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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Peculiar document damns clubs to a bleak future as they battle “process”

Whereas most of those who spent the time and effort putting together a submission to the DIA on the contents of the Messara report one group of clubs furnished an eight-paragraph diatribe.

Avondale, Bank’s Peninsula, Central Otago, Egmont, Gore, Kurow, Oamaru, Reefton, Rotorua, Stratford, Wairoa, Westland, Winton and Woodville, along with “supportive tenant clubs”: Beaumont, Tapanui, Wairio and Wyndham have pinned their collective futures on this peculiar document.

Their “submission” is entitled “Collective statement concerning DIA process” and, rather than considering the future of the industry as a whole is focused solely on what they, through their representative Murray Blue, describe as a “land grab.”

(For those younger readers who might not be well acquainted with previous racing activities of Dr Blue click here for a little background).

These clubs, in the “submission” which bears their names, also appear to be putting words in the deputy Prime Minister’s mouth – never a wise move – claiming Winston Peters, at the launch of the Messara report: “adopted the Messara findings unequivocally and without providing for consultation with clubs.”

Obviously, Dr Blue and his merry followers must have been listening to and reading totally different speeches and press releases to the rest of us.

What our Racing Minister actually said was that the Messara Report “confirms what many of us have been worried about for a number of years and highlights the need for the industry to turn itself around.”

He went on to state: “The government will now take the opportunity to fully assess Mr Messara’s report.  My intention is to have officials produce a Cabinet paper with a set of recommendations for decision.  While it is too early to say what Cabinet will agree upon, the severity of the situation means the status quo is unlikely to prevail.”

“As this review identifies, a complex task lies ahead and for that reason Cabinet will also consider establishing a transition agency to help guide the process, particularly if there are changes to racing governance,” he said.

Submissions were called for in mid-September, giving plenty of time for those who may have experienced a knee-jerk reaction to actually read and re-read the report in its entirety.  At that time the Minister said that the review “delivers a blunt appraisal and concludes the New Zealand racing industry is in a state of serious malaise.”

“It is important that those most vested in the industry have the opportunity to provide feedback on the recommendations,” he said.

This was the chance for those clubs who were feeling marginalised because their venues were slated for closure to make a considered bid for reconsideration.

Instead, what happened?  Somehow those clubs listed earlier decided to pin their hopes for a future where nothing changed on a document which did not address one of the recommendations raised in the Messara report.  Instead it dwells only on the approach taken to arrive at the recommendation around the need for track closures.

Their argument was akin to that of a tantrum-throwing toddler in a playground spat – it’s not fair!

Apparently, it was not fair that the clubs “were not in any meaningful way consulted by John Messara in connection with his ultimate conclusion that the property assets of selected individual clubs should be confiscated by NZTR via legislation.”

It was not fair that “in a number of instances John Messara with his NZTR or ‘major club’ guides on the road, made fleeting visits to tracks with no attempt to consult with club officials; in other instances, there was no visit at all.  In general terms neither John Messara nor a representative of Messara met or conferred with clubs before proclaiming his idea to nationalise their private assets.  Despite his experience in business and racing administration John Messara has failed in this element of fundamental human rights.  The prospect of a ‘land grab’ against us was never put to us, nor the subject of a request for input, before a unilateral announcement by the Racing Minister and Deputy Prime Minister (Claudelands, 31 August 2018).”

The document appears to hinge upon the following statement: “The Messara Report which the Racing Minister appears hell-bent on following in all of its recommendations, is flawed as it affects us for procedural unfairness.

“For that reason these clubs see as unlawful the government’s proposed course of action.  Further, this after-the-fact activity by DIA in asking for input in October 2018, on the internet, seeking ultimately an endorsement of the Right Hon Winston Peters [sic] acceptance of John Messara’s justifications for a ‘land grab’ is not something to which these clubs will submit.”

So, forget the recommendations which, if followed, will revive an industry in its death throes, let’s argue process.

