Parliament yesterday ended its Select Committee hearings on Winston Peters’ racing reform legislation with more protests about the legislation’s proposal to close the Dargaville Racing Club.
Peters grew up near Dargaville and went to school there and recently boasted of his connections to the area during a Provincial Growth Fund announcement in the town.
He advised his audience that they should ensure the voice of Northland, “and, dare I say it, the provinces is heard every time critical decisions are made.”
Unfortunately, the Mayor of Kaipara District Council, Jason Smith, told the Select Committee that was precisely what had not happened over the proposal to close the race-course.
No one locally had been consulted about the proposal to close the course, sell the land and give the profits to the racing industry.
The matter is particularly awkward for NZ First because Dargaville is a stronghold for their vote in the Northland electorate; a must-win for Shane Jones to give the party a good chance of getting back to Parliament.
But as RadioNZ has recently revealed, the NZ First Foundation is also the recipient of substantial donations from a number of prominent figures in the horse racing industry.
The industry generally supports the reform proposals.
Nevertheless, the outcry from Dargaville is strong. In an open letter to Peters, the chair of the Dargaville Racing Club, Tim Antonio said “no club, and no person, in any industry, in any town or city should live in fear of the seizure of their assets by the state.
“It’s not the Kiwi way.
“Maybe in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe; maybe in Pol Pot’s Cambodia but not in New Zealand, under a democratically elected government.”
The proposals originated with the former Chair of Racing Australia, John Messara, who was commissioned by Peters to review the New Zealand racing industry.
It is in a parlous state.
The CEO of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Bernard Saundry told the Committee last June the industry was losing $1 million a month and was at a tipping point.
That was echoed yesterday by the chair of the Cambridge Jockey Club, Bruce Harvey, who told Parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Committe the industry was at a crisis point.
“I believe we have to work together and we have to make a difference for these young people and the future of industry,” he said.
“Listening to some of these young people talk, it’s gut-wrenching to hear how desperate they are, and they are struggling to survive, let alone prosper.
“I think we are very fortunate.
We have a minister of racing that identifies this, took it seriously. We are lucky. I believe it is a crisis.“
So Messara has proposed that 20 of New Zealand’s 48 race courses be closed including such well-known venues as Avondale, Rotorua, Timaru and Greymouth and that $190 million be spent on the 28 retained courses to bring them up to standard.
He told the Committee yesterday that most clubs could only afford the prize money they paid owners because of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing subsidies.
“So they’re not profitable,” he said.
“The majority of clubs are unprofitable, particularly if they were to maintain the current prizemoney levels let alone if we wanted to raise prize money which is a reality we have to do over time.
“That said, most venues and tracks are also in a state of disrepair. I don’t think anyone disagrees with that.”
He said New Zealand racing needed to be more attractive to encourage overseas gamblers to bet on New Zealand races.
“We live in a time when the racing and wagering worlds are globalising,” he said.
“Horses travel around the world to compete in feature events, and wagering operators are consolidating to form international corporate wagering giants.
“It is also a time when Asia is emerging as a big player in our region.
“These factors, in my view, represent opportunities for New Zealand.”
But that meant upping the quality of New Zealand racing.
“We’re looking to get the quality of racing good enough to compete with, say, Australia and other places in the international sphere so that we can get gamblers overseas to bet on New Zealand racing and provide revenue for us without necessarily inciting our own local population to gamble,” he said.
What struck Messara, though, was the great past the New Zealand racing industry had enjoyed in the last century.
“As a young lad. I clearly remember how my family and racing friends would speak with trepidation year after year of New Zealand invaders plundering Australia’s major races,” he said.
“The New Zealand yearling sales in those days held at Trentham were nothing less than a rite of passage for any aspiring investor in thoroughbreds in our region, of which I was one.
“Trentham was a veritable pilgrimage of owners and trainers from around the globe, with Aussie breeders looking on in awe as New Zealand competitors dominated the Australasian bloodstock market.”
But part of restoring that tradition will mean destroying a part of it; the small clubs.
Messara suggested that a scheme operating in New South Wales might work in New Zealand for the small clubs.
The Australians allow the clubs to continue racing but as “non TAB” clubs.
“They don’t get their racing on TV, and the TAB doesn’t cover them, and they have local bookmakers, and so perhaps that’s a solution,” he said.
The clubs would have to support themselves.
“They survive by the sweat of the members who come in and make the pies and paint the fences and they make a little bit off the bookmaking.”
But while that is going on Messara sees the remaining big courses increasingly playing to an international market.
“Australian racing now has the kind of prizemoney, facilities, events, integrity and leadership that makes people from across Australia and around the world want to be part of it as owners, as punters, breeders, trainers and jockeys,” he said.
“Presently, there’s very little future in this country for racing.
“I have no doubt, though, that the New Zealand industry, with its illustrious history, its expertise, its natural assets and its favourable timeslot two hours before Australia and five to six hours before Asian starts means you can slot in magnificently there and capture that wagering marketplace if your product is up to scratch.
“But you need to be to transform the industry into a viable, independent, modern industry with horse racing capital to be marketed competitively outside of New Zealand.
“It’s got to be as good as your competition, if not better.”
Messara got a good hearing from the Committee with a series of generally supportive questions from the three National MPs there; Ian McKelvie, Tim van de Molen and Andrew Bayley.
Labour members didn’t ask any questions.
The Committee is chaired by tia NZ First MP, Darroch Ball, so its report back is unlikely to conflict with the overall direction Peters wants it rango.
But what they will recommend on Dargaville is an open question. At the moment it is a photo finish.
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