Venues reduced under draft racing calendar proposal

Avondale racecourse
Avondale racecourse is one of 10 thoroughbred racing venues not included in a proposed 2020/21 racing calendar. Photo: Trish Dunell

The proposed calendar for the 2020-21 New Zealand racing season has been released today by RITA for consultation, as required under the Racing Act, with 10 thoroughbred racing venues proposed not to host racing in the new season.

The venues not to host racing under the proposal is headed by Auckland venue Avondale, in addition to Te Teko, Waipa (Te Awamutu), Gisborne, Wairoa, Waipukurau, Blenheim (Waterlea), Motukarara, Waikouaiti and Omakau. “Every thoroughbred racing club in New Zealand has a history and a part to play,” New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR) chief executive Bernard Saundry said.

“NZTR has done significant work over the past 18 months on a venue plan which will future proof the racing industry.” “We recognise that the calendar for 2020-21 looks very different to previous seasons with fewer meetings at fewer venues. The industry cannot survive, let along move ahead, if we try and fit 2020s racing into a mould which was created last century.”

The proposed changes in the 2020-21 calendar acknowledge the need to provide a more efficient footprint of venues, which deliver cost savings to owners with meetings held closer to the horse populations. There are also significant cost savings to RITA in the servicing of meetings at these venues.

“NZTR’s venue plan took into account a number of factors and, among them, was the introduction of all-weather tracks,” Saundry said. “With the Cambridge all-weather track on schedule for use next season, the commitment from government of up $20 million to build additional all weather surfaces at Awapuni and Riccarton will also impact on future racing dates.”

The proposed meeting numbers in the draft calendar represent a 17 percent decrease in meetings since 2009 (from 328 to 273). During the same period there has been a 17 percent decline in individual starters, from 5826 to 4812. “Our dwindling foal crop, which has dropped 28 percent since 2005, has resulted in a smaller pool of horses and even before COVID-19 the reduction in races was not keeping pace with the number of horses available to race,” Saundry said.

Nationally the average field size has fallen from 11.12 to 10.49 in 2019 and will have declined further by end of 2020. “These figures are the stark reality of New Zealand’s available thoroughbred racing crop,” Saundry said. “We understand that there will be some who find it difficult to accept that racing may no longer continue at their local venue. We also understand that an argument could be made for the survival of each individual venue, but where would that get us? “At this time it is important everyone takes an industry-wide view and not consider venues in isolation.”

While the draft calendar is aligned with NZTR’s Venue Plan and the recommendations of the Messara Review it has been released for a consultation process which concludes on 15 June. Among the considerations taken into account was the need to recognise the uniqueness and wide appeal of some country venues. This also aligns with the principles of the NZTR Venue Plan and the expectations of the Messara Review. “The New Zealand racing industry has been described as being at a crossroads for many years and it is apparent we cannot sustain the number of venues we currently have, the draft calendar simply reflects this economic reality,” Saundry said.

“Tough decisions have to be made and this was signaled by the Racing Minister in his delivery of racing’s emergency rescue package earlier this week. We owe it to the industry, all those employed in it, those stakeholders who rely on it for their income and the owners and punters who support it, to make these decisions.

“While most in the industry know we have too many venues a parochial outlook has crippled any serious action being taken to reduce them. COVID-19 has forced what countless Royal Commissions, and Ministerial Reviews, including the Messara review, have recommended.

“Those clubs which may now find themselves racing at a different venue should take inspiration from Feilding and Beaumont. Both of these clubs have demonstrated that with relocation can come longevity and success at a host venue.” “We now have an opportunity to reset and take the first steps in creating a more streamlined, efficient industry,” he said.

Racing Industry Transition Agency Executive Chair Dean McKenzie said the racing calendar was a critical driver to enable the recovery of New Zealand racing and an essential part of the overall reform programme being led by RITA and the three racing codes. “The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on racing, and accelerated the need for significant change across all levels of the industry,” McKenzie said.

“The leaders of New Zealand racing have repeatedly talked over decades about change but not been courageous enough to address the critical need for venue intensification. “Repeated reports on the industry, including most recently by John Messara, as well as the industry-led future venue plan have identified that there were too many racing venues and this was a commercial drain on limited industry resources. Covid-19 leaves us with no other choice but to act.”