Having been asked on many occasions for our thoughts on harness racing in New Zealand, Marc Hanover and I thought we would share our perspective on what we see as crucial areas of concern (and opportunity), in the hope that we might trigger beneficial industry debate and movement designed to strengthen New Zealand Harness Racing's vitality in these daunting times.
The fundamental issue confronting New Zealand Harness Racing's future will be the industry's effectiveness in creating better racing opportunities for the many harness racing enthusiasts who want active participation, but just can't make a financial go of it under the current system.
As foreigners, both our perspective and concerns may be different from those held by New Zealand harness racing people who race and live in New Zealand on a regular basis, but in an increasingly global world, with global harness racing markets available for wagering and equine exportation, perhaps our views can be as helpful as they will likely be controversial!
For organizational purposes, we will list what we perceive to be the problem areas, followed by a separate section focusing on each of the listed areas of concern.
We will conclude with a listing of New Zealand harness racing positives, of which there are many..
New Zealand harness racing problem areas;
1. ISSUES RELATING TO THE NZ HARNESS RACING ENTRY/PREFERENCE SYSTEM
2. ISSUES RELATING TO NZ HARNESS RACING FAILURE TO CARD SUFFICIENT PREP RACES AND TRIALS AS GUARANTEED LEADUPS TO GROUP AND LISTED RACES
3. ISSUES RELATING TO PROBLEMS CREATED BY HAVING TOO MANY HORSES FROM ONE TRAINER IN GROUP/LISTED RACES AND IN ORDINARY OVERNIGHT RACES
4. ISSUES RELATING TO NZ HARNESS RACING'S OPEN BOOK POLICY ON BREEDING
5. ISSUES RELATING TO PURSE STRUCTURE AND DRIVERS/TRAINER'S FEES/COMMISSIONS
6. ISSUES RELATING TO NZ'S LACK OF FULL INFO ON ALL TRIALS AND WORKOUTS, AND FAILURE TO PROMPTLY MAKE AVAILABLE VIDEOS ON ALL TRIALS/WORKOUTS
7. ISSUES RELATING TO NZ'S FAILURE TO SIMULCAST NZ HARNESS RACING TO NORTH AMERICA
8. ISSUES RELATING TO THE NEED FOR HARNESS RACING NZ TO BE MORE VISIBLE AND PROACTIVE IN ACTIVELY SOLICITING FEEDBACK FROM AND CONTACT WITH ALL INDUSTRY PARTICIPANTS AT ALL MAJOR EVENT DAYS AND SALES DAYS THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY
9. ISSUES RELATING TO VAGUE RULES AND RELEGATION/FINE POLICY
10. ISSUES RELATING TO GUARANTEED ABILITY TO START IN STAKE RACES, OR ELIMINATION HEATS, FOR WHICH EARLY STAKES PAYMENTS ARE MADE
11. ISSUES RELATING TO BROADENING YOUR BETTING OPTIONS
1. ENTRY/PREFERENCE ISSUES – This is one of the most important areas of concern in your racing system. It must be designed to achieve a clear and stated goal appropriate to the problems and realities of today's industry. It must promote a fair and even playing field enabling everyone equal access to racing opportunities and help the bottom/middle tier of owners/trainers/horses who are being pushed out of the business by the current system. From our perspective, recent calls for an Australian type points based system will not materially improve the situation.
We suggest a complete overhaul of your entry/preference system! First, we believe that you need to eliminate your post nomination window in which trainers see who is entered and can then withdraw. We believe this fosters small fields, creates possibilities of intimidation/entry manipulation, and in conjunction with other factors to be explained, works to hurt the middle/lower tier of owners who need to be able to race their horses for reasonable purses – with a chance to win, as long as their horses fit the stated race conditions.
This objective would be best served by instituting a new entry preference system based only on last race date. If horses fit a given class, they would get in only because they had the longest time since their last race. This would promote much more even fields and it would enable the more mediocre horses to race for good money on a regular competitive basis.
A form or points based system will always favor the best performers and winningest horses, which relegates weaker horses eligible to good money classes to lower money events. It also tends to create top heavy races with heavy favorites, smaller fields, and less betting. The old notion that higher quality horses produce bigger pools has long ago been debunked. What drives betting is competitive racing with big fields – at any level!
