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Pressure on to provide alternative winter footing

Pressure is mounting on the thoroughbred racing industry to solve the conundrum of raceday abandonments due to unsafe or unsuitable racing surfaces during periods of inclement weather that has once again reared its ugly head in recent months.

Last season 34 race meetings were abandoned which has seen renewed calls for the Industry’s governing body, New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing (NZTR), to find a solution to what has become a blight on the national racing scene.

While debate has raged for a number of years about the merits of installing one or more synthetic or artificial track surfaces close to our strategic horse populations, little progress has been made.

That situation may be about to change as NZTR boss Bernard Saundry has indicated finding a solution to the issue is one of his main priorities as he settles into his new position.

The former Racing Victoria chief executive doesn’t have to look too far for a possible solution, having considerable experience with the development of the new Pakenham Racing Club operation in Australia during his previous role.

In 2008, the Pakenham committee made the monumental decision to sell their existing property to establish a state-of-the-art complex at a new location that encompasses dual racing surfaces (grass and synthetic). The track also hosts night racing.

The move was in response to a decision by Racing Victoria to downgrade the status and number of meetings at the club’s existing venue which threatened their future.

“It was a brave decision by the club to embark on such an ambitious project,” Pakenham chief executive Michael Hodge said.

“It is fair to say the wider industry didn’t share our enthusiasm in the early days and it was very tough to get any momentum going.”

Over a period of six years the club developed a blueprint for success that saw them move to a new site, which was developed to incorporate a 2000 metre Polytrack racing surface with a 350 metre home straight along with a separate 2400 metre turf track that surrounds the artificial surface.

Attached to the complex are stabling facilities or allotments that have been built in stages as demand increases from trainers to relocate to the new set-up along with raceday hospitality and administrative venues. They also generate crucial non-raceday revenue opportunities to support the club’s racing activities.

“We had a few advantages in that we owned our own track so the sale contributed a big chunk of the $100 million we were going to need,” Hodge said. “We also had our own gaming and hospitality operation that also contributed heavily to our funding.

“As the wheels began to turn, Racing Victoria got in behind us as did the local Victorian government and we started to make steady progress.

“By late 2014 we were nearly at the stage where we could get racing underway and we held our first meeting at the new location on March 26, 2015.”

Asked to outline what success looks like for the new venue, Hodge proudly points to some significant statistics.

“Currently we underpin Victoria’s Thursday night wagering circuit with $7-$9 million in turnover each week, which makes it the fourth largest wagering hub for the state,” he said.

“In addition to this, the club runs up to 10 transfer race-meetings per annum from other tracks. This is saving the Industry up to $500,000 a year in reducing lost and abandoned meetings via lost wagering turnover and other costs. That is a very significant economic benefit to the industry and region.

“We are currently selling the third stage of our training facility allotments which is about 24 months ahead of where we thought we would be when we started off.  Stages one and two have been developed with 34 allotments in total.

“The boost to our horse population through trainers locating to the complex has underpinned the strength of our racing and that will only get better as we satisfy the demand we have for more space.

“Our hospitality venues also contribute $4-$5million a year to our operations and that is also expected to grow in the future.”

Hodge is unequivocal about what is required to achieve a successful outcome with the introduction of an artificial racing surface.

“While plainly you won’t satisfy everyone, you must get the buy-in and acceptance of the trainers to make it work,” he said.

“They need to have confidence in the racing surface to provide a fair and level playing field. Once the trainers have that faith you then get the punters on board and it grows from there.

“One of the key decisions we took was to establish the artificial surface first and make that world class before incorporating the grass. The design meant we could establish specialist chutes that allow proper starts for a range of distances rather than being dictated to by the confines of an existing grass surface.

“We undertook comprehensive research into what type of surface would suit the local climate and we used world-class contractors to build the thing.

“While we have experienced a few minor issues we are working on them with that remedial activity made far easier through the initial development work we did right from day one.”

One of those impressed by the Pakenham set-up is New Zealand Trainers’ Association president Tony Pike, who recently visited several Australian venues with artificial racing surfaces to see first-hand what options for a New Zealand solution could look like.

“I had the opportunity to look at some of those Australian all-weather tracks when a group of us visited for three days back in June,” he said.

“Pakenham was one of the places we went to and I was impressed with what is being built there.

“The complex is very impressive and both the grass and artificial surfaces received praise from the various industry people we spoke with.

“While the artificial will never replace grass track racing, you can certainly see where it has an important role to play in the industry.

“We are at the stage in New Zealand where we have to do something drastic as the current level of abandonments is killing us. Our grass tracks are getting hammered and the double whammy is when we get to the spring and summer they can’t cope thanks to the beating they got during the winter.

“I don’t think just one artificial track will be enough but we have to start somewhere and that work has to become a major priority for our governing body.” - NZ Racing Desk

Pics:  Bruno Cannatelli