Day At The Track

Slow death by a thousand cuts

07:20 PM 28 May 2015 NZST
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Slow death by a thousand cuts
Slow death by a thousand cuts

The terminal decline of harness racing in New Zealand continues unabated and the future of this industry is looking shakier by the day.

The recent announcement by the New Zealand Racing Board that Harness Racing New Zealand has given up another 59 races for next season is yet another nail in the coffin of the industry in New Zealand.

The rationale given by Harness Racing New Zealand is that with less races they hope to improve overall field size and improve the quality of the racing.

That is about as realistic as me wanting to sleep with Demi Moore.

It ain't going to happen.

Both the Thoroughbred and Greyhound national bodies have maintained the same number of races as last year and logic would suggest that they will continue to take market share off harness racing as a result.

Harness Racing has lost 4% of its races in just two years and that is before the big reductions in foal numbers start to kick in which will really affect the number of races we can conduct each season.

So what is our governing body proposing to do to arrest the slide and turn the industry around.

Apart from a bit of tinkering around the edges, in my view they are sitting on their hands while this industry goes down the gurgler.

The question I would pose is how is the industry travelling in New Zealand at the grass roots level.

I talk to scores of industry people each week throughout New Zealand and the feedback is overwhelmingly negative.

There are a great many trainers who are looking to cross the Tasman or get out of the industry completely.

These include some household names in the industry in New Zealand which leads me to conclude that we are reaching a tipping point in the industry in this country.

Auckland is by far the worst area but is not alone in the disillusionment engulfing this industry throughout the country.

If the current trends continue and then accelerate when the lower foal numbers kick in shortly, then I don't think harness racing in New Zealand in its present form will exist in ten years time.

We need to act now and turn this industry around or prepare ourselves for its demise

I know I have been beating this drum for a while but I thought that Harness Racing New Zealand would take up the challenge and they would turn things around.

However they have done next to zero and this industry is now living on borrowed time.

Several times over the last twelve months I have put forward proposals to change the way we do things in the harness racing industry in New Zealand to help it survive.

I don't want to go back over these in detail but I will touch briefly on them here so we are all on the same page.  

There are a multitude of structures that need urgent change but I will focus here on the four that I think are critical to any chance of saving this industry.

1) Management Structures

The management structure of harness racing in New Zealand is more akin to that of a 1960s sports club than that of an industry that turns over hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The clubs in New Zealand were set up to run race meetings and they do an outstanding job of performing their primary function.

No one can tell me that clubs that meet once a year were ever envisaged to be running the multi faceted and complex business that harness racing in 2015 has become.

We need a small  business savvy board with representatives elected by the rank and file participants in the industry in conjunction with some appointed members who are there for their business acumen.

2) Breeding Incentives

The breeding side of harness racing is in a death spiral at the moment and unless we do something urgently then the breeding numbers will continue to fall.

We have just lost 59 races for the coming year due to lack of runners per race and with the significantly smaller crops now starting to come on stream, that reduction in races per year will accelerate in the coming years.

There are several models in use worldwide where other countries heavily support their breeders and we need to follow suit and soon.

There is no time to argue about the merits of each of the systems, just adopt one and use it before it is too late.

3) Handicapping system

The present system for the majority of horses is not working.

The system has been tinkered with for many years and it still has major flaws.

A lot of trainers I speak to think the handicapping system is worst now than it has ever been.

We have had some minor improvements over the last few years but at this rate we will get it fully sorted about 2050

Why have we not tried something like a points system as Richard Brosnan has been promoting for some time?

It is simple, easy to follow and would extend the life of a lot of our poorer performed horses.

The Australian market for our cheaper horses has virtually disappeared overnight with the tax imposed on our horses by the Australians. 

Harness Racing New Zealand is trying to solve the problem by making better usage of the horses that are presently racing.

A recent HRNZ quote is " We have started less horses more times".  

If you take that solution to its logicial conclusion we are going to have less and less horses racing more often over time.

It is the exact opposite to what they should be trying to do.

The ideal would be to have more horses racing if the system was working, not less.

Less horses means less owners, less trainers, less drivers and so on and so on.

At some point we will be down to  just Alexandra Park and Addington if we don't change our present course.

4) New Zealand Racing Board

If you want to know where the money is going in the three codes in New Zealand then look no further than the New Zealand Racing Board.

The pigs have got there noses that deep in the trough that it is no wonder that the three codes are struggling to survive.

I could pinpoint several examples but I think it is just as easy to set out below some of the costs associated with the New Zealand Racing Board.

Operational costs of the New Zealand Racing Board - August 2014 - just after the last HRNZ annual conference.

- NZRB's running costs have increased by $24.4 million in four years, a rise of 6.2%.

- For the same period turnover increased by just 1.5% and income 2.3%.

- Since August 2012, staff costs had risen by $2 million or 4%, an April KPMG audit report said.

- The NZRB's annual report of 2013 listed staff expenses of $54.98 million.

- In the NZRB's more recent half-yearly report its staff expenses for the six months ending January 31,2014, amounted to $30.71 million, up $2.5 million on 2013.

- Its total expenses for the same six months were $64 million, up $3.1 million.

- The 2013 annual report listed 72 staff that was paid more than $100,000.

- Twenty four of those earned more than $150,000, and eight earned more than $250,000.

I have been involved with this industry for nearly forty five years and not much has changed to be honest in that time, except the cost of running the Industry.

We need to change the structures that run this industry and bring them into the 21st century.

Its like Harness Racing New Zealand is aware that the Titanic is going down but instead of taking any action they would rather sit and listen to the band.


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