIA.

The DIA officials can be forgiven for not understanding the intricate workings of the racing industry, there are some who pontificate loudly through online chat rooms who have still yet to learn the differences between the code bodies and the former NZRB/current RITa set ups!

But where they have failed us all, is by continuing down the nanny-state knows best line and, presumably against the urgings of the RITA Board, over-riding those concerns by applying multiple Ministerial handbrakes.  While they might have felt that level of Ministerial involvement in the inner-workings of the industry (appointments to the TAB Board, and approval of any joint-venture partnering of the TAB for example) was necessary, it is diametrically opposed to the fundamental thrust of the Messara Report.

Let’s not mince words, what we have now is broken.  Patching it back together with cherry-picked portions of the Messara Report and a solid dose of random sections of the old Racing Act is not going to get this industry off life-support.

But while it is widely agreed that the Bill is not fit-for-purpose in its current state, it is not beyond redemption.  The codes and RITA continue to work on reaching agreement on a number of clauses, as outlined in the handouts at this week’s RITA meetings around the country.  In addition to this, there is a surprising level of agreement around the country, cross-code and at all levels of involvement, as to which areas of the Bill fall into the non-negotiable area.

With a tick over two weeks left before submissions close on Tuesday 11 February everyone with an interest in the future of the racing industry in New Zealand should be putting pen to paper (or better still go here and click on the green button which says “I am ready to make a submission” and submit online).

Your submission doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, just clearly express your concerns.  If you, like me, are worried that the Bill in its current format, has lost the essence of the Messara Report recommendations then say so.  Your submission should also include some detail around your involvement within the industry – owner, breeder, trainer, jockey, stablehand, administrator, punter – many of us can tick a number of those boxes.

I would especially encourage those in the younger brigade who are at the early stages of their careers to make sure they submit and also to make sure they state they also wish to make an oral submission.  The grey-heads will be out in force – mainly because most have lived through a similar process in 2003 and realise the importance – but the Select Committee needs to hear from those who need this industry to survive if they are to have a career in it.

We have an opportunity to get this Bill back on track, it is our responsibility to see that the Select Committee is aware of our concerns and  the need to address them.

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Industry blueprint unrecognisable in Racing Industry Bill

Towards the end of last year, I was gently scolded by a gentleman who has been a constant presence in the industry for as long as I have been involved.  He wanted to know what had happened to this blog, why I wasn’t writing and whether I had been effectively “gagged.”

To be honest what had really happened was that I had lost motivation, as I could see things beginning to evolve following the release of the Messara report and the passing of the Racing Amendment Act, the industry did appear to be progressing.  While the pace of the progress was not ideal, I was prepared to err on the side of the old Mainland cheese advert, “good things take time.”

Given the time between the release of the Messara Report (30 August 2018 for those who need reminding) and the appearance of the Racing Industry Bill I was expecting a well-crafted document.  Unfortunately, what did finally emerge looked as though it had been put together by a bunch of people with little familiarity with the industry; how it currently works; and what Messara intended.

A mishmash of cut-and-paste from the existing Bill and garbled interpretations of what was a very clearly articulated blueprint of how things should look, there appear to be so many fingerprints on this Bill it would be difficult to pin the crime on one culprit.

That lengthy preamble is what passes as an explanation as to why I have breathed life back into this blog.  I am motivated to ensure that as many people as possible are aware of the yawning difference between what Messara created and what the bureaucrats have delivered.

I keep coming back to the fact that in the Messara Report we had a blueprint.  The Minister then applied due diligence appointing the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) to run a ruler over the Messara Report.  Subsequently we ended up with RITA, the Racing Industry Transition Agency which was intended to maintain BAU as the industry moved from the horrors of the past to a brave new world.

My fellow blogger Brian de Lore provided a handful of the Racing Minister’s better comments from his speech in Hamilton at the launch of the Messara Report and I recommend you read that here.  However, there were a few others which provide a reminder of how the Minister saw the industry at that time.

“If you think I’m a harbinger of doom of gloom, read the Racing Board’s annual report out this year,” he stated.

“Here is a fact. This year a three-year revolving debt facility was established to supplement the NZRB balance sheet.

And total equity is budgeted to decline by $15.6 million this year.”

So that is where we were and what John Messara gave us was a map out of the NZRB-created maze into what promised to be a utopia.  Armed with that document one could be forgiven for thinking there was a glimmer of light at the end of the interminable tunnel we have been negotiating. And then the tinkering began and with the release of the Racing Industry Bill it was apparent that the wheels had well and truly fallen off.  Somewhere along the line the Messara Report had been hijacked and it would seem that whoever stuck their oar in was limited in knowledge of the industry, how it functioned and why Messara flagged the changes he did.

A very wise racing administrator, on first viewing of the Racing Industry Bill, told me his one recollection from his school days and his Tech Drawing class was that when one started to remove elements from a blueprint then it impacted on the integrity of the structure.  And that is what the gang of Bill writers, or those who influenced them, achieved.

What we have now bears a resemblance to the Messara report in much the same way that Bold Personality bore a resemblance to Fine Cotton.

Those with a desire to see this industry grow and thrive need to familiarise themselves with the key clauses of the Racing Industry Bill and how they create a very different final outcome to that predicted by Messara.  And please, don’t just read the Explanatory Note at the beginning and think you’ve got it covered.  It paints a picture so different from the Bill that it is clear the writers of each had possibly never been introduced.

