It is that time of the year. The sales results trigger reflection and analysis.
The Breeders with HRNZ released the early stud returns for the number of mares bred: 2555 more than in the two previous seasons. The trotting mares at 603 are 12% up on last season while the pacing mares are 4% down. While it is good to see numbers stablise the question remains will it result in an increase of foals on the ground?
With increased use of frozen semen this seems unlikely. A big worry for breeders should be the fact that the fertility rate dropped last season to the lowest in years. In part this has to be due to the increased use of frozen semen. Trotting breeders has had access in recent times to three or four chilled semen stallions and over 20 via frozen semen.
As in all thing numbers and seasons it best to look at trends. While holding the total mares bred to just above last year is encouraging the challenge is to sustain it.
The Breeder’s Psyche
We are a funny mob us horse breeders. The underlying psyche is massive optimism, coupled with a strong dose of competitive selfishness and self-belief in our mares (often in the face of the bleeding obvious they some of them are not commercial) supported by what often borders on an addiction.
To use an analogy from my international development background we are like upland farmers near the Equator growing rice. The rice is not grown in irrigated paddy fields on the flat, but in semi-arid conditions on the side of a mountain hoping that the seasonal rains come in the narrow window after planting and that the new variety of seed supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture is massively more productive as promised. Failure of either of these two means for these farmers no income and often famine!
Not that the later affects us, and I mean no disrespect with the analogy, but farmers are like my East Timor farmers. For breeders there is massive hope that in three-years’ time that the market will like what is being made available and that the horses being presented are the right type with the stallion well liked. For the buyers the job is a lot easier they can come to the market and pick the eyes out of what is there. Or they can import it as in the case of NZers buying at the APG sales.
And so when the sales do not meet our expectations there is disappointment. High doses of rationally kick in after then event with some breeders withdrawing from the sport.
The challenge to industry leaders is to create and nurture the conditions that will keep people in our sports, despite the disappointments. For NZSBA our challenge is to promote ideas and initiatives to build breeders’ confidence that it is worth investing and staying in the family.
The future is also about confidence in our sport. Perception becomes reality and sadly there is a lot of negativity about at the moment.
Racing seems to have the most amazing ability to shoot itself in the foot. Look at the last six months or so: poor sales are the headlines; negative social media from keyboard warriors unconcerned about fact or evidence; continual internal wrangling and sniping about handicapping and ratings, with personal abuse, the O’Brien pokies case and a lack of visible industry leadership on the big stuff.
Folks, we just got to have a plan and blast through all of these negatives.
Get behind the big NZRB projects
In previous columns I have made little secret of the fact that I strongly support Glenda Hughes the NZ Racing Board chair and John Allen the CEO with their current major plans to increase industry revenue through four or five big projects. John is a man of integrity and proven success, as his previous leadership roles at NZ Post and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs attest.
John works with a strong team. Unlike a decade of his predecessors he has a plan with these signature projects that could produce multi-million dollar benefits to the sport of harness racing. This is not nickel and dime stuff. Some may be a big stretch, but at least the team is trying. John is frank about the risks and one of the projects may not happen or may fail.
The HRNZ board has got behind John and his team. We the participants on the round should do so also. We do not have the resources, money and people, to waste on the negatives let alone litigation. The government needs to be told to pass the race fields legislation before the Elections. It is worth around 15% stake increase to harness racing.
Similarly we need to support the outsourcing of the management of the fixed odds markets which will come with expanded betting options and increased booker maker profitability which will be returned to the codes.
Where is our future?
While the Racing Board is getting on doing its job to increase revenue we in harness need to start thinking sensibly about how any increased income will be used.
I hear people saying as a mantra it must be applied to the ‘bottom end’. Well if than means just proportionally increasing club budgets under the current formulae in my view people need an injection of reality.
As a sport Harness turns 89% of the funding given to clubs into stakes. This is significantly better than thoroughbreds at 75% and the greyhounds at 74%. However the industry average hides some poor performers.
