Michelle Saba recently caught up with Kieran McAnulty, who has been in his new role as Minister for Racing since June.
As a politician with a lifelong exposure to racing, it was a portfolio he has always hoped to hold and he is delighted to be in the role. He is loquacious as a politician should be, seems to have a dry sense of humour and is quick to share a laugh and a joke. Regardless, he does come across as very genuine in his enthusiasm and his understanding of the industry he is representing.
His passion for the industry stems from having worked in and around racing for many years and coming from a wider family that are passionate supporters of the industry.
The former bookmaker turned politician is looking forward to helping racing flourish in New Zealand.
“When you have a love for something and a desire to see it do well, when you become a member of parliament and then have the opportunity to become a minister then you have real skin in the game and you try and do what you can to set the industry up for the future,” he explained.
McAnulty is the Member of Parliament for Wairarapa, and when not at Parliament he lives in Masterton. He is Wairarapa born and bred, having been born in Eketahuna, where both sets of parents were also raised. His Aunt and Uncle had a TAB in that town and another Aunt and Uncle had a TAB in Tauranga. He admits to spending a lot of Saturdays as a youngster with his grandparents and the wider family watching Trackside Television.
He was educated locally and while at Chanel College in Masterton one of his teachers, Eric Johanson, had a useful horse and would regale his students with stories of how his horses performed at the weekend. His first part-time job was working in the tote at the Masterton Greyhound track and his mother worked as a tote operator for over 35 years.
Even at Otago University, where he went to study Political Science, the attraction to a TAB was impossible to resist. He flatted next door to the former infamous student pub the Captain Cook, which housed the only TAB in north Dunedin.
McAnulty was also a skilled rugby player, and the opportunity to play rugby in Ireland followed university and once again it was racing that played a part in evolving his pre-politics career as a bookmaker.
“The club captain of the team I was playing for, his father owned half a dozen bookie shops in County Cork where I was based,” McAnulty said.
“I was talking to him one day about my love of racing and he employed me on the spot to manage one of his shops and that is where it all kicked into gear.
“I don’t think I would have got a job as a bookie at the New Zealand TAB if I hadn’t had that experience in Ireland. Because they were independent bookies it wasn’t just a case of processing the bets through a terminal, you had to assess the liability of the bets and look at the odds accordingly, and that was pretty good grounding to get the job at the TAB as a bookmaker.”
McAnulty was at the TAB for seven years, so enters his role as Minister with a good understanding of betting, the revenue it generates and the jobs it supports. He left that role to become an Economic and Development Manager for the Masterton District Council and maintains that the role was similar to bookmaking in that you are looking at data and statistics in order to make clear assessments and predict trends.
He left that role after 18 months when he was elected to Parliament in 2017. His experience in that role stands him in good stead for one of his other portfolios, Associate Minister for Local Government.
As the Minister for Racing McAnulty is acutely aware of how important the racing industry is to the economy and the community. He knows that many question the need for a Racing Minister, and is keen to highlight the importance of the industry at every opportunity.
“The racing industry contributes just as much to the New Zealand economy as the fishing industry, yet nobody is questioning whether we need a Fisheries Minister,” he said.
“So I think that anybody who doesn’t have much insight into the racing may overlook the fact that racing is more than just going to the track and having a punt, it is actually a significant export industry.
“New Zealand is held up as one of the highest calibre countries in the world in terms of our thoroughbred breeding and export programme and in order for that to continue to be successful we need a sustainable and successful domestic racing scene.
“If you look at it in purely economic forms, the domestic racing scene is the platform from which we promote our products and one can’t happen without the other.
“I think that everyone involved in the industry has a role to play. We are all ambassadors for the industry, we know that we are facing challenges and in order to meet them we may have to convince people who haven’t had a background in racing or have the insight we have, it means we need to convince them as to why those challenges are worthy of being addressed.
“I think for example the challenges that are being presented by offshore bookmakers, online betting for example and also things like the social licence of the industry. I am pretty keen to work with all stakeholders in the industry and partner with them to help highlight the benefits of racing and also particularly from a thoroughbred and trotting perspective, the lengths that people go to ensure the highest possible animal welfare standards are kept.
“I think there is an opportunity for all of us to not only highlight the lengths that people go to, to ensure the integrity of the industry and the welfare of the horse, but the importance of the industry to the economy.
