Facts distorted in anti-racing backlash

I’m usually torn between loving the fact the Melbourne Cup gives racing a chance to be front and centre, and cringing at the ineptitude of general media when faced with the intricacies of our industry.

This year was no different with the usual raft of dumb questions from badly briefed interviewers.

However, the lack of racing knowledge no longer even rates an apology, instead over recent years we have seen the insidious creep of anti-racing sentiment.

Unfortunately, for all their passion the anti-racing brigade are largely ill-informed, regurgitating “facts” which are distorted to fit their own agenda, and ignorant of the reality of the life of a thoroughbred racehorse. In fact, some would seem to live in a fairyland of their own creation and be oblivious to the realities of life in general!

I find it appalling that these people who slide out of the woodwork once a year to spit their venom about the brutality of horse racing have so little empathy for the people who work – day in, day out – with our equine athletes.

They are happy to anthropomorphise animals yet lack the awareness to know that the humans attached to these animals hurt deeply when their charges are injured or destroyed.  Instead they claim punters, owners, trainers, strappers, jockeys, breeders, anyone with an association with horses, are only there for the money and the glory.  If that’s the case, then explain to me the cult-figure popularity of the likes of perennial non-winner Tom Melbourne?

Their level of self-awareness is so lacking that they maintain these claims even in the face of obvious grief.  Prime example being the image of an inconsolable Gerald Mosse as he walked away from a stricken Red Cadeaux after the 2015 Melbourne Cup.  A picture of a grown man reduced to tears does not fit their narrow narrative where horses are “forced” to race by those involved in a barbaric industry.

A lot of this perception is our own fault and down to how we portray racing to the general public.  Times have changed.  Kids don’t grow up these days with a random family member who lives on, or near, a farm thus allowing them to observe animals at close hand.  That lack of exposure and the disconnect between urban and rural, creates people with no idea about how animals behave and little comprehension when it comes to our industry.

We miss golden opportunities to educate about an industry which contributes $1.6b to the country’s economy.  On our big race days “celebrities” are fawned over and encouraged to come along to dress up and be seen at the races.  Their presence is supposed to provide some rubber stamp of approval from “influencers”.  The reality is often something else with the “celebrities” turning up, ignoring the action on the track while expressing their “on trend” distaste for racing via their social media channels – an epic fail on the promotion front then!

If we have them on track why aren’t we introducing them to the stars of the show? Now Ellerslie is equipped with its purpose-built stabling area it should be easy to get them up close and personal with an equine hero or two?  Let them go through the whole procedure – see the jockey weigh out, maybe talk to them about how difficult it is to maintain such an unnatural bodyweight. Watch the trainer saddle up, get the definitive answer to just why they stretch the horse’s legs out in front once they’ve done up the girth. We need to encourage the queries and embrace their interest and remind them that it’s not all about having a flutter, downing fizz and flaunting fascinators.

At the same time, we need to be telling them the stories about what happens to horses when their racing days are done. And perhaps more importantly, showing them these horses in their off the track environments.

Without that visible evidence those who are rarely exposed to racing will suck up whatever misinformation is put in front of them.  There is so much of it which is never challenged that figures relating to horse deaths are taken as fact and spread like a virus across social media.

Radio National in Australia was one of those perpetuating the myths which are spread without regard for truth with a tweet to promote a column by a theologist.  Yes, a theologist, it would appear everyone has an opinion on what is wrong with racing!  This chap claimed that between 30,000 and 40,000 horses are slaughtered in Australia each year.  He franked this as gospel by added that: “up to 60%, according to one RSPCA report – is from the racing industry.”

So, if we split the difference – 60% of 35,000 is 21,000.  The Australian foal crop is around 13,000 so each year the Australians are killing more horses than they breed. It’s on the internet it must be true, just like that email you got from the nice man wanting to transfer substantial sums into your bank account.

Entering into polite discussion to try and correct some of the misconceptions is an exercise in futility.  Like most zealots who tweet and share their own flavour of propaganda the anti-racing brigade cannot be moved from their steadfast beliefs.

