Day At The Track

Betting downturn set to hit NZ

08:04 AM 17 Mar 2020 NZDT
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Ashburton,Harness racing

New Zealand racing bosses are bracing for huge losses even though no domestic race meetings have been cancelled yet because of coronavirus restrictions.

And even if race meetings are able to go ahead with essential staff only, one of the greatest losses to the racing industry could be its share of TAB revenue from betting on sports, including the huge overseas sports betting market.

Racing codes — thoroughbred, harness and greyhounds — are planning to continue with programmed race meetings but are aware the rules around restrictions can change almost hourly.

But they are confident race meetings can be run without crowds, with the essential staff needed to run a normal race meeting probably below 200.

There would still need to be trainers, handlers, jockeys or drivers, administration, safety personnel (starting gates, medical staff) as well as broadcast media and a small number of food and beverage staff to feed participants at race meetings.

But while racing bosses were investigating plans to allow ticketed functions to continue on racetracks, because the patrons would be more traceable and could be cordoned off in one area, those hopes are quickly evaporating under the new restrictions on crowds over 500.

Effectively racing could allow up to, say, 300 members of the public to attend and not exceed the 500-person threshold, but to what point?

And of the non-essential people allowed in, it would make more sense that they were the owners of the horses rather than letting 300 people attend a function and yet exclude the people paying the bills.

But by the far the most likely and safest course will be essential staff only — everyone else watching on television.

The greyhound code will be the least affected of the three as they have less human interaction from participants, with no jockeys or drivers, and because crowds very rarely top 500.

But thoroughbred and harness racing is likely to restrict attendance to essential staff only very shortly and their governing bodies are preparing for that.

One of the reasons racing may be able to, and needs to, continue more than other sports is that its key revenue driver is not crowds or hospitality but betting turnover.

Even a race meeting with no on-course patrons can drive millions of dollars in turnover which will keep the industry, which employs over 40,000 people, financially viable.

But that could also change very rapidly if any racing industry participant who had been to meetings tested positive for the virus.

"At the moment, we don't have plans to cancel any meetings but obviously things can change very quickly," said New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing boss Bernard Saundry.

"But we are preparing for holding meetings with fewer than 500 people on track and we are confident we can do that.

"We had protocols in place last weekend for some meetings and they will now be stricter obviously.

"And we will be guided by what the Government decides and tells us to do."

Harness Racing New Zealand chief executive Peter Jensen is adopting the same attitude and says if crowds are banned then the health of participants comes first but safeguarding racing's income was important because so many people's livelihoods relied on it.

Any long-term loss of racing meetings could be catastrophic as owners will not want horses in work and would either spell, try to sell or even retire them. And that means no income for trainers, many of who already struggle financially.

It would also severely impact staff, vets, transport companies and feed merchants to mention just a few of the industries built around racing.

But if race meetings can continue without crowds then there will still be stake money to be won, trainers, jockeys and drivers fees paid and the turnover generated by stay-at-home punters, many of who will be robbed of other live sports to watch, could help ease racing's impending disaster.

But what will be totally out of the control of anybody in New Zealand racing or even in the country is the huge loss the TAB looks certain to suffer in lost sporting revenue.

Sports like NBA basketball and English Premier League football attract a huge amount of betting inside New Zealand and some of that TAB profit is returned to sports but also to racing.

The TAB has met with racing bosses and will do so again on Thursday to present to them date from financial models addressing what a range of cancellations, ranging from just sports to all racing closing down, would mean.

"We obviously don't know what is going to happen in the days ahead or even the hours ahead," says TAB chief executive Dean McKenzie.

"But we will present a variety of models to the heads of the codes on Thursday about what could happen to turnover and returns to the industry under various scenarios.

"But because the world is changing so quickly at the moment we can't know what those actual numbers are going to be, we can only do out best to predict and prepare."

The loss of betting income on overseas and domestic sports events will also impact many major New Zealand sports as they get payouts from the TAB based on turnover.

McKenzie, who has experience as the chief executive of a racing club and a major sporting venue in Jade Stadium (Lancaster Park), says racing industry participants now have an obligation to the industry as well as society.

"We need to make sure we abide by guidelines, maintain social distancing where possible and abide by all the Government protocols to stop the spread of the virus.

"And the better the industry participants do that then potentially that increases the chances of the industry keeping racing.

"A lot of responsibility in the meantime falls on those inside the industry because many of the other factors are ones we can't control."


Michael Guerin

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