The struggle to attract and retain sponsors is largely due to our image

Over the years I have had many conversations with people from an incredible range of businesses who had chosen, for some reason or another, to sponsor a race.

Being a nosy journalist by trade I was always intrigued as to why they decided to take the sponsorship route when it came to the marketing of their business.  As a racing club committee person, I was well aware of how hard we all worked to lure sponsors to support our meetings so that background knowledge also helped when trying to hook future sponsors.

As society changed over the years the racing industry, like a number of other sports, has had to reinvent itself to attract new sponsors.  Back in the day alcohol and cigarette sponsors were falling over themselves to have their names attached to racing events.  I have an abiding memory of one of the earliest Racing Writers’ dinners I attended where the evening’s sponsor had liberally distributed cartons – yes, cartons – of cigarettes at every table.  The night’s proceedings were conducted in that blue haze which a room full of cigarette smoke generates.  At the time I wasn’t a smoker – other than second-hand obviously, but it was easy to see why many of my colleagues were!

That cigarette-smoking, beer-swilling image is one which some potential New Zealand sponsors have found difficult to shake when they envisage the average racegoer.  Interestingly, other jurisdictions recognise that racegoers also participate in everyday life – sometimes at a high level – which is why we see prestige brands such as Longines aligning themselves with the industry.

The industry here suffers from something of a split personality in the public eye – they see us as that last bastion of smokers, consuming low-brand beers while gambling the rent money but also as high-flyers who fork out six and seven-figure sums on glossy yearlings which then race in Australia and win truckloads of money.

The perception is driven by the media.  In recent months there was a short racing segment on the Oscar Kightley hosted show Following Twain where Kightley spoke (slightly fondly I thought) of his early memories of accompanying his father to a TAB as a child, while the footage from the Hawera races lingered on the older smokers in the crowd.  Tick for reinforcing that image then.

Any racing coverage seen on our local TV news channels tends to focus on the money angle.  If they do miraculously show Winx continuing to rack up wins, or a local Group One race the emphasis is always on how much money the horse has amassed.  So, once again racing is positioned as a rich person’s sport where money is king.  Unfortunately, the personalities and back stories seldom make their way out from industry-focused online news feeds.

Given that muddled view from the outside looking in, it seems incredible that clubs do continue to attract sponsors and often build lengthy relationships which are mutually beneficial.

Sometimes clubs do have to look outside the square and consider different ways of luring sponsors into the fold and that is how I find myself this weekend ticking off a bucket-list item as a raceday sponsor.

Last year the Counties Racing Club created a Sponsors club where people were invited to pay a nominal sum and, on a specific race day, they would go into a draw to win a race sponsorship.  Well, the actual main prize was a trip to Australia, but my focus was always on winning a sponsorship!

I was somewhat excited with the outcome as was another friend whose name was also drawn out as a winner.

Where it got interesting was when my friend approached a particular charitable group with the kind offer of giving them the race name to raise awareness for their cause.  She was turned down as the organisation didn’t want to be associated with gambling.

While I can understand their moral dilemma it does demonstrate again, just how poorly racing is perceived in some sectors.

Fortunately, others understand that the racing industry, like many others, is populated by a range of people who still have the need to buy houses, drive cars, eat out at restaurants, travel and do all the other things “normal” people do.

As for my sponsorship on Sunday, I’m not selling anything, just putting out a shameless plea for more blogpost readers and using the day as an opportunity to catch up with friends and family.




What happens when the volunteers are gone?

I’ve been giving a bit of thought lately to the structure of our racing clubs and our heavy reliance on volunteers.

Having been one in three instances with clubs at various levels of the totem pole I think I am pretty well qualified to comment on what I have seen while in those positions and subsequently.

In my first committee incarnation I was not only the first female but also the youngest – by the proverbial country mile.  As things went on that theme of age was an on-going one.

Every club I was associated with was conscious of the need to attract younger members or even race attendees and apparently, I was the one who was going to bring those young people on board.

While I had friends who were happy to commit to a day at the races, asking them to devote time – usually on a work day – to sweeping out tote buildings and doing other cleaning up in preparation for a race day, or even spending a couple of hours one evening a month at a committee meeting and they ran for the hills.

I understood totally.  In the end my decision to stand down from the committee of the second club I was involved with (after around six years) came down to the fact my service to the club was eating into my holiday leave and time spent with my kids.  Three of the club’s race days fell on weekdays which meant each one required me to take three day’s leave for clean-up prior and post race day and the race day itself.  The majority of our committee was either retired or self-employed and it was easy to see why.

So, fast-forward to the present and it came as no surprise to me that regional meetings of racing clubs I have attended over the past couple of months provided a sea of grey-heads.  The younger brigade was virtually invisible and while I can understand that I do wonder why the ones I hear about aren’t making their voices heard.

I hear rumblings about young racing people wanting to have a say and make an impact, yet they are letting the ideal opportunity to do that pass them by.

