Recently there has been a great deal of discussion among harness leaders regarding the current status of harness racing in New Zealand.
I have read media statements and reports, listened to a variety of views presented by trainers and others involved in the sport, and talked to administrators, and most are agreed on one thing – there is definitely a need and an appetite for change.
The most often quoted problems being faced by the industry revolve around handicapping; low breeding numbers and the fact that many horses are leaving the country; small fields; the gap between costs and returns; and overseas bookmakers taking away large punters, accepting bets on NZ races with no payment of tax or product fees to NZ.
Harness racing is not alone among the racing codes to face such issues. I am writing this column having just attended with my wife Grace the New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Dinner (a stunning occasion) and the Waikato Stud Foxbridge Plate Race meeting in Hamilton. Both events were informative and enjoyable, and whilst there I appreciated the opportunity to talk with and listen to industry leaders.
It appears to me that the racing industry in New Zealand in general is wrestling with the following issues in its current operations.
First, the industry is suffering from a lack of investment and a long-term decrease in its core betting income. Stake money is seen as poor compared with Australia, where some owners and trainers take their horses to compete. It is important that all possible is done to arrest this decline, with a critical challenge being to lift public interest.
Second, there is a potential loss of jobs unless industry stakeholders and players recognise that they need to work together in order to fulfil the industry’s potential.
Third, it is estimated that returns to owners are approximately 28% in New Zealand – that is, on average they get back 28c for every $ invested. This compares to 40 – 60% in Australia and over 100% in Singapore and Hong Kong. The difference is partly made up by selling good horses into those far wealthier markets. The industry accepts that this will always be the case, as New Zealand simply lacks the scale to provide the same prize money as much larger markets. However, the current size of the gap is a serious issue. This point is descriptive of the overall economic challenges rather than being anything that is directly actionable in itself.
These are big problems but not insurmountable, given the goodwill and desire to meet them head-on that I have seen amongst the stakeholders from all codes.
And so back to harness racing. It is clear that industry leaders are aware of and responding to feedback, as a result of which there have been positive moves made to review the handicapping system. There is also general approval for an almost unanimous decision by Auckland Trotting Club members to seek to amalgamate with the four tenant clubs who race at Alexandra Park.
I heard a harness-racing scribe say that “the industry has a solid base, though there is room for improvement”. Overall I think that is not a bad report card!
MP for Manukau East
Labour Spokesperson for Racing