A local harness racing boss is concerned for the future of his sport after learning a hugely popular summer harness race meeting in Ōtaki and all meetings at Manawatū Raceway are facing the chop.

Kāpiti Coast Harness Racing president Chris Craddock had joined a chorus of club bosses from the lower North Island lobbying for change before the new calendar was set in stone.

"It's ridiculous. These meetings are profitable. Some are hugely successful," he said.

Kāpiti Coast's annual meeting at Ōtaki early in the New Year drew large crowds, with a turnover to match, while a meeting at Tauherenikau just days earlier regularly attracted more than 10,000 people.

Advertisement

Craddock said it didn't make sense that profitable meetings, some of which were dual code meeting with thoroughbreds, were being axed.

"It is absolutely devastating. It's a total bombshell," he said.

Craddock feared the new calendar, which would see harness racing axed from 15 venues across the country, will force some horse trainers to travel long distances, or give up the game entirely.

He had joined club representatives from Manawatū, Taranaki, Stratford, Hāwera, Wanganui and Wairarapa in multiple Zoom meetings this week, and said they were united against the proposed changes.

Craddock said for if the sport was to grow it needed to retain racemeetings in the lower North Island. The Central Districts region had 22 race meetings last season and 16 of those were in Manawatū.

Ohau harness racing trainer Murray Gibbs.
Ohau harness racing trainer Murray Gibbs.

Meanwhile, Ōhau trainer Murray Gibbs remained optimistic that common sense would prevail.

While Gibbs wasn't a big player - he trained a small boutique stable of horses in Ohau and never has more than six horses in work - it is people like him the game could ill-afford to lose.

Gibbs said he had a brilliant owner and breeder in Wellington who loved the game, but a big part of the appeal was watching his horses work on weekends, and being able to watch them race.

Advertisement

He feared some people could lose enthusiasm for the sport and could be lost to the industry if they were forced to travel long distances to raceday, or pay the bills only to watch their horses race on a television screen.

"Some of these meetings they are looking to cut were hugely profitable. It doesn't make sense," he said.

"It's a pretty confusing time. It's hard to take in really. I just hope that common sense... I'm optimistic that sense will prevail."

For Gibbs, it was all about the horse. From a training perspective he said the country meetings provided horses with an opportunity to learn the craft and improve before hitting town hall company.

"Some horses need that stepping stone," he said.

It's also a case of deja vu for Gibbs, who fell in love with the sport during the halcyon days when Hutt Park was racing, and where he cut his teeth.

Advertisement

When Hutt Park closed 23 years ago, he moved further north to Ōhau be closer to Manawatū Raceway, building an impressive training facility at home.

Gibbs said with Awapuni being earmarked for an all-weather gallops track, and with 52 greyhound racemeetings at Manawatū, there could be a real missed opportunity for harness racing to be involved.

"There's the opportunity for the three codes and the area to really boom," he said.

Murray Gibbs works a horse yesterday morning at home.
Murray Gibbs works a horse yesterday morning at home.

RITA (Racing Industry Transition Agency), a reconstitution of the New Zealand Racing Board, only recently announced the proposed draft calendar for the 2020-2021 racing season commencing August 1.

Consultation on the draft closes on June 15 and the final calendar was due for release early next month.