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Down and Out – Maybe Not

NZ Harness Trainers & Drivers Assn
Published by Pete Cook in News · 17 April 2020
Like many people at the moment, it’s a bit tough filling in the day on occasions so, after watching my archives of race winning videos (always good for the spirits), and becoming a bit bored with the tedium of the Australian races, I found myself flicking through a few of the old Trotting Annuals put out by the late Ron Bisman.
For obvious reasons, the mood around industry participants is anything but positive at the moment, but having read the article below, it is a timely reminder that harness racing has been in deep strife before and bounced back. Obviously not all of it is relevant to the current situation, but hopefully some of you will find it enlightening.
The season 1971-72 was one in which New Zealand trotting was poised on crossroads from which it could wend a downward trail to disaster or climb an upward path to success. You could say, pretty well, that things had come to a head.

Due to an amazing lack of foresight on the part mainly of the Government officials over the years, trotting's success and popularity in this country has not been matched by even a fraction of the encouragement it should have received.
Pandering to a wowser element, the politicians of this country have long been loath to offer the horse sports any extra racing permits; persistent overtures from trotting administrators over many years for more dates have resulted in a mere pittance being granted.
Such was trotting's need that when the Royal Commission into Racing, Trotting and Greyhound Racing sat to hear sub­missions from all involved beginning in 1970, it was informed by the Trotting Conference that clubs in this code required a total of about 70 additional racing permits.
For some reason, the Racing Conference, the sister sport's governing body, at this time made it fairly clear that it wasn't overly interested in securing more dates for its clubs.
I am sure that this was not truly representative of the feeling amongst the actual galloping horsemen, but there it was.
At any rate, this probably contributed in no small measure to the Commission recommending that only 12 trotting permits be added to the standing roster.
In other words, the sitting of the Commission and the time taken to implement its suggestions has probably meant that trotting is to get only 12 extra permits three years, at least, after it needed 70.
The remarkable part about all of this is that in not encouraging trotting - which is proving it is bursting at the seams-the Government is throwing away all sorts of revenue that could be derived from same.
With the paucity of opportunities for the professional men in the game aggravated by the rising costs of feed and labour, there is now nothing in it even for the best horsemen.
Disgusted with a situation whereby as undisputed top-dog reinsman of the north he was able only to make ends meet with no real spoils to show for his dexterity and success, Auckland's Peter Wolfenden, at the height of his driving career here, made the shock announcement this year that he would move to Australia to accept a position that would earn him more money. As farm manager and supervisor of the education and training of the big string of standardbreds run by wealthy New South Welshman Jack Honan, Wolfenden can probably expect to be at least three times better off financially than he was here.
Shortly after Wolfenden announced his decision to move out, the north's top professional trainer over recent years, Roy Purdon, announced his intention to switch from a "big-time" professional role to a part-farmer-part-horseman operation.
Wolfenden and Purdon agreed there was nothing in it even for men at the top, and Wolfenden's contention that other horsemen just below the top rung were in financial difficulty was confirmed by several of his contemporaries in also announcing near season's end that they were seriously considering upping stumps and heading across the Tasman for the much more fruitful trotting fields there.
In desperation, heads of numerous trotting organisations in the north got together in July and drafted a scheme whereby bi-monthly equalizator meetings under lights at Alexandra Park in the new season were planned, with two penalty-bearing non-tote races ( worth $550 apiece for maidens, and so on) and various other non-penalty events with $200 purses on each programme.
This supplementation of the nation's meagre racing schedule was at least a step in the right direction. But there is a long way to go before trotting is set up in the comfortable situation that it deserves in this country, where it not only has great spectator appeal but produces standardbreds capable of racing so well in America as to be a sought-after prod­uct, earning millions of dollars by way of sales.
Horses like Cardigan Bay, Caduceus, False Step, Arania, Robin Dundee, Cardinal King, Good Chase and Leroy, among others, have shown beyond doubt that New Zealand can produce the goods when it comes to standardbred talent.
And, really, it is this great overseas market inspired by topliners of that calibre that has kept trotting solvent (if it could be called that) in this country.
In recent years, however, Australia, once bridesmaid to New Zealand on the trotting front, has caught and passed her little cousin. A Kiwi winner of an Inter­dominion Grand Final is now something of a rarity, whereas until a decade ago we dominated the series.
If this trend continues and our status slips further, Americans will pay more and more attention to Australian horses and performances, and less and less to ours.
I honestly believe that New Zealand will always produce the goods, because the main ingredient is the wonderful breeding ground New Zealand is.  Just the same, we must have sufficient racing in which to allow our horses to show themselves off.
So it is to be sincerely hoped that the new National Racing Authority, now being established on the recommendation of the Royal Commission, will quickly see that its foremost duty, to trotting at least, is to give it the permits it requires…..and quickly, too.
A new stakes subsidy fund that the Authority has been given power to administer could also be a shot in the arm for both trotting and galloping codes if handled well.
There is thus some room for optimism over the immediate future of trotting, for, as they say, things couldn't get worse and must get better soon.
Pete Cook

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