The hot topic around the stables and tracks of New Zealand is the contents of the report on the racing industry, commissioned by Racing Minister Winston Peters and prepared by Australian racing administrator and breeder John Messara, which was released in Hamilton last Friday.

The most comprehensive review in the racing industry's history contains 17 recommendations on how to fix the ailing New Zealand racing industry, concentrating particularly on the thoroughbred code.

The two hottest topics will be the closure of 20 thoroughbred racetracks around the country and the likelihood the licence to bet on racing and sport in New Zealand would be outsourced to an overseas, likely Australian operator, effectively ending the New Zealand TAB's control of such gambling in this country.

Messara suggests track closures as a way to cut costs as many clubs struggle to keep tracks up to industry standard.

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That has resulted in too many race meetings being cancelled because of poor or even dangerous racing surfaces, costing the industry tens of millions of dollars.

The reduction of tracks from 48 to 28 is planned to be finalised by 2024.

After the release of the report, many clubs would have been scouring the contents to see what fate was recommended for them.

In the Waikato Waipa Racing Club (based at Te Awamutu), Cambridge Jockey Club and Waikato Racing Club (based at Te Rapa) looked to have escaped the immediate closure recommendation.

Waipa Racing Club president Mark Irwin says that is because it is recognised the club is well down the track on a joint proposal with Cambridge and Te Rapa — a new facility to be known as the Greenfields Centre for Horseracing.

Irwin says there has been a considerable amount of work done on the project, but it hasn't been released to all members yet, so he cannot reveal too much information.

He was part of a delegation which visited a complex in Australia which the Waikato group is looking to model and says it was generally agreed this is the way forward for racing.

Irwin says in the meantime it is business as usual for Waipa Racing Club, which has a nine race industry meeting tomorrow — first race 12.09pm.

The Te Awamutu course hosts seven meeting per year — two on Sundays, but no Saturday races.

Irwin says 150-200 horses are worked on the track each day.

After 50 years in the industry, retiring trainer Graeme Sanders totally agrees with the move by Waipa, Cambridge and Waikato clubs to develop a mega centre in the Waikato where trials, training and racing is all in the same place.

"We need all weather tracks, with the best facilities and latest technology," says Sanders.
"The only way we are going to do it is by selling property.

"The closure of Te Awamutu in a few years time will not affect the likes of the Sanders' Racing Stable in Te Awamutu.

"It's just a simple matter of going somewhere else," he says.

And he agrees cutting costs and improving stake money will be good for the industry.

Fellow Te Awamutu trainer Robert Priscott says this is something that has been mooted over many years and has been recommended in two previous reviews of racing.

"The closure of racecourses in itself will not rectify all of racing's woes and needs savings from the other areas of the racing structure to have any affect," says Priscott.

"As I'm in the twilight of my training career this will not affect me."

Priscott said stake monies will only increase with extra income sources and savings from inside the industry.

"I'm a firm believer that extra stake monies does not increase participation as people go into racing a horse for varied reasons, family, friends, excitement etc not to make money that only comes later after they have raced a horse."

Priscott said the one idea that excites him is the mega racing and training centre in the Waikato.

"It's a great idea but getting all clubs to agree, I'm hopeful but not holding my breath.
"Good luck to those who are trying to push this idea forward."

Industry commentators say the Messara report isn't new information, and is in fact proposing the same solution recommended as long ago as 1965 by the Reid Committee and endorsed in 1970 by the McCarthy royal commission on racing — namely, that New Zealand has too many racetracks.

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

The ultimate short-term target is for racing stakes, particularly in the thoroughbred code, to double, raising the minimum stake to $20,000.

Many in the industry believe that level will be the absolute minimum needed to keep racing financially viable for participants like trainers, jockeys, stable staff and owners.

Messara notes that racing clubs are not the owners of the land they use and suggests these assets should be vested in racing's regulator for the benefit of the thoroughbred industry.

Irwin says Waipa Racing Club does own the land at facilities in Te Awamutu and if the Greenfields proposal goes ahead, the plan would be to sell the assets to invest in the new facility.

Peters had already promised the racing industry three synthetic, or all-weather, tracks to help, with one certain to be built in Waikato and the other two touted for Manawatu and Christchurch.

They could cost between $30-40 million for the three, with half that cost to potentially come from the Regional Development Fund and the other half to be met by the racing industry.

As for the changes to racing governance, Peters says a firm date is not known but indicated he would like to have many of the changes suggested in the report at least under way by the Budget next year.

Irwin also believes it is inevitable the TAB will be outsourced, saying he has been attending industry meetings for some time looking at possible options.

Out-sourcing the TAB's gambling activities will be anything but a straight forward exercise, as NZME understands the three codes — thoroughbred, harness and greyhound racing — in conjunction with NZRB have already tested those waters after suspecting it would be suggested in the report.

Two major overseas players are believed to have been involved in those talks and the money offered up front for the rights to control New Zealand's gambling licence for 25 years as well as the guaranteed returns were underwhelming.

Others have concerns about the impact on national sports organisations should TAB operations be outsourced overseas, mainly the impact on the money national sports bodies receive from the TAB.

That comes from a percentage of bets placed by Kiwi punters on New Zealand-based sports and overseas competitions such as the NBA, English Premier League and Major League Baseball.

However, the report makes no reference to the current agreement where 34 codes receive funding, and Basketball New Zealand chief executive Iain Potter said his impression was that would not change.

"The report says it would be business as usual," Potter says.

"I'll really just take that at face value."

In the past five years, the TAB has pumped more than $32.2 million into the country's basketball, football, tennis, cricket, rugby and league operations.

New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Greg Peters says TAB funding was vital for the sport in this country and the organisation would pay close attention to decisions arising from the Messara Report.

"We're adopting a watching brief on outcomes of the TAB review and once we know these, we can assess from there," he says.

While there seemed little concern at losing vital TAB funding, Potter said Messara's report was focused on the three racing codes, and without a sporting representative on the NZRB, the best interests of sports may be overlooked.

The NZRB comprises six people, including three independent members, as well as nominees from the greyhound, thoroughbred and harness racing codes.

Potter suggested adding a sporting representative was essential if sport in New Zealand was to continue to grow and flourish.