Industry saviour or footnote in history which way will Avondale jump?

It’s that time of year when racing clubs around the country hold their AGMs.

Usually these are fairly tame affairs where those cajoled into standing for vacant spots on boards or committees discover their fate and the chairman delivers the good (more often bad) news regarding finances.  The prevailing demographic is old and older and generally one can expect a question from the floor about what is being done to attract “the young people”.

Laughingly, I was once considered one of those aforementioned young people and, having fallen for the patter and ended up on the committee of two country racing clubs in quick succession, was the one this question was usually directed at.  Making it attractive, entertaining, comfortable and not treating us like second-class citizens was apparently not the answer they wanted.

Anyway, unlike most racing clubs time moves on and here we are at a most interesting crossroads in our country’s racing history.

Which way will we turn in this our “now or never moment” as Racing Minister Winston Peters described it?

There is one club AGM which I would certainly love to attend, as would most wondering whether self-interest will be placed above the future of the industry.  The Avondale Jockey Club holds its AGM at 4.30pm on Tuesday, 30 October (incidentally the same time and date as the Auckland Racing Club conducts its AGM).  Anyone want to lay bets as to how much time is likely to be taken up with discussion around the Messara report and the proposed closure of the track?

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a small family connection to the Avondale track.  My great-uncle Jack Burgess, he who prepared the great weight-carrying mare Soneri when training out of Otaki, later moved to Avondale.  A highlight of his time training from the Avondale track was taking out the 1966 Great Northern Steeplechase with Confer.

I also recall going to watch the first horse I owned racing under lights at Avondale in the bitter cold.  It might have been an idea ahead of its time, but it was also the wrong time and definitely the wrong place.

There has been plenty of discussion around track closure following the release of the Messara report, most of it emotive.  The important thing we should all agree with is that we have too many tracks and 20 need to go.  The make-up of that 20 might differ slightly from the courses named in the Messara report but Avondale should be non-negotiable.

Its potential value to the industry is immense and, should its custodians realise that and act with grace while relocating their racing operations to Ellerslie they will be forever remembered as industry saviours.

Should they decide to go down the “man the barricades” route they will remain a footnote in history akin to the Takapuna club which disappeared in the 1930s.

Just imagine if things had been different and the industry was currently sitting on an asset like that on the North Shore.

Its worth revisiting a bit of the Takapuna club’s history here.  It got slammed in the 1921 Earl Royal Commission (as did Avondale, more about that later) and its future at that time was decidedly shaky.

Takapuna managed to survive for another dozen or so years, largely since few of the recommendations in the Earl Commission were acted upon.  Remember we have a history of commissioning reports and then ignoring them when the solutions offered are politically unpalatable.  Or worse still, when the interests of the squeaky (but wobbly) wheel are placed ahead of the future health of the industry.

When the demise finally came for Takapuna it was due to safety and financial concerns with the Racing Conference refusing to be budged once the decision was made.

A fatal fall in a five-horse race at Takapuna on 27 January 1934 sealed the club’s fate and the club president Ewen Alison delivered his final report to members on 25 September that year.

He bemoaned the fact that the club had, over the previous 25 years, spent in extent of 63,000 pounds in “course construction, in the erection of buildings, in extensive concrete terracing which provided accommodation of 14,000 people, each of whom could view the races as well as from the grandstand.”

Despite the club’s pleas the Racing Conference had notified them that it would no longer grant any permits to race on the course which lead to Alison making this extraordinary claim:

“The Racing Conference is necessarily vested with wide powers, but it is expected that the power shall be reasonably and justly exercised.  I have no hesitation in saying that never in the history of racing has such a monstrous injustice or greater wrong been inflicted on any racing club in the world.”

(Avondale: “Hold my beer.”)

Anyway, hard done by or not the upshot was that the club’s course and assets were gifted to the people of Devonport. Takapuna then raced at Ellerslie until its debts were cleared and the membership was absorbed by the Auckland Racing Club and the Takapuna club disappeared into the ether.

Avondale, should it determine to go down the petty, vindictive road where its assets go anywhere other than back to the industry, will have an interesting footnote in our history.

They are no stranger to drama.  In the earlier mentioned Earl Commission, it was suggested the club was “unnecessary and…should not be permitted to hold totalisator licenses urgently desired by country and other clubs with infinitely better claims.”

The structure of the club had concerned the commission, having had a small membership from its inception.