We should not continue to fund inefficiency or failure. We cannot continue to fund race meetings where the cost of providing services is not transparent. I have no problem with supporting iconic days at picturesque venues but we should know that the returns justify the costs and the holding on to a key date.
Fund new initiatives for the ‘missing middle’
The breeders will be looking to their representative at HRNZ to work with the Executive to bring together a number of initiatives that address to new affirmative action outcomes streams with measurable performance targets.
It seems to me that we need to be actively supporting, promoting, developing and every other positive verb you can think of get in behind the “the missing middle” - middled sized owners, middle sized breeders, middle sized trainers, middle sized clubs and retaining the middle quality horses.
The big owners, breeders, trainers, clubs are fine doing well and operate like commercial businesses. The little ones operate as a hobby and aren't too concerned about making money although they are very cost sensitive and would like to see some stakes in their bank. It is those in the middle who are struggling & in the case of owners & breeders have exited.
We need ownership efforts seeking out those in our sport and newbies with disposable income to whom we can sell the dream of racing a horse and offer a reasonable prospect that a good horse can pay a good part of its costs.
As far as stakes go my view is that we need better targeting & coordination of programming, so that we program races & pay stakes to achieve specific ends - more fillies & mares, especially trotters, more races for the "middle" quality race horses so that they are not sold/sent to Australia. If there were 30 or 40 more of these middle horses in the upper North Island we would not be having arguments about the ratings system as there would be the horses to fill appropriate races.
I believe that we need positive industry support with HRNZ, the breeders and clubs working together. Let me illustrate with what has happened to trotting breeding numbers here and in Victoria.
In the last 15 years we have exported 2,200 fillies and mares permanently. Trotting mares were less than 20% of the total. Of these 41 were pacing mares with three or more wins.
But, and a very big but, we exported 37 trotting mares with three or more wins. Yes, almost the same as the pacing mares in total: 41 v 37.
Why, it is very simple. Australia, and in particular Victorian breeders, wanted our trotting mares. For the last five years Harness Racing Victoria has had a stakes and race programming policy to support trotting. Mares bred gone from around 500 to over 700. Positive discrimination policy backed by funding and programming to promote breeding and racing trotters.
We have a situation here with only one group race for trotting mares. We have only two group races for 3YO trotting fillies compared to 13 (group and rich listed races) for pacing fillies.
IF we get new funding it has to be targeted at specific segments of breeding and racing with targets and results that can be measured over three to five years, i.e. an increase in trotting fillies and mares Group and other racing opportunities to drive a target of 700 mares breed by 2021.
Similarly as a sport when to get in behind ATC and NZMTC to have at least one premier day a month equivalent with $30,000 minimum stakes.
The work started three years ago to consolidate the big races into carnivals needs to be reinvigorated with concepts tested and debated such as a “Redwood” type day for trotting, a Sires Stakes Finals Day, A Sales Series Day etc. All the ales Series Finals could be at Queen’s Birthday weekend with the Jewels in late April/early May, just a thought
We need to continue to work closely with the Sires Stakes board and the clubs to ensure that the series are sustainable, programmed where needed and structure for the market.
The five horse $150,000 3YO Sales Series fillies’ final held recently was an embarrassment, especially if the reports are correct that 23 owners made the final sustaining payment. Someone wasted thousands of owners and breeders money paying up for a series they did not front for. While HRNZ funding does not go into sales series races, someone in the industry funded that race i.e. breeders and owners with a small NZMTC contribution.
I strongly believe that any new funding needs to reward clubs that turn HRNZ/industry funding into stakes efficiently. We should be thinking of industry incentive-based funding for innovation and target industry racing priorities.
There is time to have debates, tussles and struggles on these matters. If they do not happen and we repeat what we have been doing for the last decade we have only ourselves to blame when our sport declines further.