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!





Racing hierarchy still confuses those who should know better

If you spend a lot of time on the internet, or even chatting to like-minded racing aficionados, you are going to come across a lot of confusion as to who does what when it comes to racing hierarchy.

Somewhat surprisingly, many of those with not even a vague idea of the responsibilities of each of racing’s entities are those with skin in the game.  Recently I have been somewhat astounded at the lack of understanding around how our industry is structured, especially when it is demonstrated by those who I thought would have known better.

Some I could possibly forgive as they came up through the bad old days when Jack Bennett ruled both the TAB and the NZ Racing Authority; the thoroughbred administrative body was still known as The Conference; and we operated under the auspices of the Racing Act 1971.  Their confusion is possibly understandable given the various changes and iterations the governing bodies have undergone over the past 20-odd years. But really, we’ve had more than long enough to figure it all out and understand where responsibilities lie!

The most recent restructuring of the industry started way back when NZ’s first racing minister John Falloon appointed a Ministerial Committee on Race Betting Systems in January 1991.  The minister got a little more than he expected with some of the recommendations.

The committee not only called for rationalisation around dates but also a total overhaul of the industry’s administration.   Much to the chagrin of some of those at top of the administrative food-chain it was suggested that the Breeders, Owners, Trainers and Jockeys, through their various Association, be awarded seats at the Board table of the old NZ Racing Conference.  Readers, apart from the jockeys this actually did come to pass!

Other recommendations of the time included Sunday racing, free-to-air racing coverage on TV, the use of TAB services for betting on sport, and unlimited TAB jackpots. It also proposed allowing the Racing Authority to issue licences to clubs.

Once slightly refined through the select committee process the Racing Amendment Act 1992 saw the Racing Authority replaced by the Racing Industry Board, which was tasked with revitalising racing – a big jump from its former regulatory role.

By 1997 the RIB was calling for significant changes to the Racing Act – its view at the time being that the industry should be able to operate as a commercial entity under a Racing Commission.

Some time in 1999 the Conference cast off its old identity and became NZ Thoroughbred Racing, its role as the code body of the galloping code intact.

Fast-forward to 2003 and, after much debate and appearances before the select committee, the industry welcomed in a shiny new Racing Act.  This time it saw the RIB and TAB merging into one beast to become the NZRB.

And thus it has been ever since.  Despite that there are still people out there without the first clue as to what each organisation does.

So starting with the code body, here is a summary from NZTR’s 2017-18 Annual Report:

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing is tasked with administering the domestic thoroughbred racing code but that illustrates what we do, rather than who we are.

Technically we are racing administrators but in reality, we are racing enthusiasts. It is possible to have a role at NZTR and remain immune to the charms of the industry, but it’s not easy. The colour, the mystique, the challenge of picking a winner, the cross-section of people involved and the attraction of the horse itself, all combine to create a spell that can be hard to break.

For our staff, both in the office and in the field, do love racing. For many, it is the main reason they work at NZTR. They have adapted their skillset to suit the requirements of their favourite sport.

The same passion drives the NZTR Board, all of whom have their governance skills underpinned by a lengthy involvement with racing. Every member of the current board is an active owner and had been involved in racing administration, at various levels, before being appointed to the Board.

Their work experience in racing ranges from stablehand duties in the university holidays to Chief Executive roles at major clubs, managing large-scale stud farms and advisory and governance experience in New Zealand and further afield.

Our staff are committed to doing the best they can because they want racing to thrive.

Their genuine affection for the sport, together with their knowledge and experience, helps them make the daily judgement calls around race programming, handicapping, dates, venues, licensing and race fields.

In numerous cases, these decisions involve grey areas, where there is no right or wrong answer and it is a rare occasion when you can please all the people, let alone all the time. But a decision still needs to be made.

Both the short and long-term strategies require NZTR to weigh up the often competing needs of the various sector groups. The owners, trainers, jockeys, breeders, club members, punters, administrators and spectators are involved in the same industry, but their interests and views are not always aligned.

But while the industry will continue to test us, it also enthrals us, and we love being involved.

And from the NZ Racing Board’s “About Us” page on their website:

The New Zealand Racing Board is the organisation behind all New Zealand racing and betting.

Our Vision: To secure the future of our industry and position it as one of New Zealand’s great success stories.

Our Mission: To enhance kiwis’ involvement and enjoyment of racing and sport.

Our Purpose: To deliver a thrilling betting, racing and sports experience that all kiwis can get involved in and be proud of.

When you bet with the TAB on the gallops, trots or greyhounds, take a punt on the All Blacks or European football, every betting dollar contributes to grass roots racing and sports in New Zealand as well as the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Kiwis involved in these sectors.

The New Zealand Racing Board was established in 2003 under the Racing Act to administer all racing and sports wagering in New Zealand.

We are a major entertainment business with more than 180,000 TAB account-holders and a retail network comprising around 600 outlets.

NZRB directly employs 820 personnel (full-time, part-time and casual), with the majority of these people involved in the various facets that make up the TAB operation scheduling daily racing for customers in New Zealand, selling racing and sports bets through our retail network, online and telephony channels, or the broadcast of racing on our national television channels Trackside 1 and 2, and on Trackside Radio.

We support betting on more than 78,000 domestic and imported thoroughbred, harness and greyhound races each season, as well as on a rapidly growing number of domestic and international sporting events.

After operating costs and expenses, our profit is distributed to the three New Zealand Racing Codes New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, Harness Racing New Zealand and Greyhound Racing New Zealand in accordance with an agreed funding model.  In 2016/17, NZRB distributed $137.6 million to the three Codes.

NZRB is also a significant supporter of sports in New Zealand – in 2016/17 we provided $9.3 million in commission payments to National Sporting Organisations and paid out $3.2 million in Gaming grants to grassroots community sporting organisations.

Pretty straight forward right?

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!