In the post-Melbourne Cup media racing.com’s Matt Welsh attempted to quash the misinformation with a piece which included the following from the Racing Victoria Fact Sheet:

  • Over $350 million is spent on the care of Victorian racehorses annually;
  • The foal rates in Victoria have dropped by 32% over the past 10 years;
  • The fatality rate has been reduced to 0.05% of starts; and
  • 90% of retired horses enter equestrian, pleasure or breeding sectors.

The story continued:

The fact sheet states: “A recent study of the foals born in Victoria in 2005 by Dr Meredith Flash found that 74% of horses bred for racing entered training.

“Of these, 93% progressed to racing or an official trial. Racing Victoria has commenced a similar study into foals born in 2010 and 2015 and preliminary results suggest similar trends.

“Racing Victoria’s philosophy is that there is a home for every healthy thoroughbred after racing and it is working with both the racing and equestrian industries to use every avenue to rehome retiring racehorses in Victoria.

“A compulsory ‘Retirement Rule’ introduced by Racing Australia in 2014 has provided better information on retiring racehorses as they leave racing.

“Racing Australia advises that over the past three years 90% of Victorian horses have been retired directly to the equestrian, pleasure and breeding industries.

“Racing Victoria is also exploring a number of ways to improve traceability after racing, particularly when a horse has changed hands two, three or more times. This has been identified as a priority.”

This is the sort of information that racing people should have at their finger-tips.  The keyboard warriors who protest that racing should not exist do not care that you have worked with horses for more than 20-years and seen the level of care first-hand, they want facts and figures.

If we want to see racing flourish and thrive, we need to retain our social licence to operate and, animal welfare is a key component of that.  Racing bodies, including NZTR, have recognised this and made a strong commitment to developing and constantly evolving welfare systems.

We need to make more of a song and dance about the good we are doing – especially the earlier mentioned off the track thoroughbreds.  Those who live and work within the industry have seen progress made over recent years, but the once-a-year racegoers don’t, and they are questioning racing’s relevance.

The day after the Melbourne Cup TVNZ’s Breakfast programme held an online poll asking: “Is horse racing worth it?”  They didn’t define what “it” is, but the votes were overwhelmingly in the negative with more that 2600 voting not, opposed to 550-odd voting yes.

Combating some of the online negativity racing.com was leading the way again with their #LoveMyHorse which encouraged people to post a photo of them with their horse alongside the hashtag.  The hashtag was also appropriated by NZTR’s marketing arm Love Racing.

Let’s keep it up for the next 12 months, along with pushing out the real facts around the racing industry and attempt to address some of the mischievous misinformation pushed by the anti-brigade when they resurface again.


Clumsy PR campaign tries to paint a positive picture

All too often with these blog posts I have one idea in mind – occasionally positive – then something happens which leads me down a totally different path.

Once again, that happened this week thanks to an interestingly timed press release from the NZRB wanting to paint a pretty picture of a bright future where they will remain relevant.  Add to that a club whose track is on the Messara report’s closure list and toss it out there to a gullible waiting media and you have said track being used to further NZRB’s PR narrative.

We are now a full two months down the track since the Messara report was released.  We have seen it discussed and dissected, often by those who have not read the document in its entirety, and submissions have been made.

If you are feeling somewhat depressed about the whole process and what the future might hold then read Brian de Lore’s piece in The Informant this week.  A fabulous representative group of the younger generation, who rely on racing for their livelihoods, have shared their thoughts around the industry future.  I was particularly taken with their use of the Malcolm X quote that the future belongs to those who plan for it.

They are certainly right when they go on to say that our industry has “languished at the hands of those too short-sighted or ill-equipped to make the tough decisions and necessary changes.”

As if their words had conjured him up like the infamous Dr Faust, that same evening the man who sold the thoroughbred code down the river by signing off on Section 16 of the 2003 Racing Act was front and centre on TVNZ news.

