Day At The Track

When racing relaunches after lockdown?

08:30 AM 31 Mar 2020 NZDT
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Restrictions on the training of thoroughbreds could hamper their quick return to racing
Photo/ NZ Racing Desk

Thoroughbred racing is set to lag behind its sister codes when New Zealand racing finally gets the green light to return.

The billion-dollar racing industry has been in lockdown like the rest of the country since last week and faces a rocky resumption even when restrictions are eased.

Racing bosses in all three codes — thoroughbred, harness and greyhounds — are confident they can race safely, with strict protocols, if and when the country returns to Covid-19 alert level 3.

That would obviously be without crowds but the problem for thoroughbred racing isn't the lack of people, it is the almost certain lack of fit horses.

Confusion has reigned in the code since last week when the Ministry of Primary Industries initially ruled that training tracks could stay open for compliant trainers but then changed their mind.

But in between those two decisions New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing put out its own conditions for training which were poorly written and saw many trainers and some track bosses think they had to shut down even though the MPI hadn't changed its stance.

Some leading trainers had already decided to cease training but others wanted to continue. Once major training tracks like Cambridge closed all but a tiny percentage of the leading stables were automatically closed down.

The latest NZTR recommendations suggest people can train at their own properties with people who live there (family or staff who reside on the property) but galloping or fast work is prohibited, although there is no clarification on how that will or can be policed.

The spluttering shutdown means even if New Zealand returns to level 3 in late April and racing was technically allowed to go ahead the next day, there will be next to no horses ready to race.

Racing's lost month after comeback

Senior trainers yesterday estimated it will take at least a month for horses who are being walked, cantered or exercised on treadmills to get up to anything like race fitness.

So the new trackwork and training restrictions leave the thoroughbred industry hamstrung to the point that racing may not resume until June even if the country returns to Level 3 by May.

That is a month of lost income for not only most people in the racing industry, horse owners through stake money, the TAB through turnover and the Government through the taxes paid by racing, at a time the Government could probably do with very cent.

When racing does return there are also grave fears among the thoroughbred industry as to how much money the TAB will be able to contribute to stakes as they have faced the double blow of racing being halted along side almost all sport, the latter a massive provider of revenue for the TAB.

When thoroughbred racing resumes it could be with mini meetings of six races of small fields, all over shorter distances than usual because of the horse's lack of recent racing.

It will almost certainly be restricted to zones, as most racing in Australia now is, to reduce travel and therefore risk of Covid-19 spread inside the industry.

NZTR chief executive Bernard Saundry admits mistakes were made last week and with only a skeleton staff working on extreme pressure some are forgivable.

But the trainers spoken to by the Herald yesterday are still largely confused by what lies ahead and are hoping for more direction as New Zealand gets closer to the first lockdown removal deadline, albeit aware that may be extended.

Other codes better off

Greyhound racing will be the easiest of the three codes to get back on track while harness racing looks set to be well ahead of thoroughbreds because the majority of harness horses are trained on private tracks.

The rules sent out by HRNZ yesterday say trainers can work horses at their home properties as long as they don't use staff who live outside the property and working should be kept to half speed.

While that will reduce race-ready fitness many harness trainers jog their horses for up to 40 minutes below half speed most days of the week anyway and because they are allowed to do that they could have them ready to race a week or two after a return to Level 3.

And harness racing has the added advantage of racing on all-weather tracks so they can race at any level through winter, whereas once the wet weather sets in many galloping trainers will be reluctant to race their better horses.

That could see a track like Auckland's Alexandra Park holding meetings as early as mid-May should the country revert to Level 3 when we all hope it does, even if those meetings are only six or seven races containing small fields.

Michael Guerin

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