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Thoroughbred racing still 'a way of life'

Thoroughbred racing still 'a way of life'

The song says “down under they’re mad over their rugby, racing and beer.”  The Rugby World Cup proves that two of the three are still relevant but what about the racing—and the horse breeding?

In 1936, O. N. Gillespie claimed in New Zealand Railways Magazine that New Zealand was the Land of the Thoroughbred. “The natural advantages of our country for this specific purpose are overwhelming, but the art or science of breeding depends finally on the skill of its practitioners. I believe the brightest pages of our first century’s history will be those that tell of the achievement of our studmasters.”

In a sense he is right, but the reason for creating this bloodline, and the markets where it now excels, has totally changed.

Fast forward to recent times when headlines like ‘The Avondale Jockey Club has suspended racing because of financial problems’ started to appear. Club president Ron Murphy blamed the combination of economic downturn with dynamic changes in the gambling industry, but with a decrease in prize money stakes across the board, fragmentation in the industry and more race tracks closing up shop or staging fewer events, is there more ahoof?

Murphy says while the recently released New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR) funding model impacted favourably on his club, it did not provide enough relief for it to work its way back into positive territory. The funding model is the result of a business plan developed by the racing body in the face of declining revenues and a particularly boggy economic climate. Penned at the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, the barrel that racing was staring down was the reality of facing a year on year fund reduction of $14 million—the equivalent of a 17 percent decrease.

Like a race horse, the industry would either be in need of some very strong performance drugs or might even need to be put down. A number of belt tightening exercises—including the contentious reduction of total funding for all race meetings and major cuts in venue and carnival support—has been bitter but necessary medicine.

If the industry is feeling a tad unloved at the moment it is possibly because there was so much happiness flowing in those halcyon days when the Rt Hon Winston Peters was Minister of Racing. Dianne Haworth, in her 2007 biography of Cambridge Stud owner Sir Patrick Hogan entitled Give a Man a Horse, captures this. “[Peters] is the best racing minister New Zealand has ever had,” Hogan gushes. “He’s done a wonderful job and I just hope whoever wins the next election will keep him on.”

And the reciprocation was clear: “I’m a great admirer of Sir Patrick because - I won’t beat about the bush - I like the way he dresses and I like the way he talks. He’s smart - he’s a handsome guy. He’s professional to the nth degree. There are not many men who’ve got the charm and the dash and who are straight and direct at the same time.”

In the 2006 budget, Peters went well beyond the call of duty by delivering a reduction in totalisator duty from 20 percentto 4 percent, putting an annual injection of $32 million into industry coffers, but also offering other generous tax write-offs. The main beneficiaries of his millions of dollars largesse were the wealthy breeders and owners. More was to follow—including whiffs of scandal and favouritism—that eventually led to questions being asked and new measures put in place to curb it.

Former Racing Minister John Carter saw the writing on the stable wall and insisted integrity had to return to the sport, along with a more realistic fiscal approach.

“Every time another person turns their back on racing because they perceive it is not a ‘clean’ sport, that move impacts on the incomes of those who make their living from this industry. Participation is critical to the viability of racing. New Zealand racing faces a wagering decline of $1.2 billion in the past 25 years. People will not invest in an industry—with time or money—if they don’t believe in its integrity.”

Those continuing to dedicate themselves to the cause are the likes of Westbury Stud general manager Warwick Russell. The love of the sport and animals are the main motivators for getting out of bed each day, as well as the opportunities for our horses in markets overseas (our horse exports to Australia and Asia last year were worth about $450 million).

“Thoroughbred racing is a way of life for many New Zealanders. The industry employs close to 40,000 people and is a major export earner for the country. To achieve success in the business does not come easy. A deep passion and the dedication to commit endless hours of work and care towards shaping the horse into a money making or successful entity are pre-requisites.”

No-one knows where the next champion will originate from and this is why, Russell says, so many keep up their involvement.

“If it came down to the person with the most money guaranteed to get the best horse, it would take a lot of people out of the industry and become the real ‘Sport of Kings’. There is an old saying that goes something like ‘no man has ever committed suicide while they have an untried horse in the stable’—meaning that while you still have an untried horse that could be a champion there is still a chance you are holding the winning Lotto ticket.”