Your yearling sales have been strong only at the top end because only a handful of horses can really make money. A points or form based system will generally keep the same top competitors racing for good money, but what about the other horses? If you switch to a date based system – which, yes, is used throughout North America – and get rid of the withdrawal window, combined with creating tighter race conditions and limiting overnight races to one starter per trainer, unless insufficient entries are received, you will be creating a new and dynamic system that will re-energize middle tier racing owners and trainers. they must feel they can race for decent stakes for your industry to flourish!
To have competitive racing you must tighten up your classification system by adding also eligible conditions and exclusions that will block out eligible horses that have earned too much money or started in a group/listed/high purse race within a reasonable time frame (perhaps 3 months)
Under your current system, you MUST get rid of your policy of favoring late nominated preference C0 class horses over timely nominated non preference horses! This is a travesty of justice that penalizes those who follow nomination guidelines. It is a terrible by-product of your nomination extension and free withdrawal policy. It is also wrong to give a preference to a horse that has numerous horrible starts over a qualified, but unraced, maiden. Your goal should be to foster everyone's enjoyment from getting their horses raced!
We also strongly recommend that you reconsider your current policy of extending nomination times for stake/group races. From our perspective, those who have entered a stake race as prescribed (especially if early payments were made) should not be subjected to completion from late entrants who benefit from seeing those already entered and from their own neglect to enter on time.
2. LACK OF SUFFICIENT LEAD UP RACING TO YOUR SHOWCASE GROUP/LISTED RACES
New Zealand harness racing's failure to guarantee lead up races to your big events, especially two and three-year-old stake races, presents real obstacles to putting on the best show you can, and significantly restricts a trainer's ability to present a fully fit horse to compete in these events.
Already this year we were forced to skip a group two-year-old race because the qualifier we were going to use as the final prep got cancelled at the last minute because only 14 horses were entered for the trial card. I imagine that the club involved let economic concerns control, but from an owner/trainer's perspective three 4-5 horse trials would've solved the problem, even if some unusual combining of classes/ages would have been needed.
The fact that so many trainers of two and three-year-olds have to resort to preparing their charges via trialing (especially on the South Island) is indictment enough of your prep race scheduling issues! Certainly there are real and varied factors behind the lack of scheduled lead up races, but we suggest that you must find a way to guarantee these preps, even if small fields force a non-tote event.
3. TRAINER ENTRIES
We have earlier suggested that trainers be limited to one starter per overnight event, unless – and only unless – insufficient entries are available at scheduled close of entry time. Even then, we would suggest that under no circumstances can a trainer exceed three horses in any overnight event.
There is no denying the strategic advantages provided to a trainer through more than three entries in a race, and there is also no denying that enabling a narrow top end training bench is counterproductive to broad industry goals such as a top end trainer diversity and full throttle competition in all events.
No doubt this is a touchy topic for many reasons (owners want to be free to go where they choose, trainers benefitting from the current system want to maintain their competitive edge and monopoly over big spending owners), but we have already seen in North America's much larger industry how chilling and off putting excessive trainer entries can be on owner involvement in the industry and on carding competitive events .
Further, public perception of the lack of uniform effort combined with perceived "strategic driving tactics" employed in large trainer entry situations, with the best stewarding possible, are major problems that cannot go ignored just because solutions may ruffle some industry feathers!
In a recent group race with 13 entrants, you had SIX starters trained by the same trainer. That is just unacceptable! To assert that other horses are not unduly affected by that circumstance denies credulity. In fact, reasonable potential yearling purchasers must be reflecting on whether they can expect to compete in big events, with other trainers, and on the wisdom of continuing to pursue a Man Of La Mancha quest! This is not something your industry can allow to continue.
Respecting both trainer and owner concerns, we suggest adoption of a three horse trainer limit in all group/listed races . In reality, top trainers will almost always know which three of their horses for a given stake race are the ones they need to keep. And in many cases, human nature will result in a little loss of concentration on the lesser ones, meaning that other top trainers might well pick up the also rans who, for them, would be stable stars.
In North America, rules such as these have been implemented with both success and controversy, but there is no getting away from the reality that having five or six horse entries in major races is in no one's interest but the lucky trainer basically in control of the race.