Tapestry of Turf detailed this as follows: “Only 13 new members had been elected in the last eight years and there was an exceedingly discouraging rule in regard to the personnel of the committee.  The club now had 29 members; one had permanently left the Dominion and, of the remaining 28, 23 were members also of the Auckland Racing Club.  Only 21 had paid the annual subscription.  Of the 16 on either the committee or stewards, 13 were members of the Auckland Racing Club.  Not one member lived in Avondale or its vicinity.  Little attention had been paid to providing training facilities and there was only one small training stable at Avondale.”

There were also concerns around the way the club was structured.  However, somehow Avondale managed to struggle through and survive that glitch.

Subsequently, though there have been major potholes along the way, consider the following snippets from the club’s own website:

  • April 1987 sees the first night racing meeting at Avondale. Installation of lighting and related infrastructure costs about $8 million.
  • In 1989 the Club sold surplus land in Wingate Street to the Housing Corporation for $600,000. At the Club’s 100th AGM of Members held on 17 October 1989, Eddie Doherty, President, said that on course attendance figures had increased substantially by having all mid-week fixtures as night meetings. The Club’s $5.4m debt to the Bank of New Zealand is subject to winding up proceedings by the bank in November 1989. The Club had tried to sell parcels of land to avoid financial collapse but did not succeed. The Racing Authority steps in to take over the Club’s governance and management with a Board of Control (comprising D McElroy, J Wells and T Green).
  • Hundreds of floodlights from the AJC night racing meetings are in a fire-sale by the Club for $130,000 in 1992.
  • In response to the AJC’s submission in 2008 on the possible closure of the track, New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing’s chief executive Paul Bittar takes a hard-line. Bittar says the Club is expendable, justifying his opinion by stating management was underperforming and a sale of the asset would realise $60 million.
  • NZTR continues its look at its options to improve racing in Auckland – having suggested closure of Avondale so that Ellerslie and Pukekohe are the regional courses. A greenfield option is present too. “The Aucklander” reports (July 2009) that Avondale is saddle sore, saying that the racecourse has seen better days and the Club is under increasing pressure to close.
  • April 2015 saw the sale of a parcel of land (9,719 m2) not part of racing operations at the Western end of the track. The unimproved site had been subdivided from the main racecourse title in early 2014 and was marketed for 12 months.

Note:  The sale of the land in 2015 for $2.75m ($50,000 under CV) was reported to have cleared any remaining “major” debt.

What next for Avondale? There are really two choices and I think the final word should be left to the Racing Minister who asked the following when launching the Messara report:

“Would you accept track closures if it leads to saving your club, and creating a greater pool in prizemoney to generate further investment in ownership?”

Your call Avondale.

Time to put the NZRB out of its misery?

Call me cynical but I’m not buying this sympathy wave the NZ Racing Board is currently riding. With a late run reminiscent of Chautauqua the NZRB is attempting to position itself as a victim.  The outcome is more likely to be akin to last Friday’s Moonee Valley trial rather than the withering last-second winning burst a la any of the grey flash’s TJ Smith successes.

If you watched Weigh In last week, then you will have witnessed the staggering sight of the NZRB CEO John Allen stating that he did not speak to the Minister of Racing.  That was confirmation, if needed, that the NZRB in its current form is broken.

There were a couple of things which immediately sprang to mind when I heard that.  The first was, “well in that case do any of your well-rewarded Government and Industry relationship managers have any contact with the minister’s office”? And, the second was – “Winston can’t be that difficult to contact, Brian de Lore seems to have no problem getting him to provide answers to straight-forward questions.”

Long term readers will remember the Government and Industry relationship tribe which I referred to in a blog post last November (More climb aboard the NZRB gravy train).  From what I have heard over the past week though, they were as blind-sided as Allen when the Minister announced he was pulling the Racefields legislation.

It would seem from this that no one at the NZRB was paying attention when the Messara report was launched and the Racing Minister was answering questions. In addition to communication problems it would appear the CEO and chair are also challenged when it comes to listening and comprehension because, seated front and centre at the launch they managed to miss what everyone else watching heard and saw.

Interestingly, Brian de Lore wrote the following paragraph referencing this in his latest column in The Informant – you won’t have read it though as it was deleted:

That fact has been stated several times here in The Informant.  The Minister stated it himself at the launch of the Messara Report (and debated it with Graeme Rogerson) and he has always said we get only one chance at doing the legislation and everything had to be done at once.  It was no secret.

