Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Harness Racing in New Zealand. Am I the only rat packed and ready?

I feel a little ungracious. I wrote this piece a fortnight ago, but haven’t got round to posting it. And in that fortnight, Harness Racing New Zealand has ventured on some considered changes to try to stop the sport withering away. But are they changing the right things? Are they going to succeed in making the playing of the game less elitist and more popular? More fair. Well, not so far. So I’ll post this anyhow.


‘Since I first fell in love with New Zealand harness racing – sixty years ago, the year that Somerset Lad won the Nelson Cup – and since I got involved, forty years later, as a fairly small-time owner, breeder and ephemeral (sadly) amateur driver, the world of what is, curiously, still called ‘trotting’ Down Under has changed. Changed, alas, in such a way that now, after twenty years of much glorious fun, I’m preparing to say goodbye.

Last week I bought a share in a wee Aussie galloping filly.

Why? Well, of course, I’m going to tell you.

I bought my first horses, when I was younger and sprightlier, to have fun being a wee bit hands-on and traipsing the country circuits with them. OK, I’ve been lucky enough, since, to have had a few metropolitan wins, too, but that’s not what I really came in for. And, progressively, the non-metropolitan meetings and tracks, are vanishing, and the townie nights (yes, nights instead of days) with their high-profile teams and trainers, their mobile starts (of which more anon), and their sprint races are taking over. With the blessing of the hierarchy. Sorry. If I had wanted to race a horse in America, I would have done so. I’ve already raced in France (by far the most well organised) and in Australia (with amazing success), so New Zealand … well, grow up or die.

So, what do I dislike, now, about New Zealand harness racing that I didn’t in the 1950s and 1960s. Or even the 90s. A few examples.

(1) I much prefer daytime racing to night racing … I presume the change has been made for gambling reasons … I don’t bet.

(2) Mobile starts. Grotesque. Artificial. For trainers who can’t be bothered to teach their horses to stand and start. And there are way more false starts and accidents from the mobile than … bah! And the machine wobbling dangerously along on grass!??? Wait for a fatal accident. See (5)

(3) The sweepstakes. Sires and Breeders and Sales. No, it’s not sour grapes. We won the Victoria Breeders Crown 3yo fillies heat a few years ago, but I wouldn’t pay up now. In NZ, we have boring 6-horse heats (maybe 4 from the one stable), and they are nowadays quite simply a risible drug on the market.

(4) The programming. If you want to be able to train and race your horse effectively, you need to have accessible races for him/her to run in. I shifted my operation from Nelson to Christchurch, to be in the harness-racing capital, with hopefully the sort of opportunities and options one has in Australia or France. No such luck. Weeks go by, at certain times of the year, with no local-ish races, no maiden or C1 races, no trials even, some meetings are entirely b**** mobile starts … so you keep your horses in training, waiting, wasting time and money … oh no, not in the grown-up countries, you don’t.

(5) Starts. This should have been resolved years ago. Stand versus mobile, of course. I’m a 100pc stand man. But I won’t go into that. I reckon more false starts are caused behind the hairy gate than from a stand regulated by a competent starter. But one can’t wholly blame the starters. They don’t have firm rules. For me, any horse that rears up, turns away, or refuses to take its place when called, should be sent immediately to a third row. Any horse which disrupts a mobile start: disqualified. The NZ system is too mimsy. Too limp-wristed. And too open to abuse by smart drivers waiting for a certain moment, or worse … in France, they would be fined and/or kicked out.

(5) Breaking horses. This (along with starts) is my biiiiiig bugbear. The sport (not ‘industry’ … come on, they still call football a ‘sport’) is called ‘trotting’ (or, at a pinch, ‘pacing’). That’s what the horses are supposed to do. Yet, in New Zealand, a horse can gallop for 100 metres – preferably losing only a smidgin of ground (there are a couple of drivers who are particularly good at that!) --  and still be allowed to compete in the race. Here, again, France has it right. Break stride for more than a few steps (15 max), and disqualified. Break in the home straight (5 strides max), or even go roughly: disqualified. And disqualified means pulled out of the race. No mimsies in France.
So they have better-trained horses, mostly better trainers, drivers and notably horses, because if you are ill-behaved you don’t get in the stud book.

So, why, you may say, do I not go and race my horses in France or Australia? Well, I have done. But I don’t live in France any more, and my wee Aussie flat has a ‘no animals’ rule. And I like to live with my horses, just as I used to like to drive them. But the point is, I’ve long loved New Zealand harness racing … it’s what I grew up with from the age of ten … why has it become so poorly regulated, why a mess of such ridiculous ’rules’, why such an … an unfriendly arena, except for anyone with many more millions to waste than I?

Well, they don’t have troubles with start(er)s and breakers and all that other stuff in the galloping world. So … here I go. Maybe our little Stratum filly will be a champ.

But I would love to get to fifty lifetime wins (I think I’m at 48) before I sign out totally! Go Montmorensy (NZ, 2 wins), Livia de Gerolstein (Tasmania, 11 wins) and Dynamite Paul (NZ, 0 starts)! It’s last chance corral time.

Postscriptum. I see that one issue that is being addressed is field selection. Points system? Why? There is one indiscutable way in which to select fields. Money won. The C0, C1, C2 system is being manipulated too often. How many horses come second ‘on purpose’, and amass dollars in a lower grade that are rightly the profits of other horses? Just like the Sweepstakes horses that accidentally don’t qualify for the final and get to run in a well-endowed consolation …
Money won. Then there is no ‘selecting’ to do, and no one can complain …

 PPS One thing that Canterbury, New Zealand, does better than anywhere else I have been is ... Race Images photography... pictured largely (the good ones) above:
(1) Davey Crockett wins me my first race
(2) The Stratum yearling
(3) Rickster Quirk takes Gwen round Manawatu birdcage (photo: me)
(4) Rosy des Baux before her first win at Domfront (photo: me)
(5) Livia de Gerolstein wins her eighth race in Victoria
(6) Agnes de Gerolstein ... almost made it
(7) Montmorensy ... maybe my last winner?
(8) Seppl ... the best trotter I ever bred and raced

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