Of course, there can be many ways of addressing the obvious questions of when the trainer's decision must be made, of how to ensure the transfer is to a bonifide independent trainer guaranteeing vigorous competition, and of how long to prevent return to the original trainer.
As long as all owners/trainers know the governing rules from the date of yearling purchases, there may well be grumbling, but you will have a much fairer and more competitive product to market.
And this rule should lead to a real recognition of the many top end trainers available, to more trainers being able to make a good living in the industry, and to more owners feeling motivated to compete.
4. OPEN BREEDING BOOKS
As you probably know, North American breeding books are restricted to approximately 140 mares bred in any breeding season. This policy was phased in over a period designed to address financial interests of all perceived parties, and was felt necessary for a variety of reasons including the downstream problems associated with excessive inbreeding caused by disproportionate use of certain stallions, the fact that excessively large books overused some stallions and resulted in massive fluctuations in foal value, and the need to help new stallions generate large enough stallion interest to ensure a steady flow of new stallions and bloodlines to the breeding shed.
Most of our top stallions are syndicated, with few outside breedings available or needed. Also, most of the major breeding farms in North America – unlike yours' – own very large, top end broodmare bands.
So the breeding landscapes are quite different, with the exception that our top stallions are now your top stallions, as well. In past days our best stallions were not really available to your industry, but that time is long gone.has been breeding between 300-500 mares annually in your market for quite a few years, others have been breeding well over 200 annually. Where will all these mares be bred in coming years, what diversity of top end blood lines will be readily available – and desired – by your breeders?
The issue of whether to begin restricting your books is central and vital to the future prosperity of your breeding industry and to the strength and size of your industry, buyer's bench, and breeders. As your farms do not have dominating numbers of broodmares, and as your industry relies on independent breeders (which ours' does not), you must be wary of pushing too many smaller breeders and independents out of the breeding business.
From what we see that is already happening in your industry, in large part because huge books by standout stallions precludes effective competition derived from breeding to other stallions, and to breeding middle market mares to the top stallions.
Limiting books would be a first and necessary step to re-energizing your breeding industry, and to ensuring some diminishing of the inbreeding that will doubtless develop from so few commercial breeding opportunities.
5. PURSE STRUCTURE/DRIVER FEES/TRAINER'S 10% SALE RELATED COMMISSION
We believe that you need to ensure that four horses come out of every race with sufficient purse earnings that three such finishes a month will ensure profitability. Granted, not all horses will race that often or finish top four on a consistent basis, but more owners will be able to make a go out of harness ownership – and that must be the industry objective in these times of diminishing owner benches.
In North America, all harness purses are split 50/25/12/8/5%….if you finish worse than fifth you either get nothing, or in a few jurisdictions, a small amount equal to the minimum driver payment.
From a practical perspective, it is impossible to sustain an owner's bench in these difficult economic times by offering ridiculously small percentages to third and fourth place finishers.
Whether winning owners get 50,60, or 70% will not materially affect their industry participation – it is the lack of financial sustainability for the second thru fourth place finishers that threatens the viability of horse ownership. The 1-2% that you now provide all finishers cannot long keep them going. Unless their horses are good enough to reasonably often finish top four, those horses (and owners) will not long remain in racing!
We suggest seriously restructuring your purse structure to focus on broadening the depth of owners who can realistically look themselves in the mirror and say that racing ownership need not financially devastate them.
Most racehorse owners are so passionate about the sport that they accept financial deprivation for a time, but your purse structure definitely pushes many owners out of the business. Give the winner 50-55%, 2nd. 20-25%, 3rd. 12-15%, 4th. 8-10%, 5th. 5% – and accept the fact that the rest cannot expect more than coverage of minimum driving fees.
Assuming that you want to give drivers a minimum drivers fee regardless of where their horse finishes, it should always be calculated as the minimum fee OR the fee earned by the horse's finish – WHICHEVER IS HIGHER!
It is patently unfair to the owner of top 5 finishers, especially under your current purse distribution splits, to have to give any driver the minimum PLUS the full fee earned by the horse's placing!
It also seems to us to be unrealistic, unfair, and unwise to demand owners to pay a 10% sales commissions to trainers when they sell a horse REGARDLESS of whether or not that horse was profitable with that trainer or whether or not the horse sold for a higher value than it had when it was presented to that trainer.
