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.

On owners, diversity and the future

Last season I took the plunge and joined the NZ Thoroughbred Owners’ Federation.  The organisation, with which I had quite a few dealings during my time at the NZ Trainers’ Association, just requests a mere $55 annual sub.

For this one gets membership and the promise that they will, on my behalf, work “to improve the economics, integrity and pleasure of the sport of thoroughbred racing.”

If I’m honest, I only joined to see who was running the group and how well they had embraced technology to grow their membership and fulfil at least the latter promise.  I wasn’t really surprised to see that the president was the same one I used to attend meetings alongside back in the early 2000s.  It’s not easy getting people to volunteer for such thankless tasks.

Not wanting to put the boot in – it would be akin to kicking puppies – the Federation seems mired in a time before technology even though it does have a website.  Their communication with members could be so much better, as could their acknowledgement of winning owners who are members of syndicates.  Achieving the latter might even assist when it came to attracting members.

I paid my membership – online, so that must be a positive – and then, sometime later in the mail came a card which declared me a member and was my Owners’ ID card.  Nothing else with the card, no welcome letter or list of membership benefits, just the card.  It did seem to be a waste of an opportunity to maybe recruit new committee members or extend an invitation to up-coming events or, anything really.

No doubt there will be more mail awaiting me at my home address when I return, advising me my membership for the current season is due.

The other item which arrives in the mail – although also available to view online – is the Owners’ Bulletin.  My background in magazines means I have an addiction to all things glossy and printed.  While there is a convenience to being able to read stories online I still prefer the tactile approach while sipping my beverage of choice.

The Bulletin has the potential to provide owners, old and new, with relevant news, information, background, insights as well as the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of one’s equine stars.  However, this also suffers from the fact that too much is being required from the few put-upon souls volunteering their time to run the Federation and get the Bulletin out on time.

There is only one word for it – tired.  Probably much like the volunteers.

Surely the clearest sign that they struggle to find current and relevant content is the inclusion of an NZRB puff-piece – it would appear the Federation is drinking the NZRB kool-aid!  Running press releases without questioning their veracity doesn’t put me in mind of an organisation which is fighting to improve the economics of our industry.

Owners are footing the bills which keep horses going around in this country and we deserve so much better than the NZRB has been delivering.

A little debate in the July edition which I found interesting was a discussion about diversity within racing.  It amuses me, coming from my current role at a University, when people within racing speak about diversity and assume we are talking only about men and women.  Anyway, I’ll play their game!

So, let’s examine the inclusion (I prefer this term when we are talking the male/female divide) of the fairer (in so many ways) sex within the NZ racing industry.

As everyone knows we are marking 40 years of women competing on an equal playing field with men as jockeys.  And, unlike so many other sporting areas, there has been no gender pay gap, from day one they have earned the same money for the same work.

Female jockeys are an accepted part of racing life here to the extent they nearly outnumber the blokes.  In this area we are leaving Australia behind.

Likewise, we also recognised female trainers many, many, many decades before the Australians.  As far as they are concerned Shelia Laxon was the first female to train a Melbourne Cup winner.  In fact, it wasn’t until that happened that the Aussies managed to ‘fess up that they had indeed done Granny McDonald wrong.  Back in 1938 when her horse Catalogue won the Cup rather than be able to stand up and claim the win as hers, Granny had to sit back while husband Allan was lauded as the winning trainer.

We have females working in most every area of racing here, although I haven’t noticed anyone putting their hand up to attempt commentating.  Considering the feverish backlash in the world of cricket and rugby it may be some time before we find a female with a suitable alto voice and a skin thick enough to take the barbs!  A shout out to Victoria Shaw in Australia here, this is one area where they have beaten us.  Victoria making her calling debut in 1998.

The talk within the industry about diversity, seems to stem from general media talk about representation on boards and the age-old pay parity argument.  Numbers are growing, albeit slowly with the NZX reporting in January that 27% of directors on NZX/S&P50 boards were female, up from 22% the following year.

It’s progress but I think amid the clamour to get more women on Boards we should also be considering how many women WANT to be on boards and focusing on having, first and foremost, people with the best skillset, regardless of gender.

Having served on the committee/Boards of three very different racing clubs I can report from personal experience that things have changed since my first experience in 1996 when I was the only female.  A subsequent experience saw me serve as Vice-President to a female president on a committee which boasted five women.  I am certain that was because it was an extremely hands-on committee which held working-bees (read, cleaning frenzies) in the days prior to race days!

