Race track closure recommendations raise regional ire

There has been an understandable response to the thoroughbred racing report that recommends closing twenty regional race tracks. And there are some recommendations that seem out of touch with reality.

Stuff:  Famous Kiwi holiday racecourses among 20 slated for closure

They’ve been part of the Kiwi way of life, but famous holiday racecourses have been earmarked for closure in a radical report on the racing industry.

Thousands of holidaymakers flock to race meetings at venues such as Thames, Stratford, Greymouth, Hokitika, and Omakau in Central Otago during the summer break, but they are among the 20 that will close if the Messara Report is adopted by the racing industry and Government.

Peters commissioned Australian racing administrator John Messara to review the industry and one of the central planks of his report deals with consolidating racecourse assets.

Of the 48 thoroughbred tracks that currently hold race meetings, he recommends the closure of 20, with their land being sold and the proceeds going towards bringing the remaining 28 courses to an acceptable standard.

Who owns the racecourses?

Would Avondale be happy to sell up and hand all the proceeds over to Ellerslie? Dargaville to Ruakaka? Gore to Invercargill? Omakau to Cromwell?

The South Canterbury/North Otago closures are hard to understand. Should Waimate and Timue gift sale proceeds to Ashburton? Should Oamaru and Kurow sell up and hand everything over to Waikouaiti?

It’s hard to understand why Waikouaiti was left in the remain list when larger courses are told to shut down.

Both Waikouaiti and Omakau had meetings cancelled early this year – I arrived at Waikouaiti before I found out, and got as far a Ranfurly before fortuitously finding out Omakau was off.

ODT: Racing clubs vow to fight

Lower South Island racing clubs have vowed to fight to keep their racecourses open, following the shock call for their closure on Thursday.

Central Otago Racing club president Tony Lepper said the proposed closure of the Omakau thoroughbred track was “a kick in the guts for rural Central Otago.”

Gore Racing Club president Justine Abernethy said its racecourse would not close without a fight from the local community. Officials from thoroughbred and harness racing clubs in Eastern Southland had started talks about the future of the course, she said.

Messara visited Gore racecourse when he was researching for his report, but appeared not to give it thorough consideration as he was there for “about five minutes”, Abernethy said.

Gore Racing Club and Gallop South officials were waiting for the Australian to arrive and he was gone before they got a chance to say hello, she said.

“We were waiting for Mr Messara to come and meet with us and he drove in and drove out. He didn’t have a look around the facility or anything. He has made a decision without looking at the big picture.

“But you need to understand what this facility means to the community and where are trainers going to go that are in Eastern Southland.”

Messara represents big business interests, and seems to have no inclination to understand regional racing histories and community attachment.

Does Peters understand what a kick in the teeth closures would mean for regional tracks? Does he care?

It looks like Peters has played regions for mugs, when his top priority has been for his racing industry mates.

NZ First risks regional backlash against racetrack closures

Winston Peters has marketed himself as a champion of the regions, and Shane Jones has similarly promoted himself as such – see ‘Champion of Regions’: Jones holds true to title – with his billion dollar Provincial Growth Fund handouts.

But one of Winston’s biggest hobby horses (and possibly one of his biggest benefactors) is the racing industry. And he is now proposing a radical plan to close a lot of race tracks around the regions and centralise them in three big cities. This is both a clash NZ First priorities, and a risk of backlash.

RNZ: Plan to cut 20 race tracks ‘gamechanger for industry’

The racing industry is facing two choices, significant change or death, says Racing Minister Winston Peters.

Mr Peters has released an independent report by Australian racing expert, John Messara, that concludes the industry is in a state of “serious malaise”.

The report recommends include almost halving the number of tracks and outsourcing the TAB’s commercial activities to an international operator.

Mr Peters said the racing industry was at a tipping point from which it won’t recover unless it took on on board all the reforms put forward by John Messara.

Officials will produce a Cabinet paper from the report’s 17 recommendations, which Mr Peters said was a chance to change the fortunes of the industry and push the reset button.

Mr Messara has proposed reducing the number of tracks from 48 to 28 and Mr Peters said that will have to be a reality if the industry wants to turn around its dwindling profits.

“Every region will retain a race track. There just won’t be the proliferation right now which in stark contrast to a big industry like New South Wales, has far more race tracks. It just doesn’t make any logical sense,” Mr Peters said.

What may be good for the racing industry may not be seen as good for the regions who lose their race tracks.

Taranaki will lose two out of three of its race tracks if the recommendations go ahead.

Taranaki Thoroughbred Racing board member and judge Ron Stanley said racing was getting incredibly more competitive and that required top facilities and cutting back the number of tracks.

“I think it’s a brave decision, we should have been doing it a few years ago. We’ve always had too many tracks”.

The towns who have tracks that may be closed may think differently.

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing chief executive Bernard Saundry also backed the proposals which he described as a “gamechanger for the industry”.

“One of our biggest issues is we can’t spread the amount of money we have across 48 venues and improve the sport. So we need to consolidate our spending and make sure we’ve got a number of venues that have good race track surfaces and good customer facilities so that New Zealanders can enjoy the great things about New Zealand thoroughbred racing,” he said.

Centralisation in big cities has been a feature of the ‘neo-liberal’ reforms that Peters has been scathing of (for political purposes, I don’t know if he believes it).

But Peters is putting the racing industry ahead of the regions.

The Provincial Growth Fund will stump up the cash – expected to be about $15 million – for the tracks that Mr Messara has recommended building in Awapuni, Riccarton and Cambridge.

Mr Peters said taxpayers will accept that cost because racing “isn’t just about people turning up at the track in their Sunday best” – it’s about an industry that employs tens of thousands of people.

So he is championing an industry over people in the regions. He and the racing industry are going to pick winners and losers.

I’m not sure how well regional taxpayers and voters will accept that cost if it takes their tracks away.

“We will ensure that every region retains at least one track so there is racing there. And we will consult with the industry on these tracks that are to be closed. But we have to change, even if it is unpopular.”

Peters the prince of populism is prepared to push policies that may be unpopular in many regions – neo-liberal reforms of the racing industry means more to him for some reason.

And – it’s interesting to see how Peters intends using the Provincial Growth Fund to fund NZ First policies over and above what was negotiated in their Coalition Agreement.

ODT report on the winners and losers in the south in Seven race tracks face closure

In his report he recommended thoroughbred racing at Timaru, Kurow, Oamaru, Waimate, Omakau, Winton and Gore should cease.

Mr Messara recommended Wingatui, Ashburton, Ascot Park, Cromwell, Waikouaiti and Riverton hold race meetings in the lower South Island.

Closing Oamaru, Timaru and Gore while retaining Waikouaiti seems odd. I arrived at the Waikouaiti races this January to find out they had been cancelled due to track conditions.