Another Bulls Eye
If anyone can remember as far back as 2010, discussion was raging among Clubs and trainers over the situation where, on a number of occasions, there were more horses on the second row of a mobile start than on the front. This scenario was unacceptable for a number of reasons, not the least safety, and the National Council voted for a change to what was known as either the Scratching Substitute System, or Bulls-Eye System.
Basically the idea was that emergencies in a race were not allocated a barrier draw, and if they gained a start, they took the draw of the horse that they replaced, similar to the way the greyhounds do it. Unfortunately the powers that be didn't share our enthusiasm for the idea, apparently because the Racing Board (TAB) ‘boffins' reckoned the punters would be confused. Apparently greyhound punters are more clued up than harness ones!
Anyway, following the introduction of the scratching penalty, emergencies rarely regained entry, so the idea went into recess....until this week, when the following appeared on a press release announcing the Interdominion Grand Final field:
‘Note that the Emergencies are not drawn into the field and take the place vacated by a scratching.'
For a while now, the Racing Board has been telling us that we need to change certain ways of doing things to accommodate and appease overseas punters. It's a well-known fact that Australian punters tend to place far more importance on barrier draws that their Kiwi equivalents, however with far more emphasis on fixed-odds betting here, the landscape is changing somewhat, particularly where major events are concerned and the fixed-odds markets open days, or even weeks before the race itself.
Under the current scenario what this means is that, if you place a bet on, say a horse drawn two on the second row because it is supposed to follow out a fast beginner and that front rower is scratched, you can find that your chances are reduced by having now drawn behind the slowest beginner in the race. Thus one of the main reasons that you backed your horse has been taken away and you have no recourse.
On the other hand, if you ignore a horse that is drawn too wide off the front and back another, only to find on race-day that, due to scratchings, that ignored horse is drawn one or even two places further in, once again you have no recourse.
The ideal place to trial this idea is the Harness Jewels, where it is almost unknown for a horse to be scratched, and hopefully will attract the interest of Australian punters. Imagine the introduction to the meeting where it is announced that number 14 (the emergency) is scratched from every event. How simple is that? Surely, even if there are one or two withdrawals there is ample opportunity to advise where the emergencies will draw.
The Association will be pushing for this to be trialled at the Jewels, so that everyone on either side of the Tasman can see the advantages and accept the concept for future events.
The Big Question
Promising signs from the first couple of programmes in the new series of The Box Seat, which is basically harness racings' one and only purpose-built television outlet.
One section that will hopefully become a talking point is the "Big Question" where a topical subject is discussed in depth. This basically replaces "Keeping up with the Jones'" which became too personal, causing some backlash for both Mark Jones and the Trainers & Drivers Assn. The signs are promising, and it is to be hoped that the presenters will canvas the opinions of industry participants as well as pushing their own ‘barrows'.
This weeks' topic was the mile start at Addington, and there are a couple of items that need comment and clarification. First of all, at a meeting with Addington CEO late last year, the Greater Canterbury Branch were unanimous in requesting that the New Zealand Free-for-All not be run over a mile in future seasons.
A couple of apparent arguments that were put forward on the Box Seat by Club representative Brian Rabbitt seemed a little questionable, to say the least. Firstly, he maintained that the last race the other night, when Vice Chairman led all the way and went a phenomenal time, was a far more interesting spectacle, and drew more comment than the Interdominion heat won by Terror To Love. First of all, I'm not sure how interesting it is that one horse led all the way, and once the draw came out in the ID heat and the two best horses drew 1 & 2, it became virtually irrelevant. Perhaps that says more about the failure of the new Interdominion concept than the success of the mile race. I wonder if Addington officials enquired how many disgruntled punters there were after the mile, when, because of their draw, the favourites were unable to be put into the race at any point?
Another argument for the retention of the mile start was that the turnover on the Free-for-All has risen since the change. That's great, but I wonder how the turnover would have looked if the best horse in the race (and subsequent good thing beaten) Christen Me, had drawn 1 or 2 on the gate? I would suggest he would have been a $1.50 shot and betting would have gone through the floor!
As for the idea that mile racing would help with shorter times between races, I have grave doubts that the extra 350 metres difference between the two distances (about 20 seconds) is going to have a huge effect on that!
The main issue with the mile start is not the distance, it is the fact that the race starts on a bend. I was never any good at physics or the like, but anyone with eyes can see that there is a massive advantage to be gained by drawing an inside alley over a short distance. Has anyone not seen an athletics short distance race involving a bend? They have staggered starting points, scientifically measured so that every contestant covers the same distance. Why should that not apply to horses?
Please Addington, it was worth a try, but listen to your supporters and customers, and go back to a realistic starting point.
Isn't it great that there are always people in our Industry who are able to think outside the square, and have the enthusiasm and energy to make their ideas happen.
In the past (and currently) we've had Interprovincial Drivers Championships, various Invited Drivers series, lady drivers events, Brothers In Arms, and now the Waikouaiti Club have come up with a "Youth versus Experience" series to be staged at their upcoming meeting on Tuesday 18 March.
This involves reinspersons aged over 50 pitted against a team of under 25's, with invitations issued not only to drivers in the North Island, but also a couple from across the ‘deetch'. Congratulations to Bruce Negus and the Waikouaiti team for making what would have been just another mundane Tuesday meeting into something special and unique. I presume they've covered the concept off with the Human Rights Commission!
With names such as Herlihy, McKendry, Ferguson, May and Beck for the ‘wrinklies', and Dunn, Ottley, Butcher and Williamson for the ‘babies' looking likely to front up for five penalty-free races, it promises to be a fascinating event which can only benefit both the drivers and owners involved. Hopefully the public will get behind the concept and make it an annual celebration.
What such a series does highlight is the enormous progress that has been made by our younger industry participants in the past couple of decades. Can you imagine a series like this going ahead say, twenty years ago? Back then, a Junior Driver (or was it Probationary) would be very lucky to get five drives a month, let alone that many in one day. Fifty years ago, it was probably more like five drives in a season!
Say what you like about HRNZ (and we often do), but a huge amount of credit has to go to that bodies' foresight in nurturing our younger generation and giving the opportunities to compete (and sometimes beat) their older, more experienced peers. After all, our code doesn't have the advantages that galloping can offer its' youngsters like weight allowances. It is good to see that, under the current guidance of people such as Natalie Gameson and Trevor Beaton, there is no resting on laurels either.
Another pleasing move, even though it seems it was forced on them, is the decision to move the Hororata Clubs' meeting next Friday to the Mt Harding racecourse. Arguably one of the most picturesque tracks on the World, the Methven track, which is solely harness racing, is sadly under-utilised and provides a superb surface (weather permitting of course) for horses to perform on. A country Club returning to the country - what a novel idea!
I note, with some astonishment, criticism of grass track racing in the NZ Harness Weekly, and a suggestion that it is on the way out. Obviously no-one has informed the connections of the hundreds of horses that are entered for these meetings, or the public, who turn up to such venues in their droves!
By Peter T Cook (Courtesy of the NZ Harness Racing Trainers & Drivers Association)