Once au fait with the Bill and how it is written compare the significant areas around code functions, governance and appointments to the TAB, not to mention government interference, with the intention of the Messara Review’s recommendations.  A simple submission could be created purely around those issues.

The industry (not to mention others who believe themselves impacted) has until 11 February to make submissions.  It also must mobilise and unite as never before to ensure their local MP (in this election year) is well aware of our views.

 

Opinion writers and protesters take pot shots at racing

One of my pet peeves has often been the lack of racing coverage in the general media.  However, over the past week I am wondering whether sometimes it might be better to keep our heads below the parapet given the pot shots fired our way.

On Tuesday The Spinoff provided an interesting take on the Messara report which proved the dangers of people pontificating when they have no understanding of wagering or the structure of the racing industry.

Having read (and obviously not understood) the Messara report the writer, a university student/actor Joseph Plunket, makes the following claims:

”The racing industry wants New Zealanders gambling like Australians, and spending more on horse and dog racing, as well as the myriad of other TAB wagering opportunities. For this troubled industry, the solution appears to lie in the exploitation of problem gamblers.

A majority of those who gamble might be able to do so safely, but the racing industry ultimately relies upon addiction in order to prosper. The characterisation of ‘just having a punt’ trivialises a serious issue which impacts families and communities across the country.

Why is our government seeking to reform and revitalise an industry which provides largely for an elite – those who own and breed racehorses – when it comes at the direct expense of the general public?”

I’m not sure where he got his information from regarding the industry relying on addiction to prosper, but the choice of the word “prosper” indicates he has absolutely no knowledge about the current state of the industry.

He talks about the need for the industry to have a greater commitment to problem gambling with his evidence for the requirement for this based on what one might see when they “walk into any suburban or rural pub in the country.”

Considering finding a TAB in any pub, be it suburban or rural, has become increasingly difficult over the years I’d love to know where he has managed to find enough outlets to witness this rampant problem gambling.

Towards the end of his diatribe about the evils of gambling he does ‘fess up that “it is difficult to establish the extent to which gambling addiction is a problem in New Zealand.”  He adds that stats show a decrease in the number of new “clients” of both the Gambling Helpline and the Ministry of Health.

Then he shoots himself in the foot with the following: “In the financial year 2016/17 gamblers in New Zealand spent $125 million more than the previous year. The overall amount gambled between the TAB, Lotteries Commission, gaming machines and casinos was $2.334 billion. Of the four forms, the TAB was the only one to experience a downturn during this period.”

I did wonder why the Lotteries Commission and gaming machines didn’t come under fire, especially given that these forms of gambling have been tagged in a recent study into problem gambling in Pacific Island families.

Obviously, that would not have allowed the writer to arrive at his desired conclusion which has the Minister for Racing propping up his mates in racing.  Described by this very earnest young man as “an exploitative and declining industry.”

Demonstrating that his only exposure to racing appears to be through the TAB’s advertising (“You’re in the game”) he also assumes John Messara’s comment “We need to keep people in the game” refers to betting.  Anyone familiar with the Messara report recognises that statement as being reference to keeping participants involved in the industry.

The full quote from the launch of the Messara report was: “My review includes a series of reforms that I believe will enable a doubling of stakesmoney.  And that increase needs to be right through the system – from the smallest races right up to the group and listed programme.  We need to keep people in the game.”

Perhaps a little more research and maybe even talking to some of the people who rely on the industry for their living might have given Joseph a more balanced perspective, but where’s the shock value in that?

Interestingly, the day after this piece appeared on The Spinoff one of the struggling MediaWorks re-branded outlets, Magic Talk, also slammed racing.

This afternoon host, Sean Plunket, shared his opinion about our industry with his national audience – thankfully, not a very large one.

It would seem both the Plunkets have taken very strongly against racing for some reason.

Perhaps their next steps will be to join the tens of protesters aligned with Australia’s Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses at their next New Zealand protest.  Apparently, this group will be back at Trentham this Saturday – obviously unaware of the fact that industry attention will be firmly focused on Ellerslie for the Karaka Million races.

I have been told there is no arguing with these protesters and perhaps they feel the same way because this week’s, like last Saturday’s where a dozen protesters managed to ensure television news coverage, is a silent protest.

Of interest the NZ arm of this group seems to have deviated somewhat from the core belief in Australia.  The invitation to the protest reads:

Our focus will be on how gambling ruins families and lives. We will also be raising awareness about the horse cruelty that takes place, before, during and after the races. Posters will be provided.

While there is apparently, no reasoning with protesters who are convinced of this cruelty – despite no actual evidence – I would just like to ask them to watch the last race at Avondale on Wednesday.

Pay attention of the antics of Flying Trapeze, a horse I have a minuscule interest in, particularly once he manages to rid himself of the encumbrance of jockey Jason Waddell.  If, as the protesters tell us, horses are “forced” and “whipped” to race how do they explain Flying Trapeze working himself up through the field until he is challenging for the lead at the turn?  If horses hate racing so much then, given the opportunity to escape, surely he would have headed for the nearest exit?

While it was a disappointing result as an owner, I did have to laugh.  Our perennial maiden did enough to ruin the photo for the eventual winner and still ran second!

Racing looking outside the square…and MAC appointees announced

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.