New Zealand racing bosses are confident race meetings can continue here even after the industry has closed down in England in a shock move.

All English horse racing has been abandoned until May because of the coronavirus in a move that stunned the industry there, coming just 24 hours after English racing officials had announced they were implementing the same no-crowd policy now in place in New Zealand.

That lasted one day and then racing was finished for the foreseeable future, including the historic Grand National meeting.

But racing bosses here say the two countries are at very different levels of coronavirus infection at this stage and that race meetings here are no longer public events.


"Racetracks are now workplaces as far as we are concerned," says NZTR chief executive Bernard Saundry.

"The Government restrictions are, at this stage, for events with 500 people but we no longer hold those events.

"We have race meetings which are workplaces, with people going there to work and nobody else.

"To that degree they are no different to an office or a factory, which obviously aren't being closed down yet or any indication they will be unless they suffer an outbreak.

"So we are as confident as we can be under the current circumstances that operating as a workplace we can keep racing going."

Today's Rotorua thoroughbred meeting was the first held under the new essential personnel-only regulations and although it created an eerie feel, most in the industry have been understanding about the new restrictions, which could be in place for months.

"It is definitely weird being there with the horses racing to the line and no noise," one leading trainer told the Herald.

"But crowds aren't a particularly big part of a normal mid-week meetings at this time of the season.


"We are happy to be racing and that is the most important part. If we have to stop racing and we don't know how long for, what do we tell our owners?

"It is hard to make a case to keep paying bills for horses when you don't know when they can race next.

"So everybody in the industry has to protect the racing as well as mitigating the risk of spreading the infection. I am just driving home from the races now and ringing all the owners to give them a report on their horses. "That is how it is going to have to be for a while."

The chairs of the three codes — thoroughbred, harness and greyhounds — will meet TAB chief executive Dean McKenzie tomorrow to be briefed on how much damage different scenarios could cause to the TAB's bottom line and therefore its future distribution to the racing industry.

The Herald believes among the economic models presented will be the current one dealing with turnover expectations without most of overseas sport and European racing for much of this year, along with figures of what months or even a year without Australian racing — which continues at present — and the worst case scenario, no New Zealand racing, would look like.

It will be a sobering meeting with wildly different figures depending on what happens in coming months. One thing is for sure, none of those bottom line figures will be good.

But one of the few positives today was the reaction worldwide to NZTR's decision to raise all jockeys' weights in all races by 2kg from Friday to allow jockeys to be healthier and less at risk of illness, especially from the coronavirus.

It has been met with widespread acclaim offshore and many jockeys in other countries are adamant the same temporary increase in weights should be implemented in their jurisdictions.

Jockeys Association president Michael Coleman says although it has been feted overseas, the move is not as universally popular here as some may expect.

"They didn't advise us before they brought it in, which was a bit of a surprise," says Coleman, one of NZ's most successful jockeys.

"And it will clearly suit some jockeys better than others. The heavier jockeys are happiest whereas some of the lighter jockeys aren't so much because their horses will have to carry more dead weight [lead in the saddle bags]."

Coleman said riding at the crowdless meeting today with almost no human interaction was an odd experience.

"You only really get to talk to the trainer before the race and that is it," he told the Herald.

"We have a meeting between the jockeys between races to discuss all the new rules and regulations and our responsibilities. But we realise we are going better than some other sports, even though we are a business too, because at least we are still racing."

Not so Trackside

New Zealand racing's television landscape has changed just as dramatically as the rest of the industry.

TAB bosses have made immediate changes to how racing will be covered with no presenters on track at any meetings in the weeks, and possibly, months ahead.

The move is for health reasons of the presenters, camera crew and the people they come in contact with and to reduce the chance of coronavirus spreading.

TAB employees will still broadcast the racing action from the tracks using their usual OB vans but the comments and previews of the races will be done by presenters based in studios around the country.

The commentaries will still be live from the track.

That will mean no live pre- or post-race interviews and reactions from the track will be possible until coronavirus protocols are changed.

The TAB has also cancelled with immediate effect its magazine, review and preview shows The First Call, Dogzone, The Box Seat and Weigh In to cut costs.

But the turnover-driving Punters Lounge will still screen on Saturday morning with shorter versions of that show possible on domestic race days to try to stimulate turnover.