I went back and watched that segment of the Q&A again where, in response to Graeme Rogerson’s question about Section 16 the Minister had, among other things, this to say:

“I said that the law had been written in 2002 and the last one which is now before parliament which we have suspended bear the hallmarks of writing legislation for politicians and bureaucrats at their convenience and not with the interests of the industry in mind.”

When Rogerson pushed further asking specifically about Racefields legislation Winston Peters claimed the trainer was wanting to head down the motorway in a Lada when he was trying to create a Rolls Royce future for the industry.

“That legislation has got problems with it and we’ve only got a certain gap in the legislative schedule ahead to put the changes in we want,” he stated.

In response to the Minister’s query as to whether he saw the legislation as the “salvation of the industry” Rogerson said, no but it was a help.

The Racing Minister’s pithy reply, “So’s liniment!” left little doubt as to his opinion of the racefields legislation.

Apparently, this exchange went whizzing over the heads of those from NZRB and obviously was also missed by the wonderful leadership team which John Allen would happily have alongside him in any battle.

Their unwavering belief that Racefields was to be their saviour also probably meant they didn’t bother too much with reading the Messara report which also pointed out flaws in the legislation.

This pretty much sums it up:

We are not convinced that the maximum level of penalties prescribed in the Bill is sufficiently high enough to act as a proper deterrent for persons not complying with the legislation. Perhaps further consideration should be given to adding custodial penalties for persons found guilty of breaching the legislation. It is widely thought that the inclusion of custodial penalties in the NSW legislation has been a prime motivator for a high level of compliance. While it would be beneficial for the legislation to be enacted at the earliest opportunity to generate much needed revenue for the racing industry, it would be more appropriate to delay its passage until a final decision is made by the Government on the preferred structure of racing and betting administration in New Zealand. This would avoid the necessity of setting up monitoring and collection systems within the nominated Designated Authority only to have to repeat the exercise if the structure changes.

Based on what we have seen and heard from the NZRB over the past week or so it would seem they are living in an alternate universe.  In that world work goes on shovelling money into a FOB platform which has the whiff of a three-week dead trout about it; jobs of all descriptions are advertised despite the future of the organisation being shaky at best; and there is no connection between the senior leadership team and the Minister.

Shouldn’t we all be more than a little concerned about all of the above?  Even more so when it is being portrayed by the CEO as if they are the ones who are being hard done by.

We are lucky in this country to have relatively easy access to our politicians, we connect to them via social media, can drop them an email, write them a letter and even give them a phone call – which they may, or may not chose to answer!

Brian de Lore told me earlier this week that he had flicked a text to Racing Minister Winston Peters and received a phone call within three minutes.

He relays this in his piece in The Informant where the Minister could not have been clearer when it came to the Racefields legislation.

“I cannot keep on jamming things into the Parliamentary schedule and it made sense to pull that out of the schedule and incorporate whatever good parts there are into a new Bill as fast as I can,” the Minister told de Lore.

Given this and further comments from the Minister in the de Lore piece it was somewhat odd to see an NZRB puff piece also featuring in The Informant where John Allen is apparently “pushing a case for the Racing Board and the TAB in its current form to maintain a position at the top of industry administration and oversight.”

Anyone with a little more self-awareness might have already fallen on their sword.

Instead, we continue to hear the same old rhetoric coming out of Petone where it is everyone else’s fault that they are now presiding over a dead horse.  We are told they are passionate about the industry – as passionate as a six-figure salary can make you, I think – and that they want to see it thrive.   Excuse me if we aren’t swallowing it, after three years we’ve figured out the talk is just talk.

The implementation of recommendation number 4 can’t come soon enough.  Don’t be surprised though if, when the independents charged with conducting a performance and efficiency audit of the NZRB finally break into Fortress Petone, they find nothing but a burnt-out shell.

 

 

Lack of balance and conflicting agendas in discussion around Messara report

 

In the real world, which I inhabit when not despairing of and writing about the New Zealand racing industry, the discussion topic du jour has been the dire state of journalism in this country.

As a poacher-turned-gamekeeper I am now looking at my former career through a different lens and not liking what I am seeing.  There are, of course, the odd exceptions, the senior journalists remaining in harness and, being totally biased, some of the wonderful young talent I have worked with at community papers.

