Long awaited win was a memorable one

When I first started this blog a few years back, my intention was to write about the good news stories and the quirky things which make our industry so unique.

Along with the good and quirky though, came the absolutely dire and dreadful and, in the way of bad news, it didn’t take long for those issues to take over.

Last week with the passing of the Racing Reform Bill and the announcement of RITA (Racing Industry Transition Agency) is now looks as though the much-needed change, promoted through the Messara report, may be on the horizon.

Bearing that in mind and combined with the fact I am sick of reading negative, narky and downright nasty content via various news and social media channels, I’ve decided to bring this back to the place it was originally intended to land.  Expect celebrations of good stuff mixed with the odd random piece and with the occasional dollop of history for the next 12 months or so as RITA guides us through the interesting seas we are now charting!

Meandering introduction over, this week’s happy topic was an occasion I, like a heap of other people, had been awaiting for a very long time.

The result of Saturday’s Tatt’s Tiara at Eagle Farm was memorable for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it allowed Chris Waller – arguably New Zealand’s best export – to claim the record for the most Group One wins in a season, topping TJ Smith’s long-standing mark of 17 wins set in 1979-80.  In itself this was a phenomenal result, so let’s just take a moment to savour it.

Foxton’s finest (yes, okay technically Himatangi, but it doesn’t have the same alliterative allure) has been smashing records at will, often those of his own creation, but this time it was a record of nearly 40 years standing.  With Chris and wife Steph off in the UK where they were lunching with The Queen and attending Royal Ascot it meant most of the media attention centred on the fact that this was also the first Group One win for the Waller-trained Invincibella and jockey Jason Collett.

The win took Invincibella’s tally to 11 wins with earnings of $2.46m and few would have begrudged her breaking through for a win at the highest level, she is the very definition of an honest mare.

When it came to Collett though, his reception on-course and the reaction from his contemporaries, friends, followers and fans, spoke volumes.

Most realised that this was a win which should’ve come much, much earlier, after all he had previously recorded around 16 placings in Group One races.

It also brought to an end the most perfect family teasing from Jason’s Group One winning sisters Tash and Alysha.  It was always good-natured because they, like everyone else who has followed his career, always knew he would join that Group One winners’ club.  It just took longer than expected.

“At the end of each season we would say, oh well he will probably get it next year,” mum Judy Collett recalled on Saturday night as she toasted her son’s success.

While Judy, Tash and Alysha were able to savour the moment as it happened, dad Richard, en route to a fishing trip in Alaska, knew something special had happened when he landed and found mega-messages on his phone.

While Jason was always destined to become a jockey, Judy and Richard both rode, as did Judy’s father who was an accomplished jumps jockeys, there was a time he considered giving it all away.

As an apprentice he was involved in a horror race fall and ended up with bleeding on the brain which kept him away from the track for four months and during which he thought a career being followed by an ambulance might not be a great choice.

However, the pull of the track was too great, and he eventually found himself back in Sydney, where he had earlier spent three months on loan Chris Waller’s stable.  Collett’s professionalism and dedication was demonstrated when he came out of his apprenticeship and just two days later won his first race as a senior jockey – for none other than Chris Waller.

At the time Waller was fulsome in his praise.

“He came out of his apprenticeship on Monday and was still at the stables at 3.40 on Tuesday morning, his first day as a senior rider,” Waller said.

“What does that tell you about a young man that is wanting to have a go?  He’s really focused.”

That focus hasn’t wavered over the past 6-7 years and while some might have feared he would never break through for that elusive maiden Group One, those close to Collett knew it was only a matter of time.

It was a glorious result on a winter’s Saturday and you can bet Collett will be itching to collect a few more wins at the top level come the 2019-20 racing season.

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!

 

Combating the lies of the anti-racing brigade

Last Sunday, after watching the disappointing coverage of the Kentucky Derby, I decided to join a crew of work colleagues at the races at Trentham and catch some live racing.

An unseasonably temperate afternoon attracted a smattering of families assembled on the grass along with others like us, who fell into the owners and/or racing tragic categories.

What greeted us at the main gate was an anti-racing protest.  I wouldn’t have noticed the four women holding variations of the same sign if it wasn’t for their leader continually droning her misleading message via a megaphone.

The poor gate staff had obviously been enduring the aural pollution for some time as one was able to repeat it verbatim while shaking her head at the madness of it all.

According to the sad and misguided quintet horse racing kills and horses are all destined for an afterlife as pet food.

The organisation which is currently pushing this group into the New Zealand market is Australian based hence the misinformation they are spreading is even less applicable to the reality of what is happening in New Zealand.

The group uses several ways to distribute their view of the world, predominantly via their website but also via these “protests” and, most recently, via letters attacking those who support the racing industry as sponsors.

Unfortunately, engaging with them is a futile exercise.  While protesting they repeatedly chant their mantra, perhaps thinking stating it might make it real.  Poor souls who attempt to correct the factual errors this group propagates on its website by debating with them online are accused of hating animals and “not being open to looking at the facts” – it is a losing battle.

Likewise, those who query the organisation’s involvement in providing homes for off the track thoroughbreds are rapidly reminded that rehoming is not their role.

