Racing: Dramatic cuts to see closure of major tracks

Key Points: New Zealand racing is set to close between 15 and 20 racetracks, with their clubs to not be issued with licences to hold any meetings. Those cuts will be outlined in the new season racing calendar to be released at noon on Friday. One of the biggest names almost certain to fall will be the Avondale Jockey Club, whose valuable West Auckland track will close. Tomorrow looms as one of the most dramatic days in the history of New Zealand horse racing, with the closure of some major tracks set to become a reality. And the jewel in the closure crown could be Avondale in West Auckland, which will almost certainly not be allocated any more race meetings for next season or in the future. Up to 10 thoroughbred racetracks around the country will lose their racing licences in the proposed dates calendar to be released by the Racing Industry Transition Agency (the TAB), with the addition of one racing venue when the synthetic track which is under construction at Cambridge is completed. Harness racing will also close many tracks with no racing dates allocated to regular venues Forbury Park in Dunedin and the Manawatu harness track in Palmerston North. Unless the latter is overturned, and dual codes meetings between greyhounds and harness are still being discussed, there would be no harness racing meetings held anywhere in the North Island south of Cambridge again. Other venues understood to be likely to close or at least have one of their racing codes taken away from them include Timaru – always an emotional hot button for racing fans as it was the birthplace of New Zealand’s greatest horse, Phar Lap. The track named in his honour, Phar Lap Raceway, is set to go quiet while Southland will be reduced to two harness tracks, most likely at Invercargill and Winton. If the proposed calendar is not changed, and there could still be some last minute arguing tonight, New Zealand will have 32 fewer thoroughbred meetings next season. Many of the track closures align with the Messara report recommendations of August 2018 and while they may not be a surprise, the swiftness with which they are being brought in will shock plenty and even outrage those in areas where racing fans will be left without a local track. It will also mean some trainers will have to move from training at their local tracks should they wish to continue, and the loss of racing in some regions will inevitably impact on the number of future owners and even punters in those areas. Key factors in the decisions, which were made after consultation between all three codes and RITA, were the costs of racing at each venue, returns to the industry and owners and the horse population trained in that area. What happens to many of the tracks slated to have no more meetings is a huge economic question for the industry, with proposed changes to the Racing Act, which could still possibly be passed before the September election, suggesting some tracks could be sold and the proceeds returned to the industry. The most valuable of those would be Avondale, which could be worth between $150-200 million and would provide a huge boost for racing’s financial problems if it can be used for the industry’s greater good. But even if that becomes legally possible under the new Racing Act, Avondale Jockey Club officials have made it quite clear in the past they want none of that and suggestions of legal action to fight it, at least initially, look certain. In a week where the Government has come to racing’s rescue to the tune of $72.5 million the appetite for more talk and consultation appears to be all but over, with RITA declaring they will make changes to improve the industry’s bottom line whether they are popular or not. Covid-19 and the financial chaos it has caused has sped up those changes, many of which might have taken years to implement. The reality is they are here now and, for better or worse, New Zealand racing will change forever tomorrow.
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