Synthetic track in Christchurch gets thumbs-up

Michael Pitman
Leading South Island trainer Michael Pitman. Photo: Trish Dunell

Racing every week at Riccarton. It’s a distinct possibility and something that excites the South Island’s leading trainer Michael Pitman, who trains in partnership with his son Matthew.

On Tuesday, Minster for Racing, Winston Peters, announced that the Government has approved $20 million from the Provincial Growth Fund to construct two new synthetic race tracks – at Riccarton Park in Christchurch, and Awapuni in Palmerston North. “I’ve been very constant in my wish for a synthetic track for 10 years,” Pitman said. “The synthetic tracks in Victoria get supported by all the best trainers. I’ve been to Singapore, Hong Kong and England where they race on a lot of synthetic tracks. It is not just the racing but the training of horses in winter getting them ready for spring racing, I think it is a big plus.

“There is probably nobody in Christchurch that has a bigger commitment to racing than myself, Diane and Matthew. We have our own property with stabling that is worth seven figures and we rent off the Christchurch Jockey Club. “With a synthetic track, instead of 23 days of racing hopefully it will be closer to 40.

“I would like to put it out there that Riccarton could stand racing every week. A lot of people will object to it and country racing at Christmas will always have its place, but to put out a product for people to bet on, there is no better place than Riccarton. “It is where the horse population is, the people population, the jockey population, the TAB’s main centre in the South Island is only four or five miles away from Riccarton. Why wouldn’t you have your best two tracks here in Riccarton and Addington and you have all three codes covered?”

The roomy circumference at Riccarton is also a compelling reason for the all-weather track, which have often been maligned for being restricted for room on the inside of turf tracks and ultimately favouring on-pace runners. “They could have an 1800m track inside the course proper and it wouldn’t interrupt training too much while it is being developed,” Pitman said. “It appears that some synthetic tracks can be a bit leader biased, but if you’ve got a home straight of 450 to 500m, it won’t be a problem at Riccarton.”

While Pitman was buoyed by government support for the South Island’s premier racing venue, he did feel for some of the other clubs in the South Island but was realistic that efficiencies were needed for the industry to thrive. “It is a tough call, if I was based in Timaru my attitude would probably be different but I’m at Riccarton and I want racing to go ahead,” he said. “It probably will be the death knell for some of the other courses but I think Christmas racing will survive.”

Pitman was positive that racing in New Zealand can get back on track and was pleased with the $72.5 million dollar COVID-19 emergency support package for the racing industry announced by the Government. “It is great,” he said. I was on TV three weeks ago and I said then I think the Government needs to bail out the industry to the tune of $75-80 million.

“For years we have put a lot of money into the coffers of New Zealand Government and it is pay back for an industry that provides a huge amount of employment, $1.6 billion in GDP, and a healthy export market that brings in overseas dollars as well. “It is still the best place to breed horses and there will always be horses here good enough to put on the plane, like Murray Baker does, and go to Australia and clean up.

“I have sold five horses in the last 12 months to Australia. They will always be our best neighbour because there are so many wealthy people in Australia that enjoy racing. I was planning to take five horses to Adelaide until COVID-19 struck.”

The veteran trainer said he will be a long-time supporter of the industry, even once he hangs up his stopwatch. “I’m in the twilight of my career,” Pitman said. “I’ve drawn a line in the sand that when I’ve trained 2000 winners I’ll finish. We are getting awfully close to that. “That won’t stop me being an avid enthusiast of racing and having horses with Matthew.”