A "SPECIAL" general meeting of Franklin Trotting Club members will today decide whether to merge with the Auckland Trotting Club, a move that president Don Smith believes might signal the start of a nationwide strategy to reverse a harness racing industry in decline.
In a letter to Franklin’s 219 members, Smith says the club is under immense financial pressure following the winding up of the northern harness operation involving Auckland, Kumeu and Manukau.
‘‘Your committee has done and continues to do everything in its power to keep FTC operating but at this stage we cannot generate sufficient cash flow to reinvest in the plant and equipment or to maintain the property to the desired standard.’’
Smith told the Star-Times while the club had been running for 65 years, it could no longer go on ‘‘treading water’’ with harness racing being in rapid decline in the northern region.
‘‘You can’t throw your chest out like you used to and say, oh we’ll be fine,’’ said Smith, who admitted his committee had mixed feelings over the way ahead.
‘‘We’re handling things reasonably well but we’ve got to look ahead to the next 20 years.’’
Smith said most members accepted something had to be done, which was why they gave the committee mandate to explore the merits of amalgamating with the ATC at last year’s annual general meeting.
Now, after 14 months of doing their homework, it was just a question of whether members were convinced today by a presentation which would be put by ATC president Kerry Hoggard and CEO Dominique Dowding.
Under the ATC grand plan, Auckland would take over all the assets and liabilities of Franklin. The club owns land with a Government valuation of $4.54 million and owes $390,000.
In return, Auckland has pledged to put up $4 million to upgrade and further develop Pukekohe into a top class training centre, to be called Franklin Park.
‘‘We have a magnificent training facility here, the equal of anywhere in Australasia, but we can’t hide in the corner.
‘‘We’ve got to attract young trainers into the area. We need to be able to say here’s a lovely training facility, here are the high stakes at Auckland, come and be part of it. We have more chance of attracting them if we do something.’’
Smith said the ATC had given an undertaking that Franklin’s assets would be used only for harness-related benefits now and in the future. Franklin members would automatically become members of the ATC and retain existing privileges.
Smith said members would be sure to quiz the ATC on just when it will be investing in the Pukekohe property and where its $4 million would be coming from.
‘‘The members will decide but this is a crucial meeting for the future of harness racing in the north,’’ said Smith, who believes parochialism could no longer work.
‘‘I think there will be a lot of other clubs nationwide who will have to look at joining hand in hand to make a go of things. This is possibly just the start of it.
‘‘We have to get stakes up to a level that is acceptable for owners, so racing a horse is viable.’’
Auckland’s proposal to turn Pukekohe into a major training centre will hopefully have major benefit for the industry, says Harness Racing New Zealand chief executive Edward Rennell.
‘‘We think the proposal is great,’’ Rennell said. ‘‘Anything that will help address the fall in horse numbers has got to be good.’’
Rennell said young trainers, in particular, faced unrealistic costs to set up, with land prices soaring, especially if they didn’t have family connections.
‘‘Over time I think we’ll see more demand for centralised training facilities. There’s no doubt there’ll be a need for it in Canterbury and Southland.’’
Meanwhile, the Kumeu Trotting Club, which repelled the ATC’s attempt to take over and sell its North Auckland track, is battling on, despite being told by Auckland that it can no longer race at Alexandra Park.
President Scott Gibbons said Kumeu members were adamant they did not want to see harness racing excised from the area and, while it was still investigating venues, it was likely all three of its meetings would be held on the grass at Avondale. Auckland had effectively shot itself in the foot, and would lose two Friday nights of income from food and drink, he said.
The Thames Harness Racing Club, which also rejected Auckland’s bid to take over its property assets, does not yet know what will happen to its three Alexandra Park dates next season.
Club president Derek Player said the ATC was happy for Thames to keep its low-key Sunday date but its two Friday night fixtures might be in danger.
At this afternoon's meeting of the members of the Franklin Trotting Club, approval for the proposed merger between the two Clubs.was passed.
By Barry Lichter
Reprinted with permission of The Sunday Star Times.