Brosnan winds down: 'The game's buggered'

11:19 AM 10 Aug 2014 NZST
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Richard Brosnan -
Richard Brosnan - "I tried to warn them 10 years ago"

He's been to the top of the tree and down again and, with little hope that harness racing can recover, respected trainer Richard Brosnan tells Fairfax Media why he's getting out. 

He's trained some of harness racing's pin-up stars, but as the industry honours its heroes this weekend, Richard Brosnan is instead winding down his operation, resigned to putting his Ardmore property on the market.

"The game's buggered," Brosnan says bluntly. "I tried to warn them 10 years ago that their systems were wrong and now it's getting too late. The pool of horses is shrinking that fast, they don't realise it."

Brosnan is no sit-back-and-moan stirrer. He's been on numerous horsemen's committees and advocated a major overhaul of the handicapping system so many times at annual meetings he now feels like people think he's "crazy".

Brosnan was there in Christchurch again last Friday, asking the hard questions on what Harness Racing New Zealand proposes doing about the new import levies which are crippling sales of our battlers to Australia.

"Most people don't want a bar of owning horses now - and in the long run, I'll be proved right."

Brosnan reckons that in his nearly 40 years in harness racing, when he' s trained 559 winners and driven 719, he's learned a thing or two.

He's seen the game from both sides - from the top end when he enjoyed the ride with stars like Bonnie's Chance, who beat Armalight by seven lengths in winning the 1982 NZ Cup, and champion trotter No Response whose weaving home straight burst to win the 1979 Interdominion Final at Addington will never be forgotten.

And he's seen it from from the bottom end, where he sits now, no longer able to afford any staff and struggling to keep his owners with his team down to under 10, and no end in sight to the drain.

"Thankfully I've still got my main owners but they're getting older and cutting back too and in another 12 months a couple of them won't be here.

"The 0utlook is not good and I'll just be winding down quietly. I'll put my place on the market and see what happens, maybe relocate somewhere else if things pick up. I wish it would, but it's hard to see that happening."

Brosnan said training had never been as big a struggle as it is at the moment - only last month Pukekohe trainer Tony Grayling walked away from the game - and he says he can see a lot more going the same way.

"Things have quickly gone from bad to worse for me since the start of the year," says Brosnan.

"I've lost six payers since Christmas and haven't been able to replace them."

"There'll be no bugger here in five years. We're worse off today than we were five years ago. I've hung in there doing the best I could, hoping things would turn, but now I don't have an option, I have to face facts. I'll do what I can myself, that's the only way to survive, but for how long I can do that is debatable. I'm 66."Brosnan praised the Auckland Trotting Club for lifting stakes but said he got little encouragement from the projected goal of the suddenly exited Racing Board CEO Chris Bayliss that purses be raised by 50 per cent in five years' time.

Brosnan said if harness racing wanted to keep its owners, it had to offer them hope of at least some return.

"In all the time I've been in training the majority of horses have been good enough to win only one race. Some win two, but that's their lot, and that's never changed.

"What we should be doing is utilising those horses more. Everyone calls them poor horses but they can still make up competitive fields which are good betting mediums.

"People who think good horses draw the most betting are wrong. If one good horse stands out it kills betting. The key is putting like with like."

Brosnan says owners quickly get the pip if their horse wins a race only to be told: ‘You better sell it because that's as far as it will go'.

"The horse goes to Australia, wins three, four, five races straight away and the owner thinks ‘what the hell are they doing here?' They say I'm not having a horse again and they tell their mates . . ."

But Brosnan says the pool of horses has dropped so much here it was getting harder to split up the lesser ones from the others as happens in Australia were his son Emmett is driving successfully.

Now, even more alarmingly, it was becoming almost impossible for owners to sell their battlers to Australia. Since Australian authorities introduced a $2000 import levy on colts and geldings, the person who would previously have bought a cheapie because it was a ready-made commodity was opting out.

Horses were instead being given away and owners, without any return, were not moving on to the next horse as they had in the past.

But with the correct handicapping system, Brosnan says there would be no need for owners to quit their horses.

Brosnan has long advocated a floating points system, where horses are continually reassessed depending on their performances - similar to the weight rating system successfully used in Hong Kong.

If they raced well, they went up in the points, if they raced poorly they dropped back, allowing them into fields of similar performers.

It made no sense for a horse who had won a race to become a C1 and be pigeon-holed in that grade no matter how it performed.

"At the moment the worst thing that can happen to some horses is to win a race - they're buggered when they do.

"It doesn't take long for owners to say ‘to hell with this' if you keep taking horses to the races and you know before you start that your chances are slim."

And if HRNZ thought its new drop back system would solve the problem, it was sadly mistaken, says Brosnan.

Horses had to run out of the money 10 times before they were reassessed. That took three months or longer, a period owners simply could not afford given the costs of training.

"A friend of mine in Australia who investigated it reckoned it should be six starts, not 10."

Brosnan says he's never been a fan of free wins - the concession system HRNZ offered two-year-olds and three-year-olds so owners could maximise their winnings without rising in the grades too quickly. "It's always to the detriment of somebody else - and at some stage it bottlenecks and impacts on others.

"I always found the good horses look after themselves and I've had a couple of very good ones.

"I always thought the other horses should still have the opportunity to win money. If I was handicapped out of it, too bad. You can't be winning everything at the expense of everyone else."

It has been nearly 10 years since Brosnan trained his last good horse - Pompallier, who numbered the 2005 Dominion Handicap among his 20 wins - during which time he says he's had to make do with the satisfaction of squeezing the most out of his lesser horses.

Others he'd had to sell, initially needing the money after his shift north from Kerrytown. Horses like 2003 Interdominion winner Baltic Eagle whom he sold after only two starts, and DB Bopper who excelled in Australia and later the United States. More recently 32-race winner Gaius Caesar went the same way.

"Anything that's looked like being a bit decent has been sold and that's meant you don't get noticed the same as a trainer,

"You do get down about it - and after a while when things aren't going your way you even start doubting yourself, and whether to change the way you're training.

"But you get a certain amount of satisfaction in developing horses even if they're limited in ability and, in the end, you've just got to play the cards you're dealt."

Courtesy of Barry Licther and Sunday Star Times

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