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!

 

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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.

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.