Ken Spicer (right), Chairman of Harness Racing New Zealand. Photo: Race Images.
Concerns around personnel and the ability of an under-manned Ashburton Trotting Club to run the event have seen it lose next year’s Harness Jewels to Addington.
Ken Spicer, Chairman of the Harness Racing New Zealand Board that made the decision yesterday, said the staffing issues at Ashburton was the biggest of a number of concerns that became apparent when weighing the two proposals.
“Our biggest concern was not just around the venue itself, but the ability of the Ashburton club, through their management and committee, to plan and execute the event,” he said.
Longtime employees Fiona Stuart and Gareth Murfitt, Manager and Secretary respectively, have both recently departed the club, taking a wealth of Jewels Day planning experience with them.
“The club is going through a real transition at the moment and they’ve lost two key people; they’ve actually shut their office during the week.
“As well as that, the Club President and Vice President have both resigned from their roles, too.
“They’re in a bit of a no-man’s land and they didn’t really install confidence in us that they would be able to run the event to a high standard.
“The last Jewels day they ran had a number of issues and that has prompted us to consider an alternative option.
“Addington have come to the party and are pretty keen to run it.”
Spicer noted that the TAB, too, had raised concerns about certain aspects of their ability to function appropriately on the day given the location of the course.
Protracted discussions between the members of the Executive led up to the anonymous vote, which was done on ballot forms.
Spicer confirmed, too, that Barry Dent, a board member of both Addington and HRNZ, participated in the vote.
“The whole board voted and the exact result will be kept confidential but it was reasonably clear cut, it is safe to say.
“This wasn’t done on a whim; we spent two or three hours pouring over data and information and discussing how any potential decision could affect things.”
Spicer sympathised with those who were disappointed with the decision and said that there were going to be upset industry participants whatever way they went.
“Already we’ve had calls and correspondence in support and against the decision, which was always going to happen.
“We understand it is a big deal, but it is only a venue.
“The money will stay the same and the best horses will still race for it.
“It’s Harness Racing New Zealand’s event at the end of the day, not the club’s.
“They originally chose Ashburton as a point of difference but that was then and this is now.
“People’s expectations of race days have changed and perhaps sitting on damp ground in a marquee with a gas heater going isn’t for everybody.
“If you don’t change, you’ll never know if it could be better.
“This may work, this may not, but at least we will know.”
Spicer said the accepted view of the Trainers and Drivers Association was that Addington was probably preferable.
“There is no problem there; Rob Lawson is on the board and is the Chairman of the horsemen’s group and the says the feedback has certainly been that Addington would be better.
“A covered barn and beautiful track are advantageous and they aren’t too hung up on the distance changing from a mile.”
Spicer said the decision was contingent on Addington agreeing to maintain the festival atmosphere of the Jewels and not to operate it under the same somewhat elitist structure that it does on New Zealand Cup and other days.
“That was one concern around the table; we don’t want it to be just another day at ‘the Met’, at a bit of a concrete jungle.
“But they have assured us they will make it work well.”
Cambridge will host the Jewels this year and Spicer says the 2020 running will be open to a submission from the Auckland Trotting Club, as has always been the case.
“There seems to be a conspiracy that the big clubs are trying to steal the Jewels but it has nothing to do with that at all.
“This decision is in no way linked to Cambridge’s hosting of the Jewels moving forward.
“They are making a real go of it this year and I will hazard a guess that they’re going to pull off a good edition.
“But, at the end of the day, they will get reviewed the same as Ashburton.”