Keeping sight of hope while we wait

As the weeks and months pass since the release of the Messara Report the more I feel as though we, as an industry, are living our own version of Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett’s best-known work, described by Irish wits as a play where nothing happens twice, is essentially about hope.  However, unlike Vladimir and Estragon, the racing industry has already been delivered hope – in the form of the report, which has been dangled in front of us.

Unfortunately, that tantalising vision appears to have been swept away again and locked away to await the results of deliberations around submissions.  Various permutations of legislation also appear to be on the cards, relating to the creation of RITA, racefields and changes to the Racing Act.  Although, given the fact that parliament sits for a further six days this year, it would seem we will have a long wait over the summer.

A scan of the happenings in parliament this week offered just one glimpse of anything with a racing connection and that was the reappearance of a petition which was presented to the Primary Production select committee calling for greyhound racing to be banned.  No doubt the Racing Board and its highly paid government liaison squad will be all over that.

Back to our code though and the desperate hopelessness which swamps us as we, like Vladimir and Estragon, find ways to fill the time while we wait.

The past week saw the release of the NZTR annual report in ample time to give interested parties plenty of time to read and digest prior to the AGM on Monday, 10 December.  Note to NZRB, perhaps you might look at a similar approach in the future? At this stage, with their AGM scheduled for improbably named “The Zone” in Petone’s Head Office next Friday, there is no sign of the NZRB Annual Report online.

So, to the NZTR document and, as one would expect Chairman Alan Jackson spends a considerable amount of his report focusing on the Messara report and the potential positive outcomes for the industry.

On the topic of changes to legislation, Jackson states that NZTR would hope these could be finalised “sooner rather than later but we are also cognisant of the need to get it right. It is important that the legislation is fit for purpose, as the proposals have the potential to unlock returns that are simply not feasible under the current structure.”

I’ve read a lot of these Annual Reports over the years and developed a healthy cynicism, however I found myself silently applauding the introduction to this year’s NZTR report.

Under the heading: who we are, it states:

“New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing is tasked with administering the domestic thoroughbred racing code but that illustrates what we do, rather than who we are. Technically we are racing administrators but in reality, we are racing enthusiasts.”

That enthusiasm for the industry and its health is demonstrated when the chairman talks about the distribution received from NZRB ($79.7m, an increase of 6.7% “mainly attributable to the advance funding of $24m to the three codes, announced in 2016-17. In 2017-18, NZTR received $6.5m of the advance funding, which was redistributed to the industry in prize money”).

Now read the following and ask what state the industry might be in had the NZ Racing Board exercised similar discipline and restricted their operating costs.

“Of the total revenue received by NZTR, 91 per cent was returned to the industry, with nine per cent being the cost of running NZTR, inclusive of licensing, stud book, handicapping, racing bureau and registrations. A restructure of the senior management team helped reduce staff costs and the overall operating expenditure, before infrastructure spend, was down 2.3 per cent on last year. This was a good result, bearing in mind that the expenditure included a one-off website refresh.”

If you want to consider the rough figures around that related back to the NZRB, when one takes the total revenue (as per the 2017 Annual report, given the 2018 Annual report has yet to see the light of day) of $348m and the total operating costs of $204m the picture is dire.  How is it that the Board, or anyone associated with that bloated organisation, considers it right that around 60 per cent of our revenue is eaten up by operating costs?

As a wise fisherman was reaffirming to me at Karaka during the Ready to Run sales, a reduction of costs in that area would see a totally different picture being painted.

Anyway, I didn’t want to get into yet another diatribe about the excesses of the NZRB – can you blame me though? They as good as load the gun before stepping in front of the sights!

Back to the NZTR Annual report and chairman Alan Jackson’s thoughts on the future of galloping venues.  His considered take on this should soothe some of those who have become over-excited after reading (only that section of) the Messara report, but then some are beyond seeing reason.

The report states:

“Venue reviews will play a big role in determining the future shape of the New Zealand industry and NZTR needs to have the authority to determine that some tracks should be closed. The principle that the wider racing industry should benefit from venue sales is a sound one but vesting all race club property and assets to the code regulatory bodies will meet some justified resistance. NZTR takes the view that in general clubs are the appropriate stewards of their land while racing continues at that venue and that universal land transfer is a blunt instrument, which does not recognise that some venues are important community assets.”

“However, NZTR believes that we need to be able to ensure that when use of venues ceases, any proceeds from a sale of that venue may be applied in the wider interests of thoroughbred racing, following consultation with affected parties, including community groups. We also agree that the current structures relating to asset allocation in the thoroughbred sector do not recognise the historical investment that the industry, as a whole, has made in individual venues.”

Of course, there are also some dire figures included in the report which reflect our dwindling horse numbers, an impact of a foal crop which has been on a downward spiral.  Overall, though this is a relentlessly positive document which gives hope that there might be a future.

In the meantime, we wait.



Time to learn from the past and forget the piecemeal approach

When I was a kid, a journey with my grandfather was a travelogue of often defunct racecourses and anecdotes of what had gone on there years earlier.

My favourite tale involved the old Carterton track where he claimed he broke his little toe.

Between the time he quit race riding and established himself as a trainer many of the tracks he used to frequent had gone the way of the Dodo so there were plenty of stories.

So, what has that got to do with anything you ask?  Well, last week the NZ Herald, finally realising the Messara report was an eventuality whether their NZRB-employed “reporter” liked it or not, ran what I refer to as a “non-story”.

With the report yet to be released and so consequently light on any facts the writer went for the divide and rule approach by focusing on the fact Messara had been asked to focus on the thoroughbred code.

