Countdown on for Racing Industry Bill submissions

As we count down to the final date for submissions on the Racing Industry Bill it is becoming clear that few of those expressing a view on its contents have actually read it.

Distressingly, those same people also seem unfamiliar with the contents of the Messara Report thus it is incredibly simple to flannel them into believing that the proposed Bill delivers what Messara promised.

One of the results of this is people posting misinformation on racing chat sites which is then swallowed as gospel by those who have neither read nor understood any of what was originally proposed.  The old saying about a lie travelling halfway round the world before the truth has its boots on, has never been more apt.

During the past week the RITA roadshow has been chugging around the country to ease the fears of the racing industry when it comes to the contents of the Bill.  Unfortunately, that task has meant they have had to work to defend the indefensible.

No one with skin in the game would believe that those with racing’s best interests at heart would have supported the mangling of some of the clauses of the current Bill to the extent that the intent of the Messara Report has been neutered.  So if the Racing Minister, who delivered us Messara, and the RITA Board, which the Minister appointed to drive those recommendations through, had the right intentions, the derailing of those intentions has to lie with DIA.

The DIA officials can be forgiven for not understanding the intricate workings of the racing industry, there are some who pontificate loudly through online chat rooms who have still yet to learn the differences between the code bodies and the former NZRB/current RITa set ups!

But where they have failed us all, is by continuing down the nanny-state knows best line and, presumably against the urgings of the RITA Board, over-riding those concerns by applying multiple Ministerial handbrakes.  While they might have felt that level of Ministerial involvement in the inner-workings of the industry (appointments to the TAB Board, and approval of any joint-venture partnering of the TAB for example) was necessary, it is diametrically opposed to the fundamental thrust of the Messara Report.

Let’s not mince words, what we have now is broken.  Patching it back together with cherry-picked portions of the Messara Report and a solid dose of random sections of the old Racing Act is not going to get this industry off life-support.

But while it is widely agreed that the Bill is not fit-for-purpose in its current state, it is not beyond redemption.  The codes and RITA continue to work on reaching agreement on a number of clauses, as outlined in the handouts at this week’s RITA meetings around the country.  In addition to this, there is a surprising level of agreement around the country, cross-code and at all levels of involvement, as to which areas of the Bill fall into the non-negotiable area.

With a tick over two weeks left before submissions close on Tuesday 11 February everyone with an interest in the future of the racing industry in New Zealand should be putting pen to paper (or better still go here and click on the green button which says “I am ready to make a submission” and submit online).

Your submission doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, just clearly express your concerns.  If you, like me, are worried that the Bill in its current format, has lost the essence of the Messara Report recommendations then say so.  Your submission should also include some detail around your involvement within the industry – owner, breeder, trainer, jockey, stablehand, administrator, punter – many of us can tick a number of those boxes.

I would especially encourage those in the younger brigade who are at the early stages of their careers to make sure they submit and also to make sure they state they also wish to make an oral submission.  The grey-heads will be out in force – mainly because most have lived through a similar process in 2003 and realise the importance – but the Select Committee needs to hear from those who need this industry to survive if they are to have a career in it.

We have an opportunity to get this Bill back on track, it is our responsibility to see that the Select Committee is aware of our concerns and  the need to address them.

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!

 

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.

 

 

A memo to the couch jockeys and trolls who think they could do better….

Like most who have the occasional bet I have sometimes questioned the decisions made by various jockeys when my genius punt has failed.

Generally, though I keep my murderous thoughts to myself, after all it’s only money.  As I see it the guys and girls who go to work followed by an ambulance every day have more idea about what can transpire during a race than those who lounge on a sofa watching. That and hindsight having 20/20 vision!

Back in the day the odd media commentator would possibly label the occasional “bad ride” but it is less likely to happen now that most jockey managers in New Zealand are also moonlighting in the media (or vice versa).   Unfortunately, thanks to the open access of social media jockeys now find themselves right in the firing line of some pretty toxic individuals.

