Racing: Call for dedicated thoroughbred racing channel finds support

By Mike Dillon

David Ellis. Photo / Janna Dixon
David Ellis. Photo / Janna Dixon

Someone once said thoroughbred racing is the only game where people with millions invested are told what to do by people with nothing invested.

As cynical as that sounds, there has always been an element of truth in the statement.

Perhaps in most cases that chain of command has been necessary.

But if that's so, it increases the necessity for racing administrators to take close notice of what its stakeholders say.

Sadly, that rarely happens.

Which was the basis of the address New Zealand's biggest horse syndicator, Te Akau's David Ellis, gave to the AGM of the New Zealand Racing Board.

Ellis, with a massive investment behind Te Akau, declared his opinion that Trackside's two racing television channels, 36 and 35, are not produced to allow maximum promotional benefit.

Not surprisingly, the speech has polarised opinions. Ellis received a standing ovation after his address and says he has had more than 100 emails of support in the 10 or so days since.

Racing administrators are unimpressed.

An abridged version of the speech:

"We all understand as business people here today that the solution to our predicament is having more money to distribute to our clubs and stake holders.

"The only way to do this is to drive wagering turnover higher - much higher. The relationship is clear. The better the stake money the better the horse and the better horses mean more money wagered on each race and more people coming to watch.

"The declining turnovers are a problem. It's the biggest problem we face in racing. Before you start to think the declining turnovers are due to economic conditions and are therefore acceptable, I say rubbish.

"[Being resigned to] declining turnover is not acceptable and this will leave us with no industry at all if the current trends continue.

"Let me talk about the experience of racing in France over the same three-year period and they have seen betting turnover growth of 3 per cent in thoroughbred racing through their TAB.

"Why? It is very simple - they have their own trackside channel for the galloping code.

"I would suggest that there would be very few in this room that when they heard about the extra TV channel were not filled with the excitement of the knowledge that we were about to confront the cause of the decline in wagering of the thoroughbred code.

"So why are the two channels not working? "Well, I have over 650 owners so I asked them. "Nine out of 10 said they do not now watch trackside because the dogs and low-quality harness racing was a huge turn off."

Ellis went on to say that because people have a real passion for thoroughbred racing [by far the greatest financial contributor through the TAB] they do not necessarily have any interest in dogs or harness racing from Invercargill.

By pushing those down the throats of viewers they switch off and turn to golf or other sports, forget to switch back to another galloping race and the TAB misses out. He added that on the recent group one Levin Classic raceday at Otaki viewers were greeted with a dog race every 15 minutes on both racing channels. What's wrong with channel 35 handling the dogs and extending the coverage on the big raceday on channel 36?

Only one channel can be watched at one time, why have the dogs on both?

If the recession was the total reason for the decline, he said, how had he been able to fully syndicate 69 yearlings this year to more than 120 first-time owners?

"People want to invest in this great industry, but what they do not want is to have dog racing from wherever in Australia and trots pushed down their throat. All can be covered satisfactorily by the two channels with no disadvantage to anyone.

"A few years ago the TAB, together with the three codes agreed that the television channel was our prime opportunity to grow wagering and to this end unanimously agreed that the prime time, which is Saturday afternoon, would be given to the prime driver of revenue, the thoroughbred code. All three codes agreed to that and that led to Clause 16 of the Racing Amendment Bill, something which has greatly disadvantaged galloping and advantaged primarily the dogs.

"Now we see the first few galloping races from Sydney and Melbourne missed because a local trotting race is on channel 36.

"I don't want any of this to sound like I'm anti harness or the dogs. I actually enjoy top-end harness racing and I've got nothing against the dogs.

"But it's critical this thing is correctly driven."

Ellis was strong on his criticism of the Racing Board for what he sees as ignoring Clause 6 and 7 of the Racing Amendment Bill.

"They state clearly the NZRB has a responsibility to promote the galloping code, to promote participation and promote ownership.

"The NZRB used to have a very good programme, Retro on a Sunday morning - everybody watched it. They had trainers on that [who] had just won a big race and it gave them the opportunity to promote themselves, to get new owners.

"It gave people the chance to see how the industry was promoted - it encouraged participation.

"A couple of years ago the Racing Board said Retro was finished for Christmas and we're still waiting for it to restart.

"I wrote to the board and said if the reason was cost could I buy the hour from them and I would put Retro on and get sponsors to support the programme? Two years on and I am still waiting for a reply."

The coverage of harness racing and dogs being restricted to channel 35 on some days is not quite that simplistic.

The Racing Board believes there are up to 150,000 who do not watch Trackside through Sky Television and, therefore, can receive only channel 36 free-to-air.

Some would say that's a reasonably fair balance given the breakdown in interest levels in the three codes.

More fair, certainly, than the proliferation of dog racing running simultaneously on both television channels accompanied by a small betting turnover.

There is a valid point here: should those prepared to pay good money to have Sky Television be disadvantaged by those unprepared to fork out for a superior product?

Too much of that creeps into New Zealand society.

It wouldn't happen in Australia or the United States.

- NZ Herald

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