There is no one currently involved in this industry who does not sympathise with those clubs faced with the possibility of relocating their racing to another venue.  But, at this stage nothing is set in stone and while clubs may feel taking a combative stand is the only way to achieve their end goal more would be achieved by entering into constructive communication.

Creating petitions, roping in opposition politicians and firing allegations of illegal activity at government are not conducive to allowing our industry to progress.

Just to confirm the clubs concerned, along with the writer of their “submission,” may have a tenuous relationship with reality I really have to include the final paragraphs, parts of which enter into a realm of paranoia I haven’t seen since 2002.

“In the view of the clubs listed below, there is the possibility of a predetermined course of action, involving John Messara (and his people if any) and senior executives of NZTR or its board, in that the Messara Report implements in whole or part a pre-existing internal agenda in NZTR, whereby NZTR aimed to be able to close venues to release funds from within the thoroughbred industry to fund capital expenditure on new and existing sites proposed for the Waikato and other regions.  These issues within the industry power base grew in proportion from January 2018.”

“In our view this move by the DIA to provide a consultation function for their Minister is (potentially) an attempt to cure both the mistakes of John Messara in the way he conducted himself in New Zealand while surveying the subject matter of his report, and the impulsive nature of the Minister’s instant adoption of the Messara Report on or about 31 August, despite the Minister’s office having the final of the Messara Report for more than four weeks before he showcased it at the Claudelands function.”

“Accordingly, these listed clubs reject the relevant portions of the Messara Report and will not accept the legitimacy of any proposed legislative step by the government to furnish funds for the rationalisation of thoroughbred racing.”

At the very least this slight document will have provided some interesting reading for those at DIA charged with working through the submissions.  Just what they made of an attack of their process is anyone’s guess.

Sadly, these clubs in nailing their colours to the mast of the good ship Blue have identified themselves as not being supportive of the future of the New Zealand industry.

By placing self-interest first, and not even entering into discussions as to what life at another venue might look like, they have missed a gilt-edged opportunity to reap a future where they might be the next Feilding JC.  This blinkered approach, if they maintain it, will only hasten the demise of their respective clubs.

Perhaps, once they have had the opportunity to read and digest the bits of the report they obviously missed on first reading, they may reconsider and instead chose to be part of a thriving industry.  It’s not too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Time to put the NZRB out of its misery?

Call me cynical but I’m not buying this sympathy wave the NZ Racing Board is currently riding. With a late run reminiscent of Chautauqua the NZRB is attempting to position itself as a victim.  The outcome is more likely to be akin to last Friday’s Moonee Valley trial rather than the withering last-second winning burst a la any of the grey flash’s TJ Smith successes.

If you watched Weigh In last week, then you will have witnessed the staggering sight of the NZRB CEO John Allen stating that he did not speak to the Minister of Racing.  That was confirmation, if needed, that the NZRB in its current form is broken.

There were a couple of things which immediately sprang to mind when I heard that.  The first was, “well in that case do any of your well-rewarded Government and Industry relationship managers have any contact with the minister’s office”? And, the second was – “Winston can’t be that difficult to contact, Brian de Lore seems to have no problem getting him to provide answers to straight-forward questions.”

Long term readers will remember the Government and Industry relationship tribe which I referred to in a blog post last November (More climb aboard the NZRB gravy train).  From what I have heard over the past week though, they were as blind-sided as Allen when the Minister announced he was pulling the Racefields legislation.

It would seem from this that no one at the NZRB was paying attention when the Messara report was launched and the Racing Minister was answering questions. In addition to communication problems it would appear the CEO and chair are also challenged when it comes to listening and comprehension because, seated front and centre at the launch they managed to miss what everyone else watching heard and saw.

Interestingly, Brian de Lore wrote the following paragraph referencing this in his latest column in The Informant – you won’t have read it though as it was deleted:

That fact has been stated several times here in The Informant.  The Minister stated it himself at the launch of the Messara Report (and debated it with Graeme Rogerson) and he has always said we get only one chance at doing the legislation and everything had to be done at once.  It was no secret.

