Day At The Track

New Zealand racing's darkest day

08:35 AM 24 Mar 2020 NZDT
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Racing industry bosses are appealing to keep training tracks and stables open as a national horse welfare issue looms.

Horse racing, like the rest of the country, is set to come to a crashing halt on Thursday when the Covid-19 alert level 4 comes into effect, although racing itself stopped yesterday, with no meetings of any of the three codes going ahead today or tomorrow.

The TAB will continue to operate, offering betting on overseas sports events and, more importantly from a turnover point of view, Australian racing.

That and Hong Kong racing will now be the focus for any Kiwis who enjoy their racing, as Australian racing has survived its Government's latest restrictions, with racing there to continue for now but with no crowds and no crossing of borders.

The loss of horse and greyhound racing for at least a month will be felt hard by those inside the New Zealand industry, few of who have meaningful cash reserves and the shutdown raises an enormous array of future problems, many of them financial.

But the most immediate issue racing bosses will seek clarity on today is the welfare of the horses and dogs.

New Zealand has thousands of racehorses and horses in training to become racehorses and they need to be looked after daily.

Unlike domestic pets, they can't come live in people's homes. They have strict diets, exercise regimes and need controlled and safe living environments.

They also need their stables cleaned, medical needs seen to and even their shoes replaced, all of which are essential to preserve their health.

If stable and farm workers can't go to work, the health and even lives of horses could be endangered.

"That is the first and most important focus for us now," said New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing chief executive Bernard Saundry.

"The horses have needs and we need skilled people to look after them. At that most basic level, they have to be fed and their stables cleaned, they are all health issues.

"But so, too, is their exercise. It is potentially dangerous to have a fit and healthy horse, and then stop working it and leave it in a stable."

So the three codes will appeal to the Ministry for Primary Industries today to declare training tracks, stables and farms used to train horses essential work places.

That may confuse some non-racing people who will question why a racing stable should stay open on a basic level while their business has to close.

The simplest explanation is this: would you tell the staff at Auckland Zoo they can't go to work and leave the animals to fend for themselves?

Right. Then it's really pretty simple.

Already there is the problem of the huge financial hardship the racing industry is going to be put under at all levels. The loss of TAB turnover will severely impact racing codes and clubs for years and that will quickly effect the stakes racing clubs can offer.

Less stakes means less money to pay bills and plenty of the ordinary New Zealanders who own racehorses as a hobby or passion are also set to lose their jobs or undergo severe financial pressure.

So some will struggle to pay their horse trainers, who in turn may struggle to pay staff, who are tax-paying members of the economy like most other people.

So this isn't a racing problem, this is an economic problem, no different to the hospitality industry or any other in New Zealand.

Racing bosses will try and advise industry participants as soon as possible on what measures the MPI deem appropriate for training tracks, stables and farms while they will also work with horse people and dog trainers on what assistance is available from the Government for their loss of earnings.

But the problems are only beginning. What happens if 100, or 1000, horse and dog owners realise they can't afford to pay their horse bills next month? That raises the very painful question of what happens to those horses and dogs.

Trainers do their best to re-home retired horses and dogs but there are only so many homes to be found. Unless racing can return soon, there are going to be horses and dogs who have nowhere to go.

Racing bosses are confident the industry can return to racing with the very strict protocols which were already in place if and when the Covid-19 alert reverts to level 3.

The goal now is for them to be ready to act on that as soon as it happens, whether next month of further away. Because thousands more New Zealanders will lose their job unless racing starts up again inside a few months.

And to do that, the horses and dogs, the stars of the show, need to be fit, healthy and in training.

If that isn't allowed to happen, they will ultimately be the first victims in racing's sad chapter in their national tragedy.


•  All New Zealand horse and dog racing finished for at least a month yesterday.

•   Industry bosses are now fighting to keep training centres open for animals and staff.

•   If that is not allowed it will create an enormous animal welfare issue.

•   The economic impact on the racing industry will be brutal but could be lessened by horses and dogs staying in training to allow a quicker resumption when the Covid-19 alert level returns to 3.


by Michael Guerin

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