The NZTBA has long held the view that breeding horses is a primary industry and should be treated as such, though it has struggled to change the perception of the general population as to its importance.
McAnulty agrees and believes that this perception is also reflected in Parliament and this is something that needs to be addressed.
“In Parliament it needs pointing out that there are two aspects to the racing industry - the wagering side which is administered by Internal Affairs, and the breeding, the training and the exporting which is very much a primary industry,” he said. “Essentially what breeders are doing is through expert knowledge, expert skills and expert training of a product. You are producing a product that is in demand from consumers overseas and that is the same as every other primary producer.”
Like every other primary producer and employer in New Zealand currently, the industry in both the racing and breeding sectors is facing a chronic staffing shortage. Both sectors rely heavily on overseas staff and the breeding industry especially for seasonal stud work and yearling preparations.
These roles do not appear on the job shortage list across the country, they are only highlighted in specific regions and navigating visa requirements seems to be difficult at best.
The Minister was not aware of these problems but stated he was open to play a part in assisting where he could, now that the borders are open again and adjustments have been made to immigration.
“I actually think there is a real opportunity for the racing industry as a whole to be able to bring in the skills that we need,” he said.
“The industry can clearly demonstrate genuine attempts to attract and retain local skills and I have seen myself there is huge opportunity within the racing industry.
“There is two things there, one is being able to use the newly adjusted immigration settings to bring in the skills we need but I think also it’s really important for us as a partnership between the government and the industry to highlight the career opportunities that exist.
“We all know stories of champion trainers or breeders that started out as a stablehands at the start of their career and they can just go from one step to another and really progress in the industry. Not every industry can say that.
“I think we have a really good story to tell in racing and so yes, I think by all means we should bring in the overseas skills that we need, we have always done that. We have always had strong partnerships with other countries and leveraged their off-season to benefit our season, but I also do believe that even in a competitive labour market if we tell the story right then we can attract local skills to the industry as well.”
McAnulty has also dabbled in racehorse ownership, being part of a syndicate which raced Chuckaluck from the Pitman stable in Christchurch. By Niagara and bred by one of McAnulty’s constituents Chris Walker, he had eight starts for a win and six placings including a second in the Gr.3 War Decree Stakes. He followed that up with a sixth placing in Catalyst’s 2000 Guineas, before being sold to Australia, where he won the Mornington Guineas.
“There’s no industry if there are no owners,” said McAnulty who sees this as an ongoing problem for the industry.
“I think there is a longstanding concern that the number of owners investing in the industry has been steadily reducing over time. There have been small increases but much like any graph the trend is deafening.
“A broader consideration is how we can continue to promote ownership in the industry. It is crucial and whenever I go to the races or meet with stakeholders that’s the question that I ask them as I am very keen to hear the insight of those that are involved.
“For example, I took great pleasure out of having a share in a racehorse it was a wonderful experience and I will definitely be getting back into it, but I think that if we can highlight the benefits of ownership and the highlights you get out of it, as well as the opportunity for a positive financial return from a purely investment perspective, then the more owners we have the more interest in the industry, the more sponsorship we get, the more stakes we get it all flows down to that.”
“We need to ensure that punters are punting on New Zealand racing and that people are attracted into investing into it as an owner as well.”
McAnulty went on to say that even in his role as Associate Minister for Local Government he gets to talk about racing and how far it reaches across the country. Having that portfolio has seen him travelling around New Zealand and liaising with local bodies and he noted that in every town that has a racetrack the local mayor always stressed the importance of that track to its community.
His own electorate goes from the bottom of the North Island, from Cape Palliser right up the East Coast to Waipawa in Central Hawkes Bay. It is a big area that covers Tauherenikau and the old Masterton track which is only used for training, along with Woodville and the Waipukurau track which is also only used for training purposes, as that club now races out of Hastings.
“There’s a long-standing proud racing history within my area,” he said.
“Tauherenikau is such an amazing track, one of the most beautiful in the country. They are fortunate, I will concede, that they have two prime race days, the second of January and Waitangi Day. You go along and you see families having picnics, it’s a great family atmosphere the place is absolutely packed and everyone is enjoying themselves in a safe environment, and I think this is the future of racing. This is what it’s all about.”
One thing is for sure if you ever run into this bookie turned politician, I’m pretty sure he would be happy to have a chat about the industry, it’s obvious it’s a passion of his. -Michelle Saba, NZTBA