Regardless of any downturn in local racing, the place of the New Zealand thoroughbred in the world of racing remains influential.

“The New Zealand horse has always been a well respected competitor worldwide and the past 12 months has shown this is still the case,” Russell says. “The best 2000 metre horse in the world at the moment is arguably So You Think, a New Zealand bred horse, and the success of Kiwi horses in jurisdictions such as Australia, Asia, and South Africa continues on a weekly basis. Australia boasts one of the most successful racing systems in the world and the fact that New Zealand-bred horses won 31 percent of the black type elite races run in Australia with just 5% of the runners is an amazing statistic and one which emphasises the success our horses enjoy.”

He agrees a change in governance should improve things and attract back both investors and those looking for a career. He also believes it is imperative to give the players enough incentive by seeing reasonable levels of prize money returned to the stakeholders.

Those on the other sides of equestrian sport and business that have benefited from their association with the New Zealand thoroughbred have also seen some dramatic changes in their operations. It used to be sub-standard race horses, or those that had run their course but still had talent and life in the blood, that would participate in the likes of show jumping, dressage and eventing. Various changes to FEI competitions—mainly driven out of Europe and, some say, introduced to disadvantage our horses and competitors—led to warm bloods being better suited over the New Zealand thoroughbred. While there are opportunities to export our horses, other countries have identified New Zealand as an equally good marketplace to enter.

Former competitor and now national and international equine agent Penny Stevenson started at the grass roots as a pony mad kid who had to sell her horses to fund better ones and keep progressing. This became a business that grew locally and then internationally.

“Initially I found building networks internationally kept the business on the go and the more I sold the more demand came out of that. I find now that it is a lot harder to sell horses within New Zealand but still there is some good demand overseas. Over the past two years we’ve have good success sourcing warm blood show jumpers in Europe. We are now importing them for clients we have here.”

While she says this is most likely the way of the future she believes trends can also change quite quickly. As such, she has consciously diversified her spheres of sale and influence and now sells eventers, ponies, amateur horses for adults and riding school horses.

Olympic show jumper and New Zealand champion John Cottle used his sporting acumen as the entry point for horse breeding and international sales. Connections with Japan and, in particular, a member of the Japanese royal family, helped create a sustained period of making hay while the Rising Sun shined.

“That market was incredibly strong and helped to bring significant money into our sport and also breeding programmes. Then, things changed. A great many Japanese riders went to Europe to train and started sending purpose-bred European horses back to Japan. These were well bred, well trained and considerably cheaper.”

Cottle says the sport now has more options in breeding stock and lines with a huge influx of purpose-bred warm bloods and sport horses from Europe coming into the country. Nevertheless, he says, many of these also rely on bloodlines from New Zealand thoroughbreds to increase value and competitiveness.

Others say New Zealanders need to ‘get real’ in terms of their expectations. Exchange rate fluctuations, added to the price of transport which can be as much as $25,000 per horse, have to be factored into the deal. Bearing in mind that prices in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom have fallen by as much as 30 percent, horse marketers need to relook at their pricing.

Craig Sharp of Manuka Sport Horses has brought European bloodlines to New Zealand through the introduction of Swedish Warmbloods. And he says the difference in attitude to horse breeding between this country and Europe (in France it is considered an agricultural industry and attracts subsidies) has created some challenges.

“You’re finding that people here with the means to import a European horse will do so for bragging rights. This is not good news for New Zealand breeders. Nor is the fact that often some of the breeding warm blood stallions that are coming to this country are no longer wanted, or desired, in Europe. In a sense we’re getting the ‘left overs’ that others don’t want but many don’t seem to realise it.”

Nevertheless, the passion for horses seems to be the factor that keeps most persevering. Says Westbury’s Russell: “There is no better feeling than seeing a horse you have owned or bred or trained win and the pleasure we get working with these great animals is often rewarding enough. The fact remains that many of us look to maintain an income from the business as well and therefore have to balance the commercial side with the pleasurable side.”

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.