BY BARRY LICHTER
The Harness Jewels finale needs to be moved to summer so alternate venues can be tried.
That’s the call from the Harness Racing Owners’ Association as it seeks ways to reinvigorate the concept which it says has fallen flat in recent years.
Association chairman Neil Bennett believes the marquee event needs to move away from the now established annual switch between Cambridge in the north and Ashburton in the south.
“They have to do something and Southland and Nelson are two tracks on my radar.’’
Bennett says the harness code won’t succeed in attracting non core racing people if it continues to run the Jewels in June when cold days detract from the overall experience.
And while Winton would be too big a risk in the present time slot because of bad weather, he believes a January date in the Southland province would open the Jewels up to a new and exciting experience for everyone.
“I’m an addict, I’d go anywhere but when you have a partner with you and it’s so cold in the marquee you can’t warm up, it’s hard to defend.’’
A change of date, and venues, for the Jewels isn’t as out there as you’d expect and the idea has already been debated by Harness Racing New Zealand.
HRNZ chief executive Edward Rennell knows they have been incredibly lucky with the weather in the 11 years the Jewels has been running, a couple of cold days at Ashburton the worst experienced.
“Our preference is to keep the Jewels where it is but one option is to move it to January. Horses would qualify over a calendar year rather than a racing season. You’d still have the same horses competing but it would be as three-year-olds, four-year-olds and five-year-olds.
“And the advantage of running in summer is you would have more chance of attracting non racing people and you would open up other venues with a bigger infrastructure. ‘’
Venues like Alexandra Park and Addington would then become logical options with better corporate hospitality, he said.
While it was originally mooted that clubs would tender for the rights to stage the Jewels, Rennell says alternating between Cambridge and Ashburton had worked well and kept a point of difference from other feature events at racing headquarters.
Rennell says it was always going to be difficult to retain a fresh buzz about the Jewels, just like Super Rugby, but the meeting continued to be a key part of the racing calendar.
It was misleading to draw too big a conclusion about the success or otherwise of the last Jewels at Ashburton in June, he said, when it clashed with a daytime Super Rugby clash between the Crusaders and the Highlanders in Christchurch and turnover for half the card suffered from a tote breakdown at the TAB.
“It’s still performing well. It