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!

 

Is Messara our messiah?

Is the light finally appearing at the end of the tunnel?

Last week’s announcement that John Messara would be reviewing the New Zealand industry’s governance structures before providing recommendations for its future direction had many industry stalwarts celebrating.

Messara, based on his efforts with Racing NSW and Racing Australia, is seen as New Zealand racing’s potential messiah. He has certainly shown himself to be incredibly astute in the operation of Arrowfield Stud, having employed several talented Kiwis!

While he is familiar with our industry he also lacks the parochialism which seems to stymie any local attempts to drive the industry forward. What will be interesting is how Messara will consider the needs of three conflicting codes. That is something which proved a bridge too far for previous chairmen of the NZRB who, for every financial contribution to one code, were then faced with the other two, hands out and demanding the same amount!

According to the Racing Minister, Winston Peters, Messara’s review – which is expected to be presented to government by the middle of the year – will “also assist the government in determining if the current Racing Act 2003 and the proposed Racing Amendment Bill are fit for purpose.”

The 2003 Act gave us the poorly written Section 16, the cause of much gnashing of teeth at the absolute absurdity of it all. For the benefit of those who have never actually read Section 16 it states as follows:

Amounts of distributions to codes

(1)

The Board must, as soon as practicable following the end of a racing year, determine the amount to be distributed among the racing codes for that year from any surpluses referred to in sections 53(2) and 57(2), or any other source whether capital or income.

(2)

Unless a majority of the racing codes otherwise agrees in writing, the amount referred to in subsection (1) must be not less than the total of the surpluses referred to in sections 53(2) and 57(2) for that racing year less the total amount credited to reserves for that year from those surpluses.

(3)

Unless a majority of the racing codes otherwise agrees in writing, the amount referred to in subsection (1) must be distributed among the racing codes in the same proportions that the Board considers are the proportions to which the codes contributed to the New Zealand turnover of the Board for that racing year.

(4)

In subsection (3), New Zealand turnover of the Board means the total gross amount received by the Board from racing betting placed in New Zealand on races run in New Zealand.

While on the subject of the Racing Act, Section 16 and the like, I have often been astounded at the number of people who work within the industry yet have no idea of the responsibilities of the various bodies.

The NZ Thoroughbred Breeders’ has come to the party with a fabulously simple explanation in their latest Bulletin, so big ups to them for the following:

https://www.nzthoroughbred.co.nz/site_files/13893/upload_files/blog/68426NZTBAonlineBulletin-Aprilrev.pdf?dl=1

Anyone who is a little confused about who does what when it comes to the Minister, NZ Thoroughbred Racing or the NZ Racing Board should check it out.

While their explanation included Section 8 (c) “The objectives of the Board are – to maximise its profits for the long-term benefit of New Zealand racing” I probably would have hammered the point home a little more by including Section 9 (a) which reads as follows:


Functions of Board

(1)

The functions of the Board are—

(a)

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:

If John Messara can deliver us a blueprint for policies which can do that then he may very well be remembered as New Zealand racing’s messiah.  

Will Winston slay the NZRB’s excesses?

The race has been run, all parties have weighed in, correct weight has been signalled and the country has a new government. It is one which those in racing are now expecting to deliver on the ten point promise outlined in NZ First’s racing policy.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has also claimed the Racing portfolio, to the surprise of those who were unaware such a thing even existed, and expectations among those who were aware are high.

Prior to the election, there were two aspects of the policy which I did try and gain clarification around – without any joy. They weren’t major issues. I just asked some questions around timing and planning. Like everyone else, I will now sit back and wait for the policies to implemented and see just how my concerns are addressed.

One point which I hope the Minister will address straight out of the gates though is the following:

Urgently review the operations and costs of the New Zealand Racing Board.

About damned time really.

Earlier this year, with time on my hands, I delved into the NZRB annual reports online and charted the terrifying increase in staff numbers over the years, accompanied by an escalating cost to the industry in salaries.  By 2016’s annual report staff expenses totalled $66million – a fairly healthy chunk of the operating costs.

Those earning in excess of $100,000 – a mere 130-odd at the time of the 2016 Annual Report – were listed in $10,000 bands. For example, just 30 NZRB worker bees struggle along on salaries of $100,000-$110,000; 23 were finding it a little easier to afford their avocado-toast in the $110,000-$120,000 band – and so it went on right up the $350,000-$360,000 slot where there was just one lone body and then a leap to – presumably – the top man, all alone in the $650,000-660,000 bracket.

It was galling to discover there are apparently that many people employed at the NZRB who are considered to be doing enough to progress our industry to warrant that level of remuneration. Would it be more palatable if we were travelling better? Personally, I don’t think so.

So, because I had time on my hands I crafted an OIA request to determine how much they pay the other poor sods who are employed there. Possibly the ones who actually do the work!

The breakdown, when it came, was pretty depressing. Given the letter was dated February 2017 the “categorisation of NZRB employees” was dated “as at 31/7/2017” – quite possibly they meant 2016, or maybe they were gazing into the future. Anyway, at whatever date we are looking at, the permanent full-time employees totalled 488; permanent part-time was 270; fixed term 37; and casual 78, giving a grand total of 873.