When a trainer has success with a horse leading to his owner making a profit, the notion of a 10% commission (which could be calculated in a variety of ways) is absolutely fair, and most owners we know would give it to their trainer without being obligated to.
However, it is absurd to compel an owner that takes a loss on a horse and then add to the loss by rewarding a trainer for that result! Partnerships work both ways, and neither party should benefit when the other doesn't.
We have bought many a yearling for $50,000 in NZ, have it earn $10,000, sell it for $20,000 – and then have a trainer request a 10% commission despite our having lost over $40,000, including training bills. This is not a wise industry practice, written or unwritten rule!
6. TRIAL/WORKOUT VIDEOS AND INFORMATION
Perhaps this issue is more important to us, as foreigners, than it might be to New Zealanders, but many Australians own babies in NZ, and many New Zealanders can't get to their horse's trials/workouts for a variety of reasons. As an owner, it is vitally important to be able to assess with our own eyes how our horses perform in trials/workouts, especially with respect to two and three-year-olds.
It is not acceptable that it takes multiple days to get these videos up, that not all such trials are videoed, that full driver/trainer and chart information are not quickly available.
7. SIMULCASTING OF NZ HARNESS RACES TO NORTH AMERICA
It is essential to the growth of your industry to quickly tap into North American wagering and purchasing markets via simulcasting your harness racing to North America. Your thoroughbred racing is often simulcast to North America, with wagering availability here.
It is unacceptable – regardless of the bureaucratic/political reasons behind this situation – that your product is not pushed into North American markets.
The wagering, at the very least, would cover associated costs, but the real benefit would derive from the name and equine familiarity that North Americans would have with NZ trainers/drivers/and racehorses leading inevitably to more North American purchases of NZ horses, and more willingness on the part of major North American owners/trainers to invest in NZ yearlings with an eye to racing them as youngsters in NZ and then bringing them to America or Canada as aged horses.
Getting to put faces to names, seeing your industry participants on a regular basis would bring you many more North Americans willing to participate in your industry as we do.
8. THE NEED FOR GREATER VISIBILITY AND OUTREACH BY NZ INDUSTRY ORGANIZATIONS, ESPECIALLY HARNESS RACING NZ
Harness racing NZ and other important industry associations should be pro-actively reaching out to all segments of the industry – in person – at major race meetings, sales, and events.
Directors and administrators of these organizations need to get out into the field, make themselves easily approachable by bettors, breeders, owners (big and small), and aggressively seek out the thoughts, opinions, concerns from all corners of the industry. It is not enough to believe that industry representatives speak for all elements of the industry, and it would generate some enthusiasm in the industry if harness racing NZ directors seriously made themselves approachable and available to everyone at the yearling sales and periodically at each NZ racetrack.
Just being at the sales or big race nights is not enough – there must be unmistakable visibility combined with real interest in approaching and soliciting input from attendees! Racing, no less than any business, must be run with visible concern for the thoughts of everyone involved in the industry.
Credibility and industry enthusiasm will follow in the footsteps of enthusiastic, open minded, forward looking, approachable leadership.
9. RELEGATION/FINE POLICY AND THE NEED FOR RULE CLARITY
Perhaps your relegation and fine policy has progressed from where it used to be when we were much more often in NZ, but we were always struck by the breadth of interpretation allowing for inconsistent rule applications.
We also fail to understand how drivers can be fined or suspended for significant matters involving interference without relegation accompanying the fine. If the action was serious enough to warrant a fine (regarding interference), how could the horse not be put behind the horse affected?
Rules allowing stewards too much room for interpretation usually only cause controversy!
The recent uncertainty concerning WAIKIKI BEACH's eligibility for the JEWELS reflects the problems associated with creating ambiguous rules.
Rules governing foreign invites to JEWEL races should be clear, common sense based, and not open to interpretation.
If the objective is to ensure that the JEWELS attract the strongest field possible, and that an invite is offered to the most accomplished horse in each category based on Australian performance, than why allow in extraneous factors that lead to a contrary result?
With respect to relegation, it is hard to understand any conclusion other than taking a horse down if it improperly interfered with another horse, affecting that horse's performance. To try to assess if the affected horse MIGHT not have passed the interfering horse is unnecessary and problematical. If only to encourage safer driving, interference should result in relegation!