All too often, though, I am reading news stories which provide no balance; which editorialise; and which clearly promote an agenda.  The dilemma, when said stories relate to my area of work, is whether to contact the “journalist” responsible with the relevant facts to enable them to portray the whole story. The problem here is, if they have an agenda to push a particular angle, you are usually telling them, “well, actually that isn’t what is happening here, this is the whole story….”  Things can rapidly escalate and suddenly what would have been deemed a non-story back when we had senior journalists and crusty old editors becomes – what we in the industry term – a media shit-storm.

Thankfully, there are still some who take their craft seriously, recognise they are still learning, accept that they have made an error and correct it.

Over the past couple of years more layers of protection (senior staff, predominantly sub-editors who have saved many a young reporter in the past) have been sliced away as media organisations sought to remain financially viable.

I recall being told when we lost our first layer of subs that the savings in salaries would outweigh any potential future legal fees – bizarre logic!

So, the young journos are now sent out into a world where they are pretty much able to write or say whatever they want.  If you doubt this then you aren’t watching, listening to or reading news in New Zealand!

The more observant of my readers will recall I mentioned recently that I had laid two official complaints against a local media outlet following their misrepresentation of the recommendations of the Messara report.

This week I received their response and – unsurprisingly, their Standards Committee upheld my complaints, agreeing that the stories were “inaccurate’.

Links were included to the revised stories online, apparently this was done immediately.  They also apologised that their reporting was” not as precise as it should have been” and advised that senior legal counsel had discussed the issues I raised with the wider sports department.

They were satisfied that no further action was required.

However, I am not sure that I am.

The genie of their creation is already out of the bottle and that sucker is not going back in there without a fight.  People who saw the stories broadcast or read them online at the time they appeared, and who assumed this media outlet was giving them the facts, are not going to revisit those stories any time soon.

Given the above, I make no apology for banging on about the need for those within the racing industry to be totally au fait with every aspect of the Messara report. You have not, and are not, getting a complete and balanced story if you are relying on the media.

I know it is human nature when faced with a document of this size and depth to head immediately to the areas which are most likely to impact on you and your future.  In this case it has been the area of track closures.

Unfortunately, some have become bogged down in this area to the extent that they are sitting there, wheels spinning, unable to grasp the fact that we are living beyond our means and can’t go on this way. As they continue to rev, getting themselves more agitated by the second, they are disregarding the fact that 20 tracks need to close if we are to implement the full complement of 17 recommendations.

Trackside’s Weigh In programme has attempted to provide some conversation around the Messara report, but their agenda could be questioned.  There was an element of panicked self-preservation last week when the issue of the future of racing coverage in this country was mentioned.

The framing of some questions and comments also sent a strong message.  Note: if someone starts a question with the words “I don’t want to be negative” you can pretty much guarantee the next words out of their mouth will be negative.  Likewise claiming to play devil’s advocate and qualifying that remark with “but it’s true” isn’t really playing devil’s advocate!

While it is a nice touch to have questions coming from those at the coal face it would be useful if they determined that those asking the questions first understood the current structure of the industry.

The question around six-figure salaries would have been better saved for John Allen when he appears – supposedly this weekend.

That in itself would appear problematic.  The saying is that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas so why would you ask the CE of an organisation which, when the recommendations are implemented, would cease to exist in its current form?

It is a sure bet too that there will not be any tough questions asked and that they quite possibly will have been presented prior in writing.

Don’t expect the issue of the bloated size of the organisation – a further 14 roles advertised via the Seek website in the past 10 days – to be questioned.  Obviously, these guys are more ostrich than turkey.

Based on those numbers it would appear that the NZRB is not really that concerned about the possibility of recommendation #4 becoming a reality:

Request that a Performance and Efficiency Audit of the NZRB be initiated under Section 14 of the Racing Act 2003, with particular emphasis on the operating costs of the NZRB.

I will probably watch the programme at some stage, but I will be taking a sceptical view remembering just who pays the salaries and that there will be an agenda.

The messaging will be interesting – I imagine something along the lines of: business as usual; a robust submission process; and a lot of detail to be worked through.  Depending on the time of day you are viewing you could lighten up proceedings by creating your own drinking game around which phrases are delivered and how often.

My recommendation is to view these sorts of interviews with the attitude that there will be little, if any, balance and plenty of editorialising as the narrative is structured to fit the NZRB agenda.

And a final reminder when it comes to the Messara report and making submissions – please, before you do anything, please (yes, two pleases) read the report!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.