Harness racing chiefs must find ways to stem the gradual demise of grass track racing in the north before it’s too late.
The warning comes from the Harness Racing Owners’ Association which is concerned at both the lost opportunities to promote the code and the likelihood of a drop in the racing population.
Whereas harness fans once enjoyed grass track meetings at eight venues in the Waikato and further north, it seems there might be only a two week window in January for three Sunday picnic dates.
Harness Racing Waikato has so far confirmed only Tauranga on January 28, with negotiations continuing to race at Thames on January 13 and either Rotorua or Te Aroha on January 20.
And while the traditional December 29 grass date is programmed for Cambridge, HRW president Rob Lawson says there’s still a chance it might be run at Te Awamutu.
In the Central Districts the situation is little better with Wanganui opting to race at Palmerston North, one meeting fewer at New Plymouth and the January date at Hawera in jeopardy.
Gone are the once popular days at Ruakaka, Pukekohe, Avondale and Te Aroha, victims to the course rentals charged by galloping clubs.
And the owners’ association worries more will follow as clubs focus on their bottom lines rather than showcasing harness racing to holidaymakers who traditionally have flocked to the Sundaypicnics.
Lawson says maintaining the number of grass track meetings is simply not financially sustainable for the Waikato club which this year has been amalgamated with Bay Of Plenty and Morrinsville.
It can cost up to $10,000 to rent the courses, along with the extra expense of moving staff, and turnovers were no longer high enough to recoup the costs.
“In the scheme of things the loss isn’t terminal but we’re trying to run a business and keep our heads above water and when you sustain losses it puts that in jeopardy. We are entrusted with keeping harness racing viable in our region.’’
To do that, says Lawson, the club had to be successful so it could keep stakes at a level that made it even three-quarters sustainable for the participants.
“I think we will see a reduction in the number of grass track meetings in the North Island but not a total demise. There will always be a smattering of grass track racing. We see the intrinsic value of keeping harness racing relevant from a publicity perspective.’’
Taking racing to Tauranga made sense, for example, where good crowds usually enjoyed nice days and turnover was solid.
But venues like Thames and Rotorua struggled to attract enough racegoers and there was an inevitable risk that even one cancellation could make a big dent in the clubs’ annual income.
“The number of people going to the grass tracks is way down on what it used to be and even the off-course turnovers aren’t flash. We do significantly more turnover on a Friday night at Cambridge.’’
Lawson says while it would make sense to run a dual code harness and gallops meeting to reduce rental costs, logistically it was impossible with not enough stabling to cater for the extra horses.
Lawson believes some trainers have a mindset that some of their horses are competitive only at grass track meets. But he suspects that if you ran the same field on a grit track you’d get the same result.
It’s not a view shared by two trainers who have enjoyed plenty of grass track success in recent seasons.
Cambridge trainer Nicky Chilcott says many horses ‘‘grow a leg” when racing on grass – some because they enjoy the slower tempo or bigger track, others whose joints aren’t concussed so much on the more forgiving surface.
Chilcott quotes horses like President Tomado, who won eight races – all on grass.
Last season Chilcott’s pacer Everything cleaned up on the country circuit, winning the Otaki and Stratford Cups and placing in the Taranaki, Hawera and Te Awamutu Cups.
And while Everything had the ability to win anywhere, he provided the platform for months of enjoyment for his big group of owners, the Summer Fun syndicate.
“They’d never set foot on Cambridge but they look forward to going to the grass. They set up picnics, take their kids along. People love the grass meetings which have a more relaxed environment.’’
And it’s not just the owners. You had only to look at the huge number of nominations for the grass track meetings to see trainers welcomed them as well. While Cambridge struggled to get 100 entries, grass track meetings regularly attracted 200 and more, forcing horses to be balloted out.
The population was already small enough without running the risk that horses would be retired with fewer perceived opportunities.
“Generally it is easier winning races on the grass.’’
Kumeu’s Tim Vince, recently named the North Island’s owner-trainer of the year after a top season training 25 winners, believes more horses get their chance on the grass.
Whereas Cambridge often had a leader-trailer bias, horses had fewer bends to negotiate on the bigger grass circuits and could seemingly win from anywhere.
It was also less likely that grass track battlers would run into such talented types as the Barry Purdon-trained three-year-old Rubens who popped up on debut at Cambridge last week and demolished the maiden field.
Vince says he’s very sympathetic to the Cambridge club which was trying to raise stakes and obviously couldn’t afford to be running meetings at a loss.
But it made no sense to reduce grass track meetings and disenfranchise a huge area of supporters who didn’t get to experience harness racing during the year.
“I don’t know the figure involved but you can’t tell me we’re losing grass track meetings for the sake of $3000 or $4000. Surely they can get more businesses involved or get a big stud to sponsor the meeting?
“Harness Racing New Zealand should take responsibility and come to the party.’’
Vince said he sponsored a race at the Thames meeting every year and would hate to think it might be lost to the region.
Central Districts trainer, owner and administrator Phil Fleming, who is involved with the Hawera and Stratford clubs, says he can see some owners not persevering with their battlers or knee-knockers if too many grass track meetings are canned.
While the January meeting at Hawera was in jeopardy now it was a stand alone meeting, “we’ll be hanging on to the two-day Easter meeting at Hawera as long as possible.’’
But Fleming says grass track clubs like Hawera and Stratford simply could not afford to put on stakes like the new minimums recently announced for Palmerston North, where for a trial periodTuesday stakes would be $8000 and Thursday’s $10,000.
“Speaking as an owner, I’m looking forward to racing my horses at Manawatu. I want to get a return and if I can run a place at least I might be able to pay a month’s training fees.’’
Harness Racing New Zealand chief executive Edward Rennell says during the allocation of dates it tried to retain as many grass track meetings as possible.
“We didn’t went to get rid of them all, especially in the north where they cater for a wide pool of horses. But where the turnovers aren’t significantly better on the grass it’s a no-brainer to run at Cambridge and incur no rental.’’