Interestingly, the person who was largely responsible for several industry bodies casting a vote of no confidence in his organisation around that action, has now taken on the mantle of protector of country racing.  Go figure?

The subject of the TVNZ story was the Gore racecourse and its survival.

Forget the future of the entire industry.  Forget the other 90% of the Messara report.  Let’s just focus on the fact that the good people of Gore want to keep their track.

Of course, it is impossible trying to get the New Zealand general media to get their heads around what has been going on in racing for the past 15 years.  As far as they are concerned racing occurs during a small window which begins around Cox Plate time and rolls through the spring carnival, summer Cups and Festival, incorporates the Karaka sales and Karaka Million (thus perpetuating the myth we are all rolling in it) and winds up some time around mid-March.

They must find it bizarre when they are confronted with a mid-week meeting in the boondocks.  The interview subjects for their story were quite telling as they included the failed and tainted administrator and a “trainer” who, according to the NZTR website, does not have a current licence.

While the great unwashed might have ended up having some sympathy for the club president trying to save her venue, there was probably a sense of healthy cynicism when it came to local politician Hamish Walker and his petition.  Those of us with long memories can remember going down this route before.

The clumsy link between a poor, put-upon, provincial track facing oblivion and “shock horror” the NZRB issuing a press release which proclaimed “distributions to the three racing codes reaching a record $148.2million” smacked of desperation from an organisation which itself is facing oblivion.

Until such time as the Annual Report, signed off by actual accountants – hopefully not the same ones who signed off on the error-ridden Statement of Intent – is sighted I am not buying their numbers.

According to the press release the Annual Report will be released on Friday 7 December at the NZRB AGM at their head office in Petone.

If that is the case, and one can rely on so little of the information coming out of the NZRB Head Office being based on fact, then there will be little or no time for perusal of the figures prior to the meeting.  Given the fantasy figures used in the Statement of Intent I am sure that once us poor plebs can view the Annual Report online it will be very well studied.

In the meantime, expect the continuing party line from NZRB that all is well with them financially and the Messara report is a giant conspiracy designed to crush racing in the heartland of New Zealand.  There should be a prize for the first general media journalist to notice that the NZRB emperor’s new clothes are indeed non-existent and to start looking at the parts of the Messara report which don’t relate to proposed track closures!

While we wait for that modern miracle to occur, I hope everyone enjoy the purist’s race day on Saturday – what’s not to love about a race day where every race is a group race and no less than four group ones!


Abandonments continue, but no one taking responsibility

As any parent knows if there aren’t any repercussions then bad behaviour tends to repeat.  Possibly not the analogy you would expect in racing circles but dealing with some administrators can be like dealing with badly behaved brats.

Volunteer-run clubs are playing havoc with the future of our industry while NZTR does a passable imitation of one of those hand-wringing ineffectual parents who is being “played” by their offspring.

How else do you explain the fact that we continue to experience abandoned meetings without anyone putting their hand up and claiming responsibility.  Not the turf experts who haven’t factored climate change into the equation; not the track managers being manipulated by the local trainers; not the trainers for putting their unqualified ten cents worth; not the officials who okay a track which later develops ice-rink tendencies; not the club officials who go for the groomed pasture look with no regard to how a shower of rain might play out; not NZTR which has been parsimonious when it comes to putting money into maintaining our all-important dance floors but continue to grant licences ; and definitely not NZRB which has whinged about losing turnover yet never thought to invest in infrastructure.

NZRB reported that the 34 abandoned meetings in the 2016-17 season cost the industry $2.3million, with the 2017-18 Annual Report yet to be available the most recent figures for that season I can find indicate that 19 meetings were abandoned over the first six months of that season equating to $1.5m in lost profit.

Back in August last year NZRB CE John Allen was quoted as saying: “We have got to develop racing infrastructure in New Zealand which is appropriate for our conditions and for the modern environment…. Obviously, these sorts of initiatives take time, but there is a sense of urgency.”

