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Synthetic trackes - White Elephants

NZ Harness Trainers & Drivers Assn
Published by Pete Cook in News · 13 May 2020
I know I’m going to sound horribly ungrateful, but the recent announcement of a windfall for the “Racing Industry” is somewhat of a misnomer – what it actually amounts to is a prop up for the “Thoroughbred Racing Industry.’ In fact, it’s not really even a windfall or prop up for one code only, it’s a biased and politically motivated repayment gift.

I speak of the $20m earmarked for the construction of two synthetic galloping tracks. Let’s face it, we all know how this has come about, as a reward for the substantial financial support given to Mr. Peters at the last election, by the only ones in the Industry who are making big enough money to afford to do that, the thoroughbred breeders.

This money is a very, very late – almost too late - recognition that the racing industry in this Country has been virtually ignored by successive governments and their ineffectual and disinterested Racing Ministers, who appointed various people at huge cost, to mis-manage the whole thing over the last twenty years, while they happily collected tax that has recently been found to be unjustified.

My gripe (well one of them) is that it is the whole racing industry that has suffered as a result of the above, yet the thoroughbred code is being singled out for a $20m gift to improve its’ infrastructure, while the other two get, well, if they’re lucky, a share of the few dollars that will be left after all the TAB debts are paid.

Of course, it goes back to the Messara Report, written by a man from New South Wales who, thanks mainly to huge financial support from his government, has built the local galloping scene into a major success story, and has absolutely no interest in harness racing. Gee, I wonder why the Minister picked him! His take on synthetic tracks was that there should be three built in New Zealand (population five million, about the same as Sydney). Attached to his recommendation he wrote:
“It is acknowledged that synthetic race tracks have had a chequered history.
But they have improved considerably and are now more popular than ever
before. For example, Pakenham’s synthetic track at Tynong has proved a great
success and Racing Victoria are now proposing to build a new one at Ballarat.
The main types of synthetic racing and training surface include Polytrack, Pro-
Ride and Tapeta. Track design and maintenance are other key requirements
for a good synthetic track. The Pakenham experience has been that routine
maintenance costs for a synthetic track are cheaper than for grass but that a
major renovation costing about $300,000 is probably required about once
every 3 years. NZTR will need to consider carefully the best type of synthetic
racing and training surface for each of the proposed 3 synthetic tracks in New
Zealand and ensure that the track design is of the highest standard.
It should also be acknowledged that betting turnover on new synthetic tracks
is likely to be lower initially than for comparable meetings on good grass
tracks, but over time should improve to a comparable level. Pakenham
suggest that the best times to run meetings on synthetic tracks are in winter,
and possibly also the winter shoulder months, when trainers, owners and
punters are much more inclined to support synthetic track race meetings
rather than race meetings on heavy grass tracks. There are also additional
betting turnover benefits generated by synthetic track racing from hosting
otherwise abandoned meetings or hosting transferred meetings due to
adverse weather conditions on better dates. These have been the experiences
at Pakenham and at other synthetic track venues internationally.”

There are a couple of points I’d like to focus on here. First of all, if these things are built, where is the estimated ‘$300k every three years’ (or in other words $1m coming from, the cash strapped TAB? Secondly, and most noteworthy, if these modernistic tracks are so great, why has Mr. Messara not recommended building any in his home state of New South Wales?
As for the argument put up about abandoned meetings, my research reveals that the abandonment of at least half of the galloping meetings comes after the first one or two races. So, what happens then, does everyone magically migrate to the nearest synthetic track to continue?

So, instead of building flash new tracks, Mr. Messara has put as much money as possible into stakes locally, which has obviously worked a treat. It’s ironic that the ones bleating the most about stake levels, the galloping trainers, are more than happy to see $20m thrown at these potential, and expensive to run, white elephants. You can only wonder how such developments are going to attract the new owners and breeders that are desperately needed, even in their code, not to mention the “Racing Industry” as a whole.

Never mind, as is the wish of many politicians, Mr. Peters will have three monuments to look back on fondly a reminder of his time as Racing Minister, even if there’s no one left to use them before he’s gone.

Pete Cook


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