The jumpers are why I love this time of year

A few years back I had a regular gig on a sports show on a Taupo radio station where one of my co-hosts was renowned for asking “have I told you how much I love this time of year?” before going on to proclaim it his absolute favourite.

What you could gauge from listening to the show that it really didn’t matter what the season, or the major sporting event of the time, they were all his favourites.

At the risk of channelling him I do have to confess that this is one of my very favourite racing weeks. Of course, in the 2019 version it is a little more streamlined than the mid-winter week of my youth when Trentham hosted three days of racing over a week.  School holidays being structured differently back then, this also necessitated wagging school to make the mid-week day – the excuse being I was visiting my grandfather.  The fact I was visiting him in the owners and trainers bar at the racecourse was glossed over as something the nuns possibly didn’t need to know.

Three days of winter racing at Trentham meant straw in the birdcage to mask the otherwise knee-deep mud and out on the track it was the survival of the fittest.

While I have vague memories of traditional steeplechases, by the time we had moved back to Wellington the figure-eight course was in use and everyone soon learned the top of the old public stand was the best place to watch the drama unfold.

According to the holder (in his head) of all Wellington RC history the one and only Des Coppins, the first Wellington Steeplechase to be run over the figure-eight course was in 1973 and won by Destino, trained by Bob Autridge.

Hard to believe then, that this will be the 46th running over that course!  Of course, the race itself boasts a much longer history going back to the first running in 1884.

Looking back at past winners in living memory I found it interesting how I could recall so many of those races, yet I am often tested when trying to remember who won the previous year’s running!

My absolute passion for the Wellington Steeplechase probably started when Fleeting Moment won.  Trained by Jock Harris he was ridden by Mike Dombroski.

A keen hunter Mike once turned up at my parent’s place in Tauherenikau with a Captain Cooker piglet – I will spare the squeamish the reason why said piglet was motherless – thinking it would make a cool pet for me.  It did – until it outgrew our place and was moved across to my grandfather’s place and….well, you can probably guess the rest.  So Mike was something of an idol and, him winning the Wellington Steeplechase lit my interest in jump racing.

My grandfather despite, or probably because of, being a former jumps rider was very reluctant to train them, so he seldom had a jumper in the stable.

For me though, there is nothing better than watching a field of top-class jumpers stream over fences as they negotiate the twists and turns of the figure-eight course.  And of course, there is nowhere better to watch that than on top of the old stand at Trentham – the stalwarts will be there on Saturday for the culmination of my favourite week of the year!



Creating opportunities for women in racing

A random comment during a conversation last week with a young woman working in the racing industry was an eye-opener, and led to me taking action.

For some time now I’ve thought about creating a group for women working in racing which would allow them to network and provide mentoring opportunities for those new to the industry.  This week it happened. I mean, what else are you going to do when you’ve got a week off work, right?

The spark which finally lit the fire to get me motivated and doing something came last week with a reminder that misogyny is alive and well in racing.  Foolishly, I thought things had changed.

Apparently not, according to the bright, capable young woman I was chatting to, we’ve still got a way to go when the industry is seen to be embracing misogyny.

It was a depressing thought, but not an unfamiliar one.  I’ve fought it from day one, with my own grandfather telling me the stables was “no place for a girl.”  Despite his misgivings, that one was easily negotiated – where else are you going to find staff who will work for nothing?

In later years though the battle was real.  

I laugh about it now – the letter from a prospective employer which commenced “Dear Sir”; the sincere question from a Board member asking “who would be there to shake hands” should I attend an international meeting as the sole NZ representative; the request for coffee from “the secretary” when I was the person who had called the meeting; and so on, slights representative of a certain generation, or so I thought.

Having enjoyed a 10-year sabbatical working outside of the racing industry in businesses with very strong female leaders, where studying and developing one’s leadership style was encouraged, I foolishly thought racing might have also moved on.

However, it would seem our industry – despite its blinkered belief to the contrary – is still mired in the thinking of my grandfather’s era.  Or maybe that is a little harsh?

After all we have possibly the highest representation of female Vs male jockeys in the racing world and they perform admirably.  There is also no shortage of strong female trainers. Women are – with a few exceptions – reasonably well represented on racing club committees. Then there are the ones who are employed in positions throughout the industry.  But look at the leadership and the talking heads and you will find they are still predominantly male.  