In addition to displaying their total lack of understanding of thoroughbred horse racing, the letters being sent to race day sponsors show a lack of comprehension of the point of sponsorship.

In part these letters state that through their sponsorship of racing the recipient supports animal cruelty and goes on to claim, “we have no doubt the general public would be very disappointed if they were aware of this partnership.”

My twisted humour – because when confronted with the bare faced lies this mob fling around the place if you don’t laugh, you’d cry – has me wondering if they are actually doing us a favour by letting the sponsor know their contribution has been noticed.

This is where racing needs to start flexing its collective muscles and reminding the misinformed anti-racing brigade of what really happens to those horses who don’t want to be racehorses.

Somewhat ironically, the day before I encountered the protesters at Trentham, I had gone riding.  My trusty steed on that occasion was Ted, a 19-year-old thoroughbred who – due to difficulties pinpointed early in his life whereby he was deemed to be cursed by a lack of ability – had never set foot on a racecourse.

Now, according to megaphone lady at Trentham Ted would’ve been dog-food the minute this flaw in his make-up was detected.

Unfortunately, for them the real flaw lies with their statement – or lie, to be more exact – that slow thoroughbreds end up at the knackers.

I’m not basing this argument solely on Ted’s more than sturdy shoulders though.  Over many years I have had first-hand experience of what happened to horses once they stopped racing.

My grandfather, having developed spooky connections with most horses he trained, found there were some he could never let go.  They filled various roles in the stable during their retirement, from nannying young horses, providing safe riding opportunities for apprentices still learning their trade, or even as self-appointed quality control of feed.

In subsequent years I have had shares in too many slow thoroughbreds who, once sacked from the stable, have gone on to lead productive lives.

Most recently, one of the horses I was occasionally called upon to feed while her “people” were sunning themselves on the Gold Coast, was another never-raced thoroughbred.  Somewhat smaller than your average racehorse she did, though, find an alternative career as a polo pony.  These days, in her 20s she gets to pass her infinite wisdom on to younger horses who just might be destined for a career on the track.

There are hundreds of stories like this out there, if we are going to combat the lies, we need to ensure we meet those lies with the “facts” we have living in various paddocks around the country.

 

 

 

Counting down to the Run for the Roses

In another lifetime, many years ago, I held a role as a pedigree writer.

This rather intriguing title required two key requisites – immaculate hand-writing (what people used to do in the era pre-computers) AND a quiet and subdued office manner.  Somehow, I managed to end up in the very hushed and hallowed halls of Wrightson Bloodstock as a member of the pedigree writing team despite failing monumentally on both fronts.

For some reason, known only to her (and possibly regretted every day of the mercifully short time I spent there) the late Jane McClintock Bunbury took a punt and signed me on.

My role – well, the only bit I remember – was to update the race record cards of the NZ-bred horses which raced in Australia, by carefully (the neat hand-writing bit) transcribing their performance from the Australian Racing Calendar.  This information was used to create the pedigrees of those blue-blooded youngsters which made it into the yearling sales catalogues.

These cards – there must have been thousands of them – were stored in a giant circular contraption known as the whirly-gig. I can only imagine the celebrations when computers meant the end of all that neat writing in tomb-like silence!

Fortunately for the sanity of the aforementioned Jane Bunbury and my fellow pedigree writers, my time at Wrightsons was blissfully short and I was off to my natural calling, working at NZ BloodHorse magazine.

While the days of rubber-band fights and breeding debates were over, we stayed in touch.

As we all shared a passion for thoroughbred racing and breeding though, many of my weekends involved excursions to the races with my former workmates.  Or, more relevantly to this time of the year, extensive sleuthing to discover somewhere we could watch the Kentucky Derby.

As difficult as it is to believe now, there was once a time when racing could only be viewed on-track or, in the case of international racing, by finding somewhere with an extremely flash, state-of-the-art dish capable of picking up coverage.

This led to some interesting venues for our Derby brunches.  I have a vivid memory of watching one renewal of the Derby from the all-but-us-deserted back bar of a cavernous North Shore pub better known for hosting bands the likes of DD Smash – at least the screen was a decent size.

The effort which went into finding a locale where we could enjoy the most exciting two minutes in sports, as the run for the roses is billed, was akin to the preparation to scale one of the seven summits.

Of course, it all got so much easier when we could watch it from the comfort of someone’s home rather than schlepping all over Auckland.

One of the highlights of Kentucky Derby viewing over the years has been the quality of the coverage. It seemed that every horse had an incredible back-story and, no matter whether he was a 100-1 longshot or the raging favourite, that story was given the full treatment.

The pre-race interviews were insightful and professional, and the emotional impact was clear, and allowed to shine without any interviewer cheesiness, after the event.

There was a stage I recall having to watch the coverage on ESPN via Sky, the reason why escapes me, it may have been that Trackside chose not to provide coverage.  Equally, it could well have been their coverage was limited to the odds and race pictures only, I didn’t care the ESPN coverage was perfect for the race fan.

This weekend will see the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.  While I won’t be enjoying a race day brunch to mark the occasion, I will be joining the international viewing audience to see whether Bob Baffert can add to his impressive tally.

I’ll also be re-watching the Kentucky Derby episode of 7 Days Out an outstanding Netflix insight into the behind the scenes lead up to Justify’s 2018 victory.