Again, it comes back to whether women want to be involved and what they bring to the table.

The Owner’s Bulletin piece seemed to feel the solution lay with the industry attracting more young people who embrace the idea of diversity, after all the future will be in their hands.

While it is a great concept it is also a cop-out.  Great ideas are not the preserve of the young and some people push boundaries until the time comes to push up daisies.

What the industry needs in spades is passion and a desire to see things change for the better.

We need to be part of the solution!

 

 

 

 

Remembering a milestone racing anniversary

Today, 15 July 2018, marks 40 years since the first New Zealand women rode against men at a totalisator meeting.

Last week, through a happy quirk which sees me now working in the same faculty, I asked former National MP Professor Marilyn Waring about her recollections of how things played out back then.

“I remember lots of it,” she said, adding that Linda Jones, who was the face and driver of the movement to get women licensed, had come to her as a constituent of her Waipa electorate.

“Linda had applied two or three times for a licence to the Racing Conference, she’d ridden miles of trackwork and she wasn’t the only one,” Professor Waring said.

“She showed me the correspondence they’d had and the main reason the Conference gave every time was that there was no separate toilet and changing facilities and racing clubs couldn’t afford to put them in.”

Here, she paused to allow those words sink in, before saying wryly, “As we said, how much did it cost for a curtain, if they were really that fussed.”

What played into the hands of Linda Jones and the other women wanting to ride was an election promise from National in the 1975 election.

“The National party had a commitment to establish a human rights commission,” Waring explained.

“And when that draft bill was ready, I sent a copy with a very polite letter – and it was – to the NZ Racing Conference which had always been split on the matter.  There were a couple of good guys in there but they kept being out-voted.”

“I drew the attention of the organisation to the equality in employment, or discrimination in employment clauses in the bill and suggested, that given their treatment of women who were applying to have licences, they should have a copy of the bill because they would probably need to make a submission if they wanted to continue with their particular position,” she said.

“Linda tells me that, at the meeting of the board, the letter was received and almost immediately someone said, ‘well we’re not going to have any choice are we, so we might as well move to do it now’ – and that’s what happened.”

At the time, as a local MP, she said attending race-meetings was something she did regularly because it was where people were.  She also remembered a number of studmasters and trainers being within her electorate.

These days she is a little more removed.

“It’s not like I pay a great deal of attention, but I get a thrill whenever they’re top of the table,” she said.

When the history of women earning the right to compete against men is recalled the part Waring and Linda Jones played is, rightly, to the forefront.  Likewise the fact that licensed Canadian Joan Phipps put a burr under the saddle of the NZ Racing Conference when was brought over to compete in 1977 – they couldn’t deny her a licence and she struck a blow for the movement by riding a winner while she was here.  

Then 15 July 1978 rolled around and the first of the Kiwi girls hit the track.  

First up on that auspicious day was Joanne Hale riding in a hurdle race at Waimate.  In what is now an awesome piece of synergy the race was won by King Bard ridden by Jim Collett, father of this season’s premiership winning jockey Samantha.

Jockeys are renowned for having elephant-like memories when it comes to their winning rides and, Jim Collett had no trouble recalling that day at Waimate 40 years ago.

Those watching our often depleted jumping ranks would probably find it amazing to know that 14 hurdlers went to the start that day.

Collett said there was little or no stick given to Hale, “jumps riders are a bit different, they’re a bit quieter and they tend to look after each other,” he said.

Another interesting fact he dredged up from the day was that there was a false start in the race.

“We had to go back and jump the first fence again, because a gate didn’t open,” he said.

Collett could give chapter and verse about the brilliance of his ride to win the race, but today is all about the women!  My memories are centred around Jo Hale and the fact that about six months after that momentous day I was lucky enough to get to know her.

At the time I was (allegedly) attending Canterbury University but, in reality I was hanging out with my best mate from secondary school who was working at Barrie Taggart’s stables and flatting with Jo Hale.

She had an impact on both of our lives at the time.  My friend remembers just how much: “She picked me up on Riccarton racecourse when I was just a kid potentially headed down a bad path and taught me the value of hard work; the need to be smart; that class didn’t really account for much; how to look people in the eye and the power that comes from that and that you should always be picked on talent, not gender or whatever else.”

