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NZTR Chief Executive charts a new course for the industry

Paul Bittar, new Chief Executive of NZ Thoroughbred Racing

Paul Bittar, new Chief Executive of NZ Thoroughbred Racing
"I want to champion New Zealand thoroughbred racing, and it's fair to say, I'm not here for practice."

So says Paul Bittar, new Chief Executive at New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, who was a guest speaker at Tuesday's NZTBA Council and Branch Representatives' meeting in Auckland.

His audience included many experienced New Zealand racing and breeding participants who have seen several new faces come and go over the years as the thoroughbred industry has struggled to deal with its challenges. Paul's presentation and the positive response to it indicated that the NZTR board may have found the man to lead the long overdue renaissance of thoroughbred racing in this country.

Australian-born Paul, 35, is a qualified accountant and worked with Coopers and Lybrand before a stint in funds management. A period overseas was followed by four years with Racing New South Wales and 18 months with the British Horseracing Board. Paul made it clear that his move to New Zealand was driven by his desire for a professional challenge, which he admitted is even bigger than he imagined.

The British racing industry he comes from is a fine example of what can be achieved. After an extended period of reform, it is now enjoying record attendances, wagering turnover and prizemoney (more than £100 million in 2004), as well as record numbers of horses, owners and race-meetings. As a result of that unprecedented growth, the UK is one of only three countries that has increased its foal crop, by 16% in 2005.

Paul acknowledged New Zealand's proud tradition of "punching above its weight" in the thoroughbred world, but warned that the industry is in danger of becoming irrelevant, both domestically and internationally. His response is to emphasise the status of racing as a business first and a sport second, and to take a much more commercial approach to the management of that business. Paul has already identified some priorities for New Zealand thoroughbred racing under his leadership:

1. The industry must continue to push for taxation reform and ensure that its benefits flow through to the industry. Additional income should be directed not only into stakes, but also into the long-term development of the investment base, including owners and breeders, and new sources of funding.

2. Under Section 16 of the Racing Act thoroughbred racing concedes more than $5 million each year to the other two racing codes. Paul says, "This is an anomaly that shouldn't exist and must be addressed." He acknowledged the NZTBA's role in working for tax reform and highlighting the Section 16 anomaly.

3. The UK has 59 racetracks for a population of approximately 60 million people and only one of them doesn't have a genuinely viable business model. New Zealand has 52 tracks for a population of four million people. We need to establish our strategic venues and develop successful business models around them.

4. Much more information about how clubs operate is needed in order to construct effective business models for them. There is no reason for any club, even one that races once a year, not to be successful and profitable. It is not about closing out the small communities.

5. A concerted effort is needed to attract and keep owners. That includes improving track facilities and NZTR's own services to owners. Paul stresses that this is a code responsibility, not the job of the Racing Board. For example, he estimates there may be up to $750,000 lost to the industry each year in the form of GST paid on industry fees by non-GST-registered owners. Eliminating these fees and reviewing how prizemoney is distributed would allow that money to be retained in the industry.

6. Paul is insisting on a professional and customer-oriented approach at NZTR. This requires changes to the organisation's culture and the way it uses technology.

7. The Thoroughbred Bonus Scheme is currently being reviewed and Paul flagged that he is interested in considering other bonus scheme models, to assist breeders and owners.

Paul answered a wide range of questions from Councillors and branch representatives on several topics including:

Betting exchanges – "I'm not a sympathiser for Betfair, but a lot of the debate in this part of the world was irrational. We need to understand why people bet with exchanges: they do so because they can get 7/4 on a 6/4 chance.
"Betting exchanges raise funding and integrity concerns, but mainly funding. We need to make our own betting model more competitive. It has become cheaper to process bets over the past 20 years, yet the takeout is higher so there has been no benefit to the customer."

Tracks – "We simply can't afford to lose meetings because of problems with our tracks. We're losing domestic market share as it is." Paul noted that Moonee Valley hasn't lost a meeting since it installed the Strathayr track several years ago.

NZTR and the Racing Board – This relationship has been "slightly dysfunctional." Paul has quickly established good working relationships with Racing Board Chief Executive Graeme Hansen and Chairman Warren Larsen.

Industry fees – "My personal view is that our fee structure is a barrier to participation and discourages good behaviour. An example of a more positive approach is that which exists in New South Wales, where if you nominate, then accept with a horse, it is free to race." Paul has not yet examined the Stud Book fee structure.

Anyone doubting Paul's determination to "walk the talk" need only consider the decision by the Waipukurau Jockey Club to transfer its upcoming meeting to Woodville, after problems with the Club's track became apparent.

Maybe, just maybe, the New Zealand thoroughbred industry's bright future has begun to happen.


- Susan Archer