Sunset is far away for an industry that deserves and earns the government support it gets, writes John Allen.
It is 6am, damp and foggy. I'm standing at a racetrack in Matamata while 400 horses are put through their paces. They started at 4am. Just 40km away, a further 500 are undertaking track work in Cambridge.
By the end of the week, local growers and food producers will be installed at Te Rapa Racecourse for the Waikato farmers' market. Further south at Riccarton, the racecourse trustees have reached a deal with Ngai Tahu and the Government to free up land for desperately needed new housing.
Last night, Forbury Park in Dunedin hosted a World War I commemorative meeting.
Far from the starting gates, the race carnivals and fashion parades, this is the modern reality of an industry contributing $1.6 billion in GDP and almost 17,000 full-time jobs to New Zealand.
I have been told by some that racing is a sunset industry. I have heard others say its best days and greatest successes have long passed. But that is not the reality.
Racing is something New Zealanders excel at. We produce some of the world's most skilled and committed jockeys, trainers, drivers, stable hands and strappers.
James McDonald, a 22-year-old jockey who has already won more than $41 million in prize money, has claimed his first Sydney jockeys' premiership. Less than two months ago, Adore Me set a new Australasian record for the fastest pacer over a mile. Dexter Dunn, who is just 25, has become the first Kiwi driver to win the World Championship in 12 years.
Talent of this calibre is not a symptom of failure. It is a sign of success and growth.
It is true that racing is facing challenges. Many are difficult and require tough decisions. But it is equally true that at its core, racing still attracts talented and passionate people and is a significant contributor to the New Zealand economy. With thoroughbred breeding exports alone worth $130 million, there are opportunities overseas. This is an industry that can and will flourish.
The Herald recently dismissed racing as an industry showered in "largesse" and seeking "unfair advantages".
It is correct the Government has offered support in the past. But that is no different from any industry that is pulling its weight in delivering returns to New Zealand. Over a number of generations this industry has delivered on past investments. It is worthy of continuing government investment and attention.
One of the reasons the TAB has a monopoly is to ensure all profits flow back to racing and sports communities. Over the past year, the New Zealand Racing Board has invested $137.4 million back into the local industry and a further $5 million in commission payments to national sporting organisations.
Last year, the New Zealand Racing Board contributed $47.5 million in duties, tax and levies to the Government. For every $100 bet, approximately $2.66 goes to the Government. In Australia, the Victorian government will take less than half of that, and the Queensland government about a third.
The New Zealand Racing Board wants to continue investing in racing and sport. But we need to be more competitive to do that. Our customers are moving online and expect more. We are responding.
Recently we released a mobile app, have changed our IT infrastructure to allow us to be more flexible, and identified the areas of priority investment.
Our job is also to make sure the industry gets a fair return on its investment. That is why it is critical that overseas bookies do not freeload on quality New Zealand sport and racing products. We cannot do that without government assistance.
International corporate bookmakers are increasingly taking bets on New Zealand racing and sport without any benefit flowing back into New Zealand. They contribute nothing back to our domestic racing industry. They give nothing back to our local communities. They pay nothing to the New Zealand Government.
All of this affects the odds they can offer, making it harder for us to compete. It is not a level playing field, and it erodes the investment back into the sport of racing.
That is why I am looking forward to engaging with the other members of the working group to develop recommendations for the Government to consider. This is a great opportunity to ensure that New Zealand continues to benefit from a high-value industry.
John Allen is the chief executive officer of the New Zealand Racing Board.