Those were pretty big life lessons for a teenager, and as my friend added, there were a whole lot after us that she inspired too, including her own daughters.

My strongest memory is that she pushed me so far out of my comfort zone I found myself doing something that, at that age, I never would have anticipated.  She made me get over my timidity and actually believe I could stand up in front of a crowd and speak….it wasn’t pretty and no one but Jo could have given me the self-belief to do it.

Jo didn’t talk much about that first ride – it was more about living in the moment – but I do remember one conversation we had about wanting to be the first to do something.  She said that was part of what drove her and found a newspaper clipping which quoted her to that effect. 

My time in Christchurch was short-lived and later contact with Jo was through the ubiquitous Facebook.

In the intervening years and now known as Jo Giles, she had remarried; had a family; represented New Zealand at pistol shooting; competed in motor-sport; entered rock ‘n roll contests; run for parliament; started her own local body political party; run for mayor of Christchurch; and presented a TV programme on Christchurch TV.

In February 2011 she was one of the victims of the Christchurch earthquake in the CTV building.

Her contribution to racing is commemorated with a plaque at Riccarton racecourse. Those who she inspired remember her regularly as the larger-than-life character she was – we thought she was indestructible.

Photo: The writer “horsing around” with Jo Hale in Christchurch in 1979.

 

 

 

 

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Missing the mark with media

If ever you needed an example of how far below the radar New Zealand’s racing industry is travelling, there was a glaring one on Newshub’s AM Show this morning.

While talking politics with, surprise, surprise, political reporter Tova O’Brien, host Duncan Garner queried the connection acting prime minister Winston Peters has with racing.  It would appear that, like the racing minister, the industry itself has little relevance when it comes to this show.

In the past there have been cringeworthy interviews around the NZ Derby meeting – focus being fancy hats and how much the trophies are worth.  Prior to the yearling sales there was a confused introduction of Sir Patrick Hogan with Garner claiming he was about to have “one last crack at the Karaka Million.”

Racing, once part of the nation’s fabric, is de trop and something which retains the stigma of back-alley betting shops and aged beer-swilling smokers, at least with this news outlet.  So much for the marketing and communications efforts of the six-figure salary earners in Petone!

Every step of the way those charged with promoting the industry have missed their mark.  They have failed to mark out a place for an industry which contributes $1.6 billion to the economy.  Their sole focus with media is on top end events.  Hospitality for media types at these events is more about the food and booze in isolated marquees rather than checking out the stars of the show and giving them an authentic experience.

It’s probably not their fault as one would expect few of those who work at the Racing Board have had an authentic racing experience themselves.  They certainly have no grasp of the industry’s rich history.

For example, here we are, coming up to the 40th anniversary of the first day women rode against men in New Zealand (15 July 1978).  Today females make up around half the riding ranks, some are even second-generation jockeys and there are numerous fantastic story opportunities.  If we are relying on anyone from the NZRB to lead the way when it comes to celebrations and some media acknowledgement to mark the occasion then, I imagine, we will be left disappointed!

The incredible story around “letting” women ride against the men has been there since day one and this one could even appeal to Duncan Garner and the AM Show crew – well, maybe not Mark Richardson!

While the industry hierarchy may have had to been bitch-slapped into allowing women to apply for licences once they took that step they ensured there was no discrimination when it came to pay scales.  From day one – 40 years ago – female jockeys have been paid the same amount as their male contemporaries.

Given the cacophony in the general media around gender equality – especially in the area of pay equity – this is one story which the industry should be shouting from the roof-tops.

I imagine there is a reason that the six-figure earners at the NZRB aren’t trumpeting this one (apart from the fact that any reference to pay rates might focus more unwanted attention upon the $60 million in salaries which the organisation siphons out of the industry).  Most likely it is that they probably don’t know (and don’t care) because they are so far removed from the industry they work for they wouldn’t have the first clue what jockeys are paid.

I can’t imagine any of them have ever used any of that six-figure salary to enjoy a share (or two, or three) in a horse and therefore are aware of the actual costs of racing a horse in New Zealand.

It is no wonder then that media outlets like Newshub continue to think of racing as some misty, murky relic of the past – populated by the likes of Winston “and his mates.”

Those who are charged to do as follows – via the Racing Act 8 Objectives of the Boards  The objectives of the Board are – (a) to promote the racing industry – have failed dismally and will not be missed upon their (hopefully imminent) departure!