It is more than how this looks, although the perception from outside the industry is of a blokey outfit, it is how it feels to the young women currently working in racing.

Having developed a high bullshit threshold over the years I am a little concerned to find it having been tested recently.  What has concerned me more, is that other women, young women wanting to forge a career in this industry and without my rhino hide, might be impacted by the level of misogynistic crap they encounter and chose an easier path.

I want the young females coming through our industry to be able to lean on and learn from each other and some of the more battle-scarred in the hope women in racing leadership might become normal rather than a rarity.  Hence the creation of Thoroughbred Racing Women’s Network, a closed Facebook group (we’ve also got a presence on Twitter too @TBRacingWomens1) to allow that to happen.

As someone who has benefited greatly from having some incredible mentors throughout my working life, the option is there for members of the group to either mentor others or be mentored.  Networking and social opportunities are also part of the master plan which will evolve as the group grows.

The only prerequisite for membership is that you be a women who is currently employed in racing.

And while I may have been initially apprehensive about starting a group which might not attract any members that fear was quickly put to bed with a message from one young member.

“Get me on board – I’m going to see how far I can get in this industry!”


Racing Reform Bill out of the gates

If you ever wanted to know just how the racing industry is perceived by those who run the country, then tuning into watch proceedings in parliament on Tuesday would have left you with a clear picture.

From being an industry where most of those stalking the corridors of power had at least some passing interest, racing has declined to something from the dim distant past. Most of those speaking were left scrambling to find a tenuous racing tale to demonstrate their connection.  And that was just those on the government’s side of the House.   The Nats, once natural bedfellows of the racing industry, showed a mixture of relief that they no longer had to deal with the seemingly, never-ending demands from the racing brigade and outright antipathy.

The occasion was the first reading of the Racing Reform Bill which is being fast-tracked through select committee and scheduled to be reported back to the House by 11 June.  If you’ve read the RRB and have any thoughts about making a submission to select committee then you will need to be quick.  That window of opportunity, currently open, will slam shut on Tuesday 4 June – the initial date was Monday until someone realised it was a public holiday.

While long-time watchers of the theatre which surrounds our law-making will have seen through much of the posturing and playing of roles on Tuesday, the uninitiated were possibly left astounded.

Here I have to confess that I have, on occasion, watched Question Time at parliament purely for the amusement value.  But the amusement value on Tuesday was limited due to the fact they were talking about something close to my heart.

Even knowing that everyone in the House was playing a role, and  the arguments were focused on not giving a sucker and even break (with the sucker being those on the other side) rather than doing anything to advance the cause of the racing industry, it was not an easy watch.

Make no mistake, politicians don’t particularly like the racing industry. Not all of them are as honest as Gerry Brownlee who described racing as “dull” but scratch any of the hokey old stories told to demonstrate some form of kinship with the industry and you will find a card-carrying opponent to our industry.

Sure, they will show up when they have too – usually around election time, but they would rather have nothing to do with us.

It wasn’t always so.  Back in the ancient past – around the time of the formation of the TAB, whose ownership Mr Brownlee is so keen to determine, many MPs were prominent racehorse owners.

One of the Wellington Cup winners (at Trentham, the track whose name Mr Brownlee struggled to recall) that my grandfather trained was owned by the then-Speaker of the House Sir Matthew Oram.

It made sense for MPs to have some involvement in racing, given that at the time the local racecourse was the perfect place to meet with a wide range of one’s constituents.  This continued to be the case through to the early 1980s.  Former MP Marilyn Waring, while revisiting the fight to get female jockeys licensed, told me she was a regular attendee at the Waipa races during her time in parliament for that very reason.

The world has moved on and politicians have no real need for racing any more.  Of course, the industry itself is not blameless when it comes to the disconnect between the industry and all-but-Winston.

Who wouldn’t lose patience with an industry which, despite numerous Royal Commissions, Reviews and Recommendations designed to drag it (kicking and screaming) into a bright new future, managed to find new and different ways to muck things up?

Is it any wonder the politicians manage to side-step any possible engagement with industry representatives when they are constantly presented with problems and never solutions?

The industry has a long history of shooting itself in the foot with politicians.  Bad mouthing them and their efforts to drag the industry out of the mire and then acting surprised when future efforts to get alongside said politician are met with the cold shoulder.

Racing administrators have, over the years, behaved like that annoying whiny kid-adult who having left home years earlier still can’t understand why his parents won’t keep funding his lifestyle.