So, the Future Venues Plan was (eventually) born and, despite the Messara report coming out in the time it took these guys to achieve absolutely nothing, it appears current administrators are clinging to it as tightly as Rose clung to the wreckage of the Titanic.

In the meantime, meetings continue to be abandoned.  There was a time when one could actually predict a meeting might be canned and they fell into a couple of categories – continual rain which left a track a bog with surface water; or at the other end of the scale a firm track, grass slightly longer than ideal and a couple of skiffy showers.  Now an abandonment can happen when outward appearances indicate a good day’s racing ahead.

NZTR does receive a fair amount of hammering when blame is being flung around following abandonments, but they could claim to have done plenty to avoid these situations arising.

NZTR’s venue guidelines advise that clubs should aspire to produce a track to a Good 3 and the NZTR venue inspector is available to provide advice at any time.  Clubs are also expected to have a groundhog (or similar) to aid with any remedy required on the day.

Tracks where there are fewer than three days per season, or with more than six months between meetings, are expected to follow the track preparation guide developed by NZTR in consultation with the Racecourse Managers Association.

The Venue Guidelines document states: “This programme provides a detailed course of action to be followed from three months out from the race meeting. The local Stipendiary Steward and/or the NZTR National Venue Inspector will arrange to visit the venue three months out from the race meeting to work through the preparation programme. There may be further follow up visits arranged to check on progress but as a minimum there will be another inspection three weeks out from the meeting to confirm the venue is fit to race. If at this point the venue is not fit to race and in the view of the Stipendiary Steward the amount of work left to do will not be able to be completed in time, then the club will need to arrange another venue at which to run the race meeting.”

The more observant among you may have noticed a story online earlier this week about the woes of the Dargaville Racing Club, whose 16 November meeting will now be run at Ruakaka racecourse, with the licence transferred to the Whangarei RC.

The story claimed it was a crushing blow for the club which was “staring down the barrel of John Messara’s report which recommended Dargaville as one of 20 courses nationwide to be closed.”

The club’s president, Tim Antonio, despaired that should the report be adopted then this would’ve been “the last to be held at Dargaville.  They have history.  But while they are talking about the 140 years of racing which has gone prior, I found their more recent “history” of interest.

Two years earlier the club’s 2016 meeting was abandoned after a “soft patch surfaced” despite having been checked twice by officials prior to the raceday.

Given their previous problems and desire to continue racing they should be doing everything within their power to ensure they presented the very best track possible, yet it wasn’t up to scratch.  NZTR has made the right decision and followed the guidelines they have in place.

Despite this Dargaville will continue to rail against the closure of their (now-substandard) track.

“We are hoping the powers that be will see sense,” Antonio told Stuff.

“We are freehold, pay the rates, insurances and maintain the course and track ourselves, so it costs the New Zealand Racing Board nothing to keep our course open.”

Yep, the old  – “it costs the New Zealand Racing Board nothing to keep our course open” – so that $2.3million from the 2016-17 season relating to abandoned meetings, one of which was Dargaville’s, was nothing to do with them?  I think you will find that you did actually cost the industry Dargaville.

It would be interesting to ponder whether, had NZTR not had its requirements in place, Dargaville would have pottered along preparing for the mid-November meeting only for it to go the same way as the 2016 event.  Thus, costing the industry even more.

Here’s a question for the hierarchy – is it worth continuing with the pretence that the Dargaville venue might possibly have one last hurrah and host racing for the last time in the 2018-19 season?

It would appear that club president Tim Antonio is pretty shaky on the actual details of the Messara report as it relates to his track (surely not another who hasn’t read the report!).  He was quoted as saying that if the report was to be adopted then the club’s November meeting, “would have been the last to be held at Dargaville.”

The Messara report has Dargaville slated for closure from the 2019-20 season, why not just accept the inevitable and call time now?

In the meantime, the cancellations continue with the Te Aroha trials on Wednesday the most recent. Anyone going to put their hand up and take responsibility?





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.