The gallops industry was shaken to its core over the course of half an hour in Hamilton last night and, while the seismic effects won’t read as high in the harness caper, it will register firmly.
The full effects of the much-vaunted Messara Report are vast and wide-reaching and effect all administrative efforts of the thoroughbred industry and most of the harness, too.
Racing Minister Winston Peters pulled no punches in his analysis of the situation, making it clear the thoroughbreds were very much on a road to perdition if drastic intervention and reform did not take place as soon as possible.
“We are staring at a downward spiral, from which we may never recover. And the vital signs of our industry are truly dreadful.
“In other words, it’s an industry in a self-perpetuating decline which is nothing short of terminal.
“The data is seriously disturbing.”
Peters was highly critical of the facts contained in the most recent New Zealand Racing Board Annual Report, going on to say “he knows a dead horse when he sees one”.
John Messara couldn’t be at the announcement in person, but appeared via a pre-recorded video link and he some fairly sobering words about the situation as well.
“The deeply distressed state of New Zealand’s racing industry quickly became evident to us.
“Far-reaching reform is needed to reverse New Zealand racing’s decline.”
“I can assure you my recommendations will have a positive impact on all three codes”
Ultimately, he and his panel of investigators came up with 17 recommendations, taking in to account Peters had, from the outset, asked for them to pay particular focus to the thoroughbred industry.
For harness racing, a vast majority of them will be applied anyway, simply as a by-product.
The New Zealand Racing Board is likely to be stripped back after a performance and efficiency audit and the overall governance structure of the industry will change, meaning Harness Racing New Zealand will assume all racing responsibilities for its code.
Harness Racing New Zealand Chairman Ken Spicer, who was on hand for a brief speech and ‘Q & A’ with Peters at the Cambridge race meeting last night, said a betting levy repeal was the only major surprise to himself and his board out of the report.
Spicer took the opportunity to deliver a sobering message to Peters, who had earlier stated to the harness crowd in his opening gambit that he felt the thoroughbred industry was in the worst shape of the three codes by a long way.
“Winston, I just want to take you up on one of your comments before,” he said.
“You referred to the thoroughbreds as being on their knees.
“The comment I would make to you is that harness racing is not far away from where they are.
“We aren’t tracking that well either – we are in the same boat.”
Tax and levies play a big part in the recommendations, and one that will bite the harness code is a suggested remodeling of the distribution formula in 2003’s Racing Act.
This will no doubt swing in the favour of the thoroughbred industry and cost harness racing a significant portion of its annual payout.
Harness Racing New Zealand’s Chief Executive, Edward Rennell, noted this was definitely one of the main issues of concern for him out of the recommendations, but on the whole he was pleased with the announcement.
“The majority of the recommendations are sound and have merit,” he said.
“There are a couple, though, that we would have particular concern with that we need to work through.
“In particular, changes to the funding model and the implications of that and how it would be determined.
“In our opinion, the whole purpose of Section 16 was to try and achieve maximum profitability and work together as three codes to achieve this.“
Countering that to some extent, would be the recommendation to repeal the annual $13.2 Million Betting Levy paid by the Racing Board to the Government.
The report suggests this be redistributed to the codes, harness racing’s recommended 27.1% share coming out just short of $3.6 million.
It seems far-fetched to think the Government would effectively give up $13.2 Million a year from their annual coffers, but Messara implored the move as necessary and for the greater good.
“It is in the Government’s interests to revitalise the Racing Industry which would in turn lead to increased employment opportunities and an increase in the industry’s contribution to the New Zealand economy,” he said in the report.
“If the Government were of a mind to adopt this strategy it would send a clear signal of its support for the Racing Industry and its recognition of the importance of the industry to the New Zealand economy.”
Peters was queried on whether he felt he had the support at parliamentary level to pull off such a move, and he replied in the affirmative.
“The reality is the Government can’t justify that levy, so why is it there?”
Peters stated that he expected to have the levy repealed in next year’s budget.
Rennell also noted concerns with the proposed Racing NZ consultative forum, which would allow codes to discuss and agree on matters of mutual concern, especially the racing calendar.
The proposed structure of that sees a four-person board, with two members from New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, one from Harness Racing New Zealand and one from Greyhound Racing New Zealand.
The recommendation suggests one of the two NZTR members be the Chair and casting vote in the event of a split.
This was concerning for Rennell.
“It’s important that we remain in control of our dates and we need some assurance that our current dates calendar is not compromised.”
“There are some really positive aspects in the report and the push to get the Race Fields through is a one especially that will have significant benefits for everyone.”
One of the other contentious issues in the report was the move to close 20 race tracks in the galloping industry over the next eight years, including 11 from next season.
Of those 11, four are also used by the harness racing industry – Reefton, Omakau, Waimate and Winton.
Other galloping tracks slated to close that are also used by the harness industry, are Hawera (by 2022/23), Timaru (22/23), Rotorua (23/24), Motukarara (23/24), Oamaru (24/25) and Gore (24/25).
Rangiora, which is a training-only venue for gallopers nowadays, is also on the chopping block and the most likely outcome, according to HRNZ sources, is that track will be sold to developers.
As for the other harness clubs that race at those other tracks, many on the grass, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will have to stop racing there.
“There are nine thoroughbred racecourses that we are recommending for closure that we believe the Harness Code might wish to retain," said Messara.
"We understand that both codes have met during July to discuss this matter and that positive discussions were held."
Timaru, Oamaru and Waimate are all Racecourse Reserves, owned by the local government and any track sale seems unlikely.
But the pressure would mount on clubs like Timaru to then be wholly accountable for maintenance and upkeep of the facilities and track if they wished to continue racing there, because the galloping clubs would no longer be throwing any money behind it.
What must be remembered is that HRNZ are already taking part in a Future Venues Plan working party with the other codes.
Spicer said in a recent interview that track closures were inevitable for harness racing.
“The outcome will be less venues, nothing more certain,” he said.
“This, I am sure, will result in more utilisation of our strategic venues like Addington.”
The next weeks and months will see a substantial discussion and consultative process take place.
Messara noted that a few concessions would need to be made to keep all codes happy, but that the report would only work if accepted and enforced on a large scale.
Peters confirmed his intention to do so, rather than hand-pick certain recommendations.