The reasoning was twofold he decided – our code had “fallen the furthest behind its Australian equivalent in terms of stake money and infrastructure, particularly New South Wales racing” and this doozy – “it was serious players in the thoroughbred industry, like Sir Patrick Hogan, who were among the most vocal Peters supporters before last year’s election.”  Right….so now we have established the level of media we are dealing with, lets move on to another aspect of the piece which left readers in no doubt as to the writer’s absolute terror that the gravy train may be about to derail.

Lacking an actual story, he decided to attempt to provoke the provinces with the following statement: “Reducing the number of racing venues in New Zealand also looks certain to be recommended but again that will be met with considerable resistance in some regions.”

No prizes for either assumption.  There is no doubt that, for our population, we do have a surfeit of tracks, likewise, if you are going to suggest to a club that they might want to curtail their activities and relocate then you had better be armed with a good argument.

Not every club is double-blessed in the way the Feilding Jockey Club, New Zealand’s best example of a club moving down the road, was – with the advantage of owning land someone else was prepared to pay money for AND being driven by a forward-thinking president and committee who put industry interests first. If you need further convincing just compare their Cup stake these days to the figure they ran for at their old home track.

Considerable resistance is an understatement based on my personal experience too.  I am old enough to remember going racing at the Opaki track just outside of Masterton – in May, it wasn’t pleasant.  At the time, working at BloodHorse magazine I was already aware of the glut of tracks in the country and the fact that some of them were looking pretty shabby and struggling to survive.

In my youth and naivety I suggested to a few of the locals – all heavily involved in the industry – that it wouldn’t be long before we saw racing in the Wairarapa solely at Tauherenikau.  Needless to say the reaction was instant and negative.

The same suggestion, it turned out, was made in the 1946 Finlay Royal Commission, although no one reminded me of that at the time!  Eventually it did happen, albeit about 40 years after Finlay and co’s recommendation.

The Herald picked the right irritant if it wanted to stir up anti feeling prior to the release of the Messara report.  The arguments around which clubs should survive, which should amalgamate or pool their resources and which should just pack up their tents have been hotly contested since Finlay’s Commission mooted the same.  

Anyone remember the Otautau Jockey Club or the Waiapu Racing club or the Tolaga Bay Racing club?  Those three were among six clubs the Commission recommended have their licences withdrawn and relocated to other clubs.  By the time the 1970 McCarthy Commission was back revisiting some of the same ground those three had gone, while many of the others which it was suggested might rethink their futures were still raging into the night (I’m looking at you Masterton)!

So here we are five Commissions of Inquiry down the track – yes, FIVE – 1911 Clifford; 1915 Hunter; 1920 Kent; 1946 Finlay and 1970 McCarthy – obviously we are very slow learners, something Waikato Stud’s Garry Chittick reminds us of regularly.

On top of these Commissions we’ve also had a Ministerial Review, which I vaguely remember in the early 1990s; the PwC industry report of 2002; the Ernst & Young Performance and Efficiency Audit of the NZRIB of 1997 (what I wouldn’t give to see something like that delving into Jackson St these days!); the Racing Industry Working Group report in 2003 and that is probably only scratching the surface.

And where do we find ourselves people?

Being controlled by an obese organisation which is haemorrhaging money via the open oozing wound which is its operating costs.  It suckles 870+ employees, with the knowledgeable and necessary being squeezed out at the expense (and I mean expense) of the six-figure earners who are disconnected and disinterested.

We are racing for stakes which wouldn’t – at the lower level – be out of place in a racebook from thirty years ago, while costs have continued to escalate.  The following from the 1970 McCarthy Commission report would not be too far removed from how NZ trainers are operating today – “training fees charged by the licenced trainers barely covered the costs of feed and labour…trainers relied chiefly on their customary 10 percent share of stakes for their personal income.”  You want to know why so many of our promising young horses are sold off-shore, there’s your answer.

Our infrastructure is struggling to remain fit for purpose thanks to decades of neglect – if it wasn’t for the weight of Health and Safety demands number eight wire would be all that was holding us together in some places.

Make no mistake, this Messara report will paint a clear picture of what needs to be done and don’t be surprised if it sounds vaguely familiar.  After all, we’ve had a swag of Commissions and reports which have recommended the way forward. In each and every case these have been adopted in a piecemeal fashion, with the hard decisions avoided to our detriment.

The 1970 McCarthy report, in its conclusion, was wary of this after stating its recommendations were designed with the object of presenting one comprehensive plan of reform.

It stated: “Piecemeal adoption would lose much of the advantage of a plan aimed at ensuring a viable future for the industry as a whole.  Hopes of this are less likely to be fulfilled if the recommendations are not seen as inter-related.”

The final statements of that Royal Commission are worth repeating in full:

“We cannot leave our task without stressing once more two points which we have made often during this report.  The first, that though racing and trotting are merely different parts of an industry which includes other groups as well and which must therefore have machinery to co-ordinate and direct it, yet we firmly believe that the two codes should be left to decide their own internal structures and run their own affairs as they themselves would wish, without direction from others, save when the economic welfare of the whole industry is involved.  Because of this belief we have refrained from some positive recommendations which we might otherwise have made about matters which we think would be better changed. The second point is, that though we are convinced that the industry will experience increasing difficulties and challenges in the years ahead, its situation is far from desperate; it has much vitality and many forces for good. It must, however, prepare for the future by mobilising and employing them with the greatest efficiency.  Only if it does that, will it live vigorously and prosper.”

We had the chance in 1970 but lacked the cojones to make the changes needed.  Let’s not make the same mistake this time.