I went back and watched that segment of the Q&A again where, in response to Graeme Rogerson’s question about Section 16 the Minister had, among other things, this to say:

“I said that the law had been written in 2002 and the last one which is now before parliament which we have suspended bear the hallmarks of writing legislation for politicians and bureaucrats at their convenience and not with the interests of the industry in mind.”

When Rogerson pushed further asking specifically about Racefields legislation Winston Peters claimed the trainer was wanting to head down the motorway in a Lada when he was trying to create a Rolls Royce future for the industry.

“That legislation has got problems with it and we’ve only got a certain gap in the legislative schedule ahead to put the changes in we want,” he stated.

In response to the Minister’s query as to whether he saw the legislation as the “salvation of the industry” Rogerson said, no but it was a help.

The Racing Minister’s pithy reply, “So’s liniment!” left little doubt as to his opinion of the racefields legislation.

Apparently, this exchange went whizzing over the heads of those from NZRB and obviously was also missed by the wonderful leadership team which John Allen would happily have alongside him in any battle.

Their unwavering belief that Racefields was to be their saviour also probably meant they didn’t bother too much with reading the Messara report which also pointed out flaws in the legislation.

This pretty much sums it up:

We are not convinced that the maximum level of penalties prescribed in the Bill is sufficiently high enough to act as a proper deterrent for persons not complying with the legislation. Perhaps further consideration should be given to adding custodial penalties for persons found guilty of breaching the legislation. It is widely thought that the inclusion of custodial penalties in the NSW legislation has been a prime motivator for a high level of compliance. While it would be beneficial for the legislation to be enacted at the earliest opportunity to generate much needed revenue for the racing industry, it would be more appropriate to delay its passage until a final decision is made by the Government on the preferred structure of racing and betting administration in New Zealand. This would avoid the necessity of setting up monitoring and collection systems within the nominated Designated Authority only to have to repeat the exercise if the structure changes.

Based on what we have seen and heard from the NZRB over the past week or so it would seem they are living in an alternate universe.  In that world work goes on shovelling money into a FOB platform which has the whiff of a three-week dead trout about it; jobs of all descriptions are advertised despite the future of the organisation being shaky at best; and there is no connection between the senior leadership team and the Minister.

Shouldn’t we all be more than a little concerned about all of the above?  Even more so when it is being portrayed by the CEO as if they are the ones who are being hard done by.

We are lucky in this country to have relatively easy access to our politicians, we connect to them via social media, can drop them an email, write them a letter and even give them a phone call – which they may, or may not chose to answer!

Brian de Lore told me earlier this week that he had flicked a text to Racing Minister Winston Peters and received a phone call within three minutes.

He relays this in his piece in The Informant where the Minister could not have been clearer when it came to the Racefields legislation.

“I cannot keep on jamming things into the Parliamentary schedule and it made sense to pull that out of the schedule and incorporate whatever good parts there are into a new Bill as fast as I can,” the Minister told de Lore.

Given this and further comments from the Minister in the de Lore piece it was somewhat odd to see an NZRB puff piece also featuring in The Informant where John Allen is apparently “pushing a case for the Racing Board and the TAB in its current form to maintain a position at the top of industry administration and oversight.”

Anyone with a little more self-awareness might have already fallen on their sword.

Instead, we continue to hear the same old rhetoric coming out of Petone where it is everyone else’s fault that they are now presiding over a dead horse.  We are told they are passionate about the industry – as passionate as a six-figure salary can make you, I think – and that they want to see it thrive.   Excuse me if we aren’t swallowing it, after three years we’ve figured out the talk is just talk.

The implementation of recommendation number 4 can’t come soon enough.  Don’t be surprised though if, when the independents charged with conducting a performance and efficiency audit of the NZRB finally break into Fortress Petone, they find nothing but a burnt-out shell.