Presumably the Racing Reform Bill will get across the line in the prescribed (truncated, according to the Nats) time-frame and we will be off into another brave new future with any amendments or changes agreed upon throughout the process.

While there were some cringe-making comments during Tuesday’s first reading Gerry Brownlee, despite his apparently loathing of racing, did also offer a credible piece of insight into what has helped stymie the industry over the years.

“I think every effort that they’ve made, commendable as it is, falls short because the industry itself have never been prepared to take into their number—to put on their boards, to bring into their fold—people who have a bit of an entrepreneurial bent and a considerable love for the horse racing sport,” he said.

Gerry, you said a mouthful!


That winning feeling snares a new owner

Regular readers will recall that a few weeks back I managed to tick off one of my (slightly random) bucket list items, by sponsoring a race.

What I neglected to mention in that blog-post was that I had a tiny share in a runner in said race.  In line with my grandmother’s rule of not photographing the horse before the race, I decided not to tempt fate and draw attention to the fact.

In a dream result the horse won.  Well, she didn’t just win she fulfilled the age old riding instructions of going to the front, increasing her lead and kicking away on the turn.

How often does that happen – you sponsor a race, your horse (well, one in which you share the ownership with a cast of many) lines up in it and wins?

Needless to say the presentation was memorable!

Part of my sponsorship gig included being able to invite a few guests to enjoy the day so I used it as an opportunity to catch up with number two son (purely primogeniture, not a preference thing) and his girlfriend.

Being a little more fast and loose with his money than his more careful older brother, this one actually had a TAB account.  I use the past tense intentionally. He had an account which during a short period he used regularly – predominantly betting on horses. The interest faded and once he forgot his account password he couldn’t be bothered going through the drama (when you’re in your 20s everything is a drama!) of getting that sorted.

Now both kids were brought up in the same house where, in their very early years, their mother occasionally graced the screen on Trackside.  The younger one did accompany me (while very tiny) on the occasional shoot back when Trackside did more personality pieces. Whereas for a short time the older one used to have (one-sided) conversations with George Simon whenever he appeared on screen.

As they grew older they would apologise to any friends coming over on a Saturday, telling them not to worry if their mother suddenly started yelling at the TV.

Once they were old enough they were then roped into race day tasks, such as selling race books, at the Taupo summer races. Plenty of exposure to racing then, but other than being able to read form-guides and being familiar with the odd racing term it hasn’t really stuck with either of them.

It didn’t surprise me that neither developed the same passion I have for racing.  After all, I grew up in the same household as my four siblings where our exposure to racing was considerably more hands-on.  We rode racehorses and helped out at the stables (with varying degrees of commitment) yet, only my Singapore-based brother is remotely interested in going racing and following the form.

I took actually getting number two son to the races as a major achievement.

What I hadn’t reckoned on though, was how the day would appear to him and the impact it would make.

They arrived and joined us at our table in the sponsors’ room and liked that they could venture out from the room to watch the race.  They had easy access to totes and only moderate queues. So far, so good.

Pre-race, wearing my owner’s hat, my fellow syndicate members and I took them down to the pre-race hospitality where they could get a close-up view of our pride and joy.  Then it was back to the stand and out to watch the race.

I’ve often said that if you could bottle the feeling you get when you have a winner then you would make a fortune.  That day though, I think some of it rubbed off on my boy. He witnessed the elation up-close and live.

The race aftermath was a blur as we all (including number two son) were whisked out for the photo with our winner (this time wearing two hats as sponsor and part-owner); then upstairs for a presentation like no other!

I should have had an idea of what was coming when the son began asking whether the same things happened everywhere your horse raced, were there always pre-race drinks, the post-race photo and celebrations.

Two days after the race he rang asking how he could go about getting into a horse.

So, after completing all the necessary paperwork he now shares my share in the horse which lit the ownership fire and, this weekend he will have his first runner – the fourth generation of his family to do so.

Of course, he will soon learn that it is not all champagne and celebrations!


Footnote: Like most of those involved in the industry I have been carefully perusing the papers released by Racing Minister Winston Peters the other week and I am hopeful that we will soon see some of the changes we have been wanting for so long.  Such was my optimism when the MAC report and the cabinet papers were released that I signed up for another share in another horse, I am hoping my optimism is not misplaced.