Also, it is important in multi horse trainer entries (even if uncoupled for betting purposes), to seriously consider relegating all the trainer's horses if one is relegated. While harsh, and in some ways unfair to an unaffiliated owner, it will significantly address some concerns regarding how a trainer can overly control a race thru a disproportionate field presence.
10. THE NEED FOR GUARANTEED STARTING ABILTY FOR ALL HORSES PAID INTO STAKE RACES AS A WEANLING/YEARLING
We touched on this point in an earlier section. If early payments are made as weanlings/yearlings to keep a horse eligible to a NZ stake race , that horse must be given a chance in an elimination race to qualify. Otherwise, all payments made should be refunded!
This would only apply to horses qualified and ready to race in time to have raced in elimination races, or in a Final, if no eliminations were offered.
11. NEW BETTING OPTIONS
If possible, you might consider offering some new wagering options that have had a big, positive impact here in North America, as well as some innovative ones now being discussed.
Two, in particular, come to mind. THE SUPER HI FIVE has revolutionized betting here. Many tracks now offer it in North America, including the Meadowlands, Mohawk and Woodbine in Canada, Pompano and Hawthorne. It is a carryover bet in which the bettor must pick the first five finishers in exact order AND have the only ticket on that combination. If more than one ticket exists, a significant percentage of the wagered pool carries over to the next racing night, with approximately 25% of the wagered pool split amongst the winning ticket holders.
This has produced pools in excess of $1,000,000 in Canada, and payouts in excess of $200,000.
There are specified mandatory payout dates, where payout will occur regardless of the number of correct tickets on that race.
Another slant on this concept under some discussion here is the creation of a bet wherein one would have to pick the winner of every race on the program. The bet amount would be small, perhaps 20 cents. The difference here would be that there would be a mandatory payout each night to whoever picked the most consecutive winners beginning in race one. One need not pick all ten races correctly, one need only be the last to miss a race (ties would be paid out). The real key would be that the track would nightly guarantee a minimum starting pool to induce betting.
If, for example, someone could win $50,000 each race night, the benefits and publicity to racing could be significant!
In metropolitan areas there is a good chance that betting could, quite quickly, surpass the guarantees. Combining the SUPER HIGH FIVE occasional, very high payout bet with a different, nightly payoff guaranteed pool bet might really be an exciting wagering advance!
You also could look at the V75 bet that has proven so successful in Sweden, and the tierce/lottery concept wagered on in France.
POSITIVE ASPECTS OF NZ HARNESS RACING
1. Incredible enthusiasm among industry participants, and at the racetracks on racing days. Our favorite track, worldwide, is Addington. The level of on track enthusiasm on a consistent basis is unmatched at any other track we have visited!
2. Varied distance racing, large fields, and standing start races combine to create a uniquely fresh and exciting aspect to NZ harness racing lacking here in North America. Our racing is too predictable, with too many favorites, and is uniquely uninteresting if viewed too frequently. Here, harness racing is primarily a gambling business where it is a way of life in NZ!
3. You have one time, lifetime licensing….we have to get licensed and fingerprinted every 1-3 years in every racing jurisdiction we compete in within North America.
4. Your horses have improved light years in all respects within the past decade. Your best horses are now equal to ours, no doubt about it!
5. Your TV coverage of major race nights is far more interesting and well handled than are those produced by our tracks (with the possible exception of our LITTLE BROWN JUG coverage, which is exceptional)
6. Your racetracks handle distribution of purses won much more conveniently and simply than is done in the States. Your direct deposit/one time registration policies are fantastic!
7.Your Birdcage, your treatment of and benefits for owners, and your handling of paddock access are excellent, and vastly superior to the minor benefits extended to owners in North America. Perhaps a little more focus on owner's stories and on post race owner interviews might prove helpful! The standard post race interviews of trainers and drivers is too predictable, and giving visibility to owners might prove a boon to attracting some of their friends into the game…..
8. Your use of thoroughbred-like parade rings is brilliant! It provides patrons with proximity to both the horses and drivers, and really adds a lot to the race going experience. Tracks here should definitely follow suit!
9. Your NZ harness racing employees are both knowledgeable and extremely courteous. Being so far away, they have been a lifeline for us!
Marc Hanover & Gordon Banks