The majority of those fulltime employees fell into the $40,000-$59,999 band (116); 65 were in the $60,000-$69,999; 53, $70,000-$79,999; 53, $80,000-$89,999; and 32, $90,000-$99,999.

The response to my request also broke the staffing down into business units, listing job titles (but no numbers under each title) total staff and total salary.

Each business unit reports to the GM of that unit and seven GMs, along with the CEO, comprise the “Leadership Team.” One GM, according to the information I was provided, manages both the Customer and On Course business units, the others control just one area.

The breakdown just to pay the people the Racing Board deems it necessary to run our industry is as follows (and please note, this includes permanent, fixed term and casual staff of NZRB as at February 2017):

Betting – total staff 69; total salary $4,667,624.75

Customer – total staff 341, $15,117,582.02

Finance – total staff 42, $4,500,671.94

Media & Content – total staff 181, $10,767,257.49

On Course – total staff 43, $1,940,530.06

People – total staff 10, $926,298.72

Services – total staff 99, $6,962,574.40

Technology – total staff 61, $5,743,734.00

In addition to the positions listed there were an additional 20 jobs listed under “current active recruitment” – some of these were seeking multiple appointments.

If you haven’t read these numbers and had to pick your jaw up off the floor then I would respectfully suggest you are suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

For too long we have tolerated a bloated, blinkered organisation which has ignored the needs of the industry it was set up to serve. Even as it blundered along, all the time telling us things were fine, we were on the cusp of something great, it assured us we needed to trust it. If you still believe this then you are a textbook case of Stockholm syndrome!

I may have become more than a little obsessed with the salary levels it takes to run racing because, as the Board was cranking up its staff numbers and the dollars WE forked out to pay them, out in the real world companies were streamlining.

The industry I moved back into when I left employment in racing had faced huge disruption and, accordingly, was cutting its cloth to embrace those changes. Over a period of eight years restructures and jobs being “disestablished” became the new normal and fewer people were left to do more work. And forget about wage increases and incentive payments!

Interestingly, I wouldn’t have been anywhere else. There is something inspiring about learning new skills; adapting to overcome problems as safety layers were removed; and taking your staff with you on a journey to a new frontier.  That happens when you have a passion for what you are doing!

In the meantime accountable, seemingly to no one, the Racing Board was morphing into a cumbersome, lumbering beast suckling 800+ employees, many who seemed to be there purely for the money.

Will Winston be the knight in shining armour to slay the dragon of the Board’s excesses? There are more than a few with actual skin in the game hoping that will be the case.

Stay tuned!

Racing policies left in the gates

I had every intention of sharing and analysing the racing policies from each party in a timely fashion leading into Saturday’s election, but the pollies didn’t make it easy.

 

My initial requests were sent back in June. How hard could it be, right? My expectation was that there would be – at the very least – a document from the previous election. It could’ve been dragged out from wherever it was hidden away,  brushed off, tarted up and sent back out into the world. But no, it wasn’t that easy.

 

At this stage, I have to give a vote of thanks to the much-maligned Greens, who at least got off their butts and provided something in the way of policy.  Even if it did threaten to do away with the Racing Minister.

 

Interestingly, with the exception of Winston Peters, I believe that most of the other parties would (at least inwardly) support that move. They don’t really like racing people – it probably comes down to lack of understanding around the Racing Bill and how much government can actually do for them.  Answer: not a lot!

 

They also point to industry hierarchy opening encouraging the industry to support NZ First purely based on their racing policy. That policy hasn’t changed greatly in the past three years but, when I emailed some questions asking for more detail around how the stated goals would be achieved I was told the query had been forwarded to the senior media team.  

 

All I can say is that the senior media team must be pretty damned busy putting out all the fires in Winston’s wake because in spite of several follow-up emails I am still waiting.

 

Labour’s racing spokesman Kris Faafoi was pretty proactive responding to my initial request and, again after several follow-ups, the policy did appear.  He was also happy to address any questions around it.  I emailed some but again…still waiting.

 

The Nats, with our current racing minister David Bennett, should’ve been way more proactive. They are the guys with their fingers on the pulse and the minister should be across industry concerns.  I lost count of the interactions I had with his office (and the mind-numbingly moronic replies).

 

By the time I got the email advising me their policy was up online I had pretty much lost the will to live.

 

Meanwhile, Winston managed to steal a march with a story appearing online which erroneously claimed his was the only party with a racing policy. This was then followed by another story – which was basically a different version of the same story churned out every three years – where Sir Patrick Hogan extolled the industry to support Winston. Purely based on his “support” of the industry.

 

Just a matter of days before the election Winston is looking likely to – once again – be the Kingmaker.

 

Whether racing will be any better off is anyone’s guess.

If you do want to check out what Labour, National and NZ First have to offer check out their racing policies:

 

https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/nzlabour/pages/8556/attachments/original/1504503634/Racing_Policy.pdf?1504503634

 

https://www.national.org.nz/racing

 

http://www.nzfirst.org.nz/racing