The report on the racing industry commissioned by its minister, Winston Peters, and released last Friday, is one New Zealanders have read many times before.

Peters' industry reviewer, an Australian racing administrator and breeder, John Messara, acknowledges he is proposing the same solution recommended as long ago as 1965 by the Reid Committee and endorsed in 1970 by the McCarthy royal commission. Namely, that New Zealand has too many race tracks.

The theory is that with fewer tracks there would be more money in the industry to improve prize money, providing better returns for the owners, breeders and trainers of race horses and giving New Zealand a stronger bloodstock industry.

Yet more than 50 years after this theory was advanced, there are still nearly 50 thoroughbred racecourses in New Zealand, many of them in small towns and holding just one or two meetings a year. And they are no more willing to close now than they were 50 years ago.


Messara notes that racing clubs are not the owners of the land they use and suggest these assets should be vested in racing's regulator for the benefit of the thoroughbred industry. About 20 of tracks could be sold, he suggests, generating sufficient capital to renovate the remaining racing venues, few of which are up to the standard he believes racegoers and punters expect.

Maybe so, but it seems a draconian solution to impose on small racing clubs that might not be the legal owners of the land but their local community regards it as their racecourse, which is how so many have survived. They may hold only one or two meetings a year but those race days are usually big events on the town's calendar, attracting visitors from near and far.

Across all New Zealand courses, the average is 6.7 meetings a year which is only one fewer than the average for Australian courses. Messara prefers a comparison with Ireland, with a similar population to New Zealand, which has half the number of courses, an average of 13.7 meetings a year on each track and a thriving thoroughbred industry.

The reason New Zealand's industry is in decline, producing fewer foals each year, probably lies deeper than the number of race tracks. As Messara observes, racing has become a largely off-course betting and entertainment attraction. His most controversial suggestion is likely to be outsourcing the TAB to an international betting operator to add to the TAB's products, upgrade its technology, improve its customer services and offer New Zealand punters, "a compelling global product".

An industry financed by gambling will struggle to find favour with the present Government and a foreign takeover of the TAB might not appeal to Peters, but those are not reasons to resort to public funding and additional tax breaks.

Industries need to find strength within themselves for sustained success. New Zealand's breeders and trainers have a good reputation in a global industry, they should look offshore for more of the returns they need. That would wake up local clubs and the TAB.

Racing should not be relying on a politician for direction. It must stand on its own four legs.