How, you ask?  Well, quite simple really.  Clubs are always saying they are desperate for younger committee members, their bright new ideas and the new racegoers they can provide.  Most clubs seem to have problems finding people wanting to put themselves forward for positions on committees.  Given that, it is not like they would have to serve the lengthy apprenticeship as a long-term member which was normally required by those who came before them.

If you want change things, then get involved and drive the change from within.  I know it’s difficult and I know it requires a time commitment, but I know from experience that it is do-able.

One thing I ask of those who might be considering getting involved with a racing club committee is that they thoroughly acquaint themselves with the structure of the industry and specifically how the funding flows.

There is a glaring need on many club committees for people with a clear understanding of where the money comes from.  A proliferation of volunteers seems to think that because they don’t get paid then their particular club doesn’t cost the industry anything.  The concept of just where the money that keeps the show on the road seems to have totally bypassed them.

Without the younger brigade stepping up and taking up the challenge I see the volunteer structure of our clubs lasting five to 10 years at the most.  While I understand those clubs who felt their futures were threatened following the release of the Messara report and this year’s NZTR Venue Plan consultation document, I do wonder who they are expecting to be running their club in five to 10 years’ time.

Perhaps rather than clinging onto their past and rigidly refusing to examine an alternative future, they need to look at their own succession plans and determine whether their club actually has a future.

After all, what will it mean if a club wins the battle to race at its traditional venue if there is no one left to volunteer?




A reminder of what drew me to racing

Watching Saturday’s racing from Trentham I was reminded of what it was that first got me hooked.

There were some great moments from the champagne turf last weekend, as befitting a premier race meeting.

There was Emily Margaret toughing it out to dominate the boys in the Group Two Norwood Family Wellington Guineas in the closest of photo-finishes.  That was a win made even more significant with her owners, Rodger and Emily Finlay, donating their winnings to the repair of the Canterbury mosques.

The Roger James-Robert Wellwood trained Concert Hall lived up to her favouritism as she stormed to victory in the Wentwood Grange Cuddle Stakes (Gr 3) and added to her sire Savabeel’s ever-expanding roster of Group performers.

Volks Lightning added another black type win to her earlier Group Three victory in the Sweynesse Stakes when taking out the Lightning Stakes.  The six-year-old mare has been a consistent performer in our top sprints over her career and few would have begrudged her that win.

The day’s feature race also provided plenty of opportunities for those looking at the Al Basti Equiworld Dubai New Zealand Oaks to generate media opportunities.  The Group One fillies feature maintained the female theme with the two Lisas – Latta and Allpress – combining in a sterling win with Sentimental Miss.

That was one angle.  Adding to this it was the first (and well-deserved) Group One for Westbury Stud stallion Reliable Man; the win also contributed to the on-going success which is Albert Bosma’s Go Racing; and there was the added fact that one of the Go Racing syndicate members just happened to be a former jockey and trainer of some note.  Former Fairfax journalist Tim Barton has written a great piece on part-owner Merv Andrews which you can read here.

That lot on its own would have added up to a fairly sensational race day however, it was in an earlier race where I was transported back to my formative racing memories.

Race three on the card was the Yealand Family New Zealand St Leger over 2600m.  After 120 runnings of the race, which was initially for three-year-olds and later extended to include four-year-olds, was opened to older horses this season.  That left the way open for the evergreen stayer Sampson, at the grand age of nine, to take his place in the field.

A little bit of history – the St Leger, that is the English original, is the oldest of the five classic races and, as the final leg of the English triple crown remains restricted to three-year-olds.  Other iterations such as the Irish St Leger, the Prix Royal-Oak in France and the Deutsches St Leger are no longer restricted to three-year-olds.  In fact three-time Melbourne Cup runner Vinnie Roe made the Irish St Leger his race, winning it from 2001-2004.  Just for good measure he also took out the Prix Royal-Oak in 2001.

So back to the New Zealand version on Saturday.  With 1400m left to travel the brakes had gone on up front and tactics came into play.  Johnathan Parkes on Sampson took the initiative and sent the big, bold gelding forward and from the 1200m had the field at his mercy.

What transpired was a breath-taking staying performance which the crowd at Trentham obviously appreciated.  While Parkes rode the length of the not-inconsiderable Trentham straight craning his neck as he looked for potential challengers, Sampson romped away to an effortless eight-length win.

Watching online two things were evident – Sampson was having a blast, and the crowd was loving it aided by a Tony Lee race call to match the occasion.

It epitomised everything I love about horse racing.  A horse at the top of his game, maybe not the “name” horse of the day but doing what he is bred to do and doing it in style.

Sampson on Saturday reminded me of the horses of my youth – the ones which might not have made the headlines but the ones through their exuberance and joy in competing captured my imagination and led me on this life-long journey.

As the oldest St Leger winner in the world, Sampson now has a special place in history and perhaps his effort on Saturday managed to attract a few more life-long devotees to racing.







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.”