Trainers plan NZ-wide disruption over gripes

BARRY LICHTER
Last updated 05:00 18/05/2014

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Trainers are planning disruptive action nationwide after a vote of no confidence in New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing.

And they warn that without prompt action the industry's downward spiral will see people opting out in droves as the infrastructure crumbles and it becomes no longer viable to train.

From July, trainers will refuse to do interviews on Trackside television, a lifeblood for punters and a crucial driver of turnover.

But even more significant action, as yet unspecified, will follow unless a list of concerns submitted by the NZ Trainers' Association national executive is addressed.

In a letter sent to board members and the executive of NZ Thoroughbred Racing on Friday, the trainers say a vote taken at its May 8 meeting was unanimously one of no confidence in many of the initiatives taken by NZTR.

Specifically, the trainers' body cited:

■ An apparent lack of racing knowledge within the NZTR board which has seen irrelevant and costly policies and rules implemented.

■ A lack of transparency and accountability over administrative travel costs.

■ A continual lack of support and consideration for trainers, and

■ A lack of consultation by the board or advice given by stakeholders being ignored.

In the letter, the trainers say racing clubs are not providing regular and safe racing and trialling surfaces, evidenced by the record number of abandonments in the last 12 months. And it says there is a lack of accountability when club personnel are at fault, compared with trainers being penalised when they make mistakes.

The trainers' executive says numerous issues had been repeatedly raised previously and very little action had been taken.

It now required the following for trainers:

1. Input into all policy that impacts on trainers, their clients, staff, and horses

2. Payment for providing horses to run on raceday

3. Transparency and accountability on all administrative travel and expenses including detailed analysis and reports of each venture, who travelled, and the worth to the industry

4. All new applicants for a full public licence or permit to train to be approved by the NZTA executive.

The letter, signed by Wendy Cooper, executive officer of the trainers' association, said disruptive action would follow if these concerns were not addressed in an appropriate manner and to the satisfaction of the national executive.

But there was clearly time before the planned action for NZTR to attend to the issues, and for a mutually agreed resolution to be reached.

Trainers president Tony Pike said his association's letter wasn't just an all-guns-blazing bluff but a wake-up call for all racing officials.

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"Hopefully this action won't need to happen but trainers are very frustrated and there is a lot of dissent out there. This has been brewing for a while. A lot of trainers are struggling, even the top ones.

"Like any industry, the top 5 per cent or 10 per cent should be making a good living out of racing but they're not.

"We want to see something being done rather than the industry slowly winding down. Without action, New Zealand will end up being just a pre-training farm for the rest of the world as all our horses get sold overseas."

Pike said owners were now facing the brunt of increasing costs and their returns in stakes were the second worst in the racing world.

"As trainers we have to keep increasing our fees or we go broke - we still have to run a business - but then we lose a lot of owners or they send their horses overseas."

Pike said the model which leading Australian breeder John Messara preached was that only by increasing stakes can you keep the industry healthy, with its filter-down effects on breeders, owners, farriers and everyone else involved.

But racing clubs here was so cash-strapped that even the infrastructure was breaking down.

Pike, campaigning in Queensland, said he had been embarrassed on Wednesday watching the last race at Te Aroha on TV in the local pub, and seeing the reaction as it took several minutes to tow the ambulance out of the bog.

"I know it's winter racing, but our facilities and infrastructure is starting to fall by the wayside.

"It's my personal belief we have to centralise and spend money on our main centres."

Pike said while some of NZTR's policies had been great, not enough was being done quickly enough to stop the downward spiral.

"I know NZTR will be under pressure to keep its costs under control, and it could be a staffing issue, but this management and those before them have been too slow to implement changes.

"Ours is a great industry and it would be sad to see it wound down to the point that it is no longer viable for the people who sustain it."

Pike said he and most other trainers were big owners and investors in the industry.

"It would be nice to have a bigger buy-in with NZTR and the New Zealand Racing Board because they control the purse-strings."

Pike said trainers were tired of non-beneficial policies being introduced without consultation.

The move to Monday racing had been vehemently opposed by trainers, who faced a huge increase in costs, but "it was set in stone when I attended the first meeting about it".

"Anyone with a logical mind could see that moving racing from Sundays to Mondays and Tuesdays was going to cost trainers dearly."

Only this week, NZTR backtracked and cancelled almost all Monday meetings next season.

Association vice president Michael Pitman said he was a great believer in the need for initiatives to get people back to the races.

"And that means racegoers, not the partygoers who go to the odd big meeting."

Pitman is hot on the NZTR directive that now prevents owners from getting access to their horses on raceday.

"My owners spend thousands of dollars racing their horses, and they can't even get close enough to see them, let along pat them. A lot of my elderly owners are now saying ‘what is the point of going to the races?' They can get a better view on television."

NZTR board members who now had little knowledge of racing but were only skilled in business needed to realise that trainers introduced owners to racing, and they in turn might become sponsors.

Pitman said trainers had "had a gutsful" of getting no recognition for supplying the product that kept racing alive. Unlike the harness and greyhound codes, whose unplaced runners earned something, thoroughbred owners got nothing. Two attempts by the trainers to convince NZTR to implement such a system for helping to reduce costs had failed.

The trainers' ire over expenses peaked recently when New Zealand sent 12 representatives to the four-day Asian Racing Conference in Hong Kong.

As well as NZTR chief executive Greg Purcell and three NZTR directors, Matthew Goodson, Ben Nettleton and Greg McCarthy, the industry sent Julie Walker (NZ Stud Book), Andrew Birch (NZ Thoroughbred Marketing) and club officials Carey Hobbs (Taranaki), Jason Fleming (Hawkes Bay), Tim Mills and Jeff McCall (Canterbury Jockey Club), Greg Mitchell (Counties) and Alicia Moroney (Waikato ambassador).

Purcell said he was "surprised and disappointed about the content and distribution of the letter."

As recently as a few weeks ago the trainers' association, along with the other four key stakeholders, had been part of NZTR's strategic planning meetings held round the country.

The board would consider its response to the letter at its meeting this week but he did not intend to run the consultative process with the trainers through the media.

"NZTR acknowledges there have been increases in industry costs but since the new independent board was put in place three years ago we've seen improvements in both prizemoney and other industry fundamentals.

"There has been significant improvement in base prizemoney levels, average prizemoney is up 24 per cent and the aggregate has increased, but we want to keep improving."

Purcell said NZTR spent considerable time consulting with the trainers, including monthly telephone hookups but "listening did not necessarily mean agreeing".

NZTR had progressed many of the five key pillars of its strategic plan, which ranged from working with clubs to improve their performance to funding significant projects on drainage, irrigation and railing.

- Sunday Star Times

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