Day At The Track

Racing Manager optimistic about trotting future

10:20 AM 30 Aug 2017 NZST
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Regan Cotter
Regan Cotter

Eight months on from being announced as the new Racing Manager at the Auckland Trotting Club, Regan Cotter says he’s optimistic about Alexandra Park’s future and New Zealand harness racing generally.

With 1 August marking a new racing season, the board at Alexandra Park took the strategic decision to direct any extra industry funding straight into substantially lifting its stakes.

“Now no race has a total stake less than $12,000, and it goes up from there. It’s a $14,500 minimum for the race-winners’ class and $17,000 for our highest rated trotters and pacers. Again, those are minimums. Our stakes are up significantly from what we were offering last season and well above any minimum the gallops offer,” says Mr Cotter.

Alexandra Park’s higher stakes are already helping to lift its field numbers for its Friday night meetings. Another boast has been the extra race nights Alexandra Park has been allocated this season - up to 41 from 37.

“The ongoing challenge is the small horse pool we have in the North Island. So, collaboration between trotting clubs is increasingly important. We want to maximise the use of the horse pool and not cannibalise it and each other.

“We work very closely with Cambridge which has 25 race nights and there’s Manawatu which races on 24 nights. Then there’s some in the likes of Taranaki that race once a year or so. But the important thing is we work together to coordinate things as best we can.”

Also helping is the fact that his predecessor and previous boss at Alexandra Park, Kevin Smith, moved onto be a Handicapper at Harness Racing New Zealand, and now also oversees programming for the North Island.

Mr Cotter says increasing participation from the South Island is also important.

“Having the vision to lift stakes significantly will make horse ownership and participation more viable. With most harness racing based in the South Island, we want a bigger piece of that action. If we ever got to $30,000 stakes for example, South Island owners and trainers would start setting up satellite stables near Auckland, as well as send their horses north for more races. That’s the power of rising stakes! 

“Stakes also improve the punting experience as fields lift from five, six or seven to eleven, twelve and thirteen horses so you get better competition and a more interesting sport.”

As well as stakes, the number of race nights, and improving interclub collaboration, Mr Cotter says the racing department is working closely with the marketing team at Alexandra Park.

“Maybe it’s a reflection of my youth, but I’m fully aware we’re also in the business of entertainment in fiercely competitive Auckland. We’ve got to make the Friday Night Trots a viable and attractive option for young people. Our marketing team with all its advertising, hospitality events and theme nights is doing exactly that and getting some great results.”

Also sponsorship is up at Alexandra Park including naming rights, advertising hoardings, and corporate sponsorship packages. While its functions centre hosts about 1,000 gatherings each year.

He says the club’s relentless work to improve the prospects of racing is starting to be realised, helping to silence even the most pessimistic. He believes the construction of Alexandra Park’s new urban village development will make a huge difference to the sustainability and profile of the sport.

“For me the apartment development is huge for us. Not only will the extra revenue enable the board to keep lifting the stakes and improving our facilities, but just think of all the extra exposure for harness racing. There will be literally hundreds of people living next to a live racing track, with many having spectacular views on Friday nights from their balconies. Not to mention the thousands of Aucklanders that will frequent all the new restaurants and cafes within the urban village.”

In January, he was dubbed arguably the youngest person to ever hold such a role in harness racing history. Since then 27-year-old Regan Cotter says he’s worked hard to create an environment of openness and positivity.

“I’m the go-to person for the owners, drivers, and trainers and am constantly liaising with all the different industry bodies. I’ve tried to instigate a culture where people can openly raise any issues with me and that’s working well. In our industry, it seems very easy for people to get negative, so I’m always keen to get ahead of that where I can.”

Mr Cotter says open communication includes Alexandra Park sending out regular emails to its stakeholders and members and everyone working hard to better engage with what is an ageing industry. 

The club’s latest initiative is to hold training seminars at the Franklin Park Training Centre, which Alexandra Park amalgamated with a few years ago to provide affordable full training facilities near Pukekohe.

“As well as offering up opportunities for owners and trainers, we’re also working more closely with our junior drivers and getting them more involved in our Friday night operations.

“That includes paying some of them to be the starter’s assistant, or to help with the judges or mobile drivers, with time-keeping or whatever needs to be done. It’s all about training up the next generation so we have enough skills and experience to keep running these Friday nights into the future.”

Mr Cotter sits on the Youth Council for Harness Racing New Zealand – an initiative by the national body to also help meet the challenges an ageing industry presents. He says an array of subsidies and schemes to support those under 30 are now well advanced.

As well as junior driver races every second meeting, another thing to draw attention recently was a Monte Saddle exhibition race where riders sat on the backs of trotters and were given a mobile start.

He says Alexandra Park will look to deliver more exhibition races and entertainment drawcards to help make their Friday nights a more interesting proposition. It’s also no coincidence that Auckland Cup Day on 31 December is heavily promoted and catered for as a family day out.

“We’re all about harness racing, with Alexandra Park’s board, management, and chief executive Dominique Dowding dedicated to ensuring harness racing has a strong and sustainable future right here in the middle of Auckland.

“That’s why it’s critical this place is run as a business, and because it is Alexandra Park’s now getting some real runs on the board. At the same time, many in the harness racing industry are working better together, and believe me that’s no mean feat. All in all, there’s a lot to be positive about,” says Regan Cotter.

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