More than 50 prominent breeders and industry officials from around the country attended this year’s Annual Breeders’ Conference which was held at the Hornby Workingmens Club in Christchurch on May 16.
Sponsored once again by Noel Kennard’s unique website Harnessworld.org, this was the third edition of an annual conference for breeders and it continues to mould itself into an enjoyable and informative few hours for those who attend.
NZSBA Chairman John Mooney touched on this in his opening address, “the aim was to make this year’s Conference more generalised and about the industry,” Mooney said.
HRNZ’s General Manager Edward Rennell provided a list of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) during his presentation of an industry overview of the season to date, with all figures quoted being as at May 12.
Consistent with the same period last year were the number of totalisator races staged so far (2276 compared to 2262); total domestic turnover ($193.3m/$193m) and domestic market share (static at 29.7 percent).
Marginal positives were recorded in the areas of horses’ total number of starts (24,300/23,697); average field size (10.7/10.5); average starts per horse (8.04/7.58); the amount of races with less than eight starters (244/269); total stakes paid ($24.25m/$23.07m) and total net stakes ($23.78m/$22.76m), while fixed odds turnover showed a substantial increase of nearly 23 percent to $50.5m (from $41.1m as at the same time last season).
Rennell reported that the areas of decline included the total number of individual starters (3022/3127); off-course turnover ($127.6m/$135.4m); on-course turnover ($15.2m/$16.5m), and betting on our exported telecasts ($101.9m/$125.3m).
He said that the key issues facing the industry at present included participation numbers; Funding; Internationalisation; the export of NZ harness racing; the Business/Strategic Plans; Dates; an Age Group/Premier Racing Review, and Gaming.
HRNZ’s Commercial Development Manager Pete Ydgren outlined their Communications Review and gave an insight into their immediate plans.
The Harness Racing Weekly and HRNZ Marketing Departments are to merge, and the current magazine that gets mailed out every seven days will now change to a monthly publication focussing on the industry – but at the same time an electronic version of the weekly magazine will still be available online and be “racing focussed”.
Monique Cairns, the NZRB’s Executive General Manager – Strategy & Transformation, said during her presentation that the NZ Racing Board was now “moving into Year Two of our five-year strategy”.
“We’ve got a portfolio of 20 key initiatives to support our strategy,” she said, “seven of which were prioritised for implementation during the current season.”
These included digitising the business; strategic retail growth; product innovation; broadcasting; their VIPs, and Government relations.
She went on to say that the industry has avoided making the hard decisions, and that increased funding has shielded it.
“Historically, industry initiatives have not delivered and we have an ageing infrastructure. Change is inevitable,” she added.
Next behind the rostrum was well-known trainer/driver Ken Barron, who was very entertaining and didn’t pull any punches during a Q&A session with ‘MC’ Mick Guerin.
As a major buyer at the Yearling Sales, Barron was quizzed about the sort of things he looks for in a horse and what advice he’d give breeders in that respect.
“Thanks to artificial insemination, these days you can virtually breed to any stallion in the world,” he said.
“But if your yearling isn’t by one of the top four or five sires, you’re not in the race.”
However, Barron was quick to say that he still likes to assess an individual on its merits before considering its bloodlines.
“My owners look at the page in the catalogue – I look at the horse,” he said, adding that some of his and former training partner John Lischner’s best horses over the years were by nondescript and ‘unfashionable’ stallions.
Barron believes that “slowly but surely, we’re becoming Americanised”.
“Our handicapping, our stakes, and the structure of our industry – they’re all geared towards two and 3-year-old racing,” he said.
“And it’s a fact: a horse’s earning ability reduces dramatically once it turns four on August 1, so people are always trying to buy early-maturers.
“If a breeder’s got a family that tends to take time – go to a stallion that leaves them early and it’ll speed up the process.”
From an industry point of view, Barron said it was “crucial” that a couple of things are changed as soon as possible.
“Like handicapping – we’re underutilising the conditions,” he said.
“We know there’s too many racetracks, and too much leakage of horses overseas. Well, how about categorising horses? There’s no reason why we couldn’t have A, B and C grades within each class.
“Stakes is not the ‘magic bullet’ answer that everyone thinks it is.
“In Australasia, the two venues that pay the most stakes are Auckland and Menangle – yet they’ve got the least amount of horses racing there.”
Barron addressed the issue of falling broodmare numbers, but sees it as positive, saying the spinoff is better mares being used, better stallions getting chosen and a better product as a result.
“I’d be surprised if the five hundred or so that we’ve lost are from the top end,” he offered.
“Figures show that there’s more horses getting to the track, even though there’s less mares being bred from.”
Following a panel of open discussion where the guest speakers answered questions from the floor, this year’s Breeders’ Conference was concluded with Addington Raceway’s Dean McKenzie having a sit-down discussion with Guerin as to what his organisation was doing for owners and the industry.
“Considering that we hold 20 percent of racing at our venue, plus the biggest race of any Code in the country, if racing at Addington is strong then it’s got to be dragging harness racing in the right direction,” he said.
“In 1999, 80 percent of our income came from racing and 20 percent of it came from other business ventures; these days, it’s 49 percent and 51 percent.
“The only intention of our Club is to generate more revenue to put back into the game.”
One common view of all the guest speakers was that the governance of harness racing at an HRNZ Board Level needs to be looked at.
By John Robinson