Some comments on my Twitter and Facebook feed do take my breath away as trolls, bypassing their brain and clearly talking through their pockets, pile on the abuse.  If you thought Kiwis didn’t stoop to this level then you are clearly deluded, I have seen the evidence and the venom demonstrated is appalling.

I find it moderately entertaining that some punters seem to believe that they would be way better than your average jockey when it comes to regularly riding winners.  They might not be so great at monitoring their diet; rising pre-dawn to ride trackwork; and including regular work-outs and/or yoga sessions, but they’re champions at making split second decisions which always result in them winning.

If it sounds as though my sympathy lies with the jockeys, then you’re right – guilty as charged.  My grandfather was one of six brothers who were jockeys and he rode with a little success before weight caught up with him.  His biggest claim to fame was training and riding Tara King to win the NZ Derby during the war years.  He later rode over jumps but never really loved that role, refusing to have jumpers when he went training full-time.

Like most jockeys he had the odd fall and broke many bones.  His brother Cyril was less fortunate being virtually crippled after a fall on the then-new Te Rapa track.

Of course, we have witnessed many changes around safety since those days when skullcaps were papier-mache light with nothing to hold them on and jockeys had to weigh out with them.  I wonder how the keyboard warriors would’ve coped with that sort of carry-on?

No matter what changes are made it does remain a dangerous way to earn a living and it plays out in real time with an audience.

So it was that on Sunday evening, having sole control of the TV remote, I just happened to be watching the races from Kranji when Kiwi jockey Alysha Collett took a nasty fall.  Singapore coverage being what it is, we then saw the fall many times over.

As I wrote this Alysha was due to go into surgery to stabilise a fracture to her L1 vertebrae, she also has a broken heel which may also require surgery.  Demonstrating the positive aspect of social media, Alysha was able to advise friends and family of her progress via Facebook.

Her mother, Judy, is in Singapore after a largely sleepless Sunday night.  She has first-hand experience of spending time in hospital after falls, the first time I met her – some time last century when she was an apprentice jockey and I was a (supposed) university student – she was in hospital with a broken ankle.

When she was eventually released I went with her to visit her parents Ron and Peg Hawes.  Prior to a career-ending fall Ron had won the 1941 Great Northern Hurdles on Esperance Bay.  He was also a New Zealand boxing title holder who according to my father, taught him to box.  This apparently occurred when my father sailed South with my grandfather and a team of horses and they stayed with Ron and Peg.  That latter fact was unknown to both Judy and I until we met in Christchurch.

I kind of like to think Ron might have had a more hands-on way to deal with the type of trolls today’s jockeys encounter.

His ability to achieve at a high level in two sports would’ve come as no surprise to a couple of Americans who conducted a study which proved jockeys were the most highly conditioned athletes in the world.

Sounds like a fanciful claim but Robert Kerlan, a sports medicine doctor from California and Jack Wilmore, a researcher from the University of Texas put a group of 420 professional athletes through a range of tests and jockeys topped them all.

Kerlan went into the study thinking that it was the horses that did all the work and the jockeys were merely pilots.  That all changed though when the athletes were tested in areas of conditioning, reflexes, coordination and strength.

Jockeys had by far the lowest body fat of any of the athletes involved in the testing and 80 per cent of them were able to bench-press more than their own body weight.

Kerlan calculated that every race a jockey rode was the equivalent of competing in an 800-metre running race.

His interest in the study stemmed from his jockey clientele who had taken falls at Hollywood Park or Del Mar and the fact they seemed to recuperate from injuries much faster than the players he treated from sports teams like the Rams, Lakers and Dodgers.

Despite the results of the study when ESPN named Michael Jordan the greatest American athlete of the 20th century in 2000 not one jockey made the top 100.  Secretariat was the highest ranked athlete from the thoroughbred racing world, coming in at 35, one of three horses named in the top 100 (the others being Man o’ War and Citation).  Just two jockeys – Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro – made the top 100.

Pulitzer prize winning sportswriter, the late Red Smith stated: “If Bill Shoemaker were six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, he could beat anybody in any sport.  Pound-for-pound he is the greatest living athlete.”

The online trolls might want to ponder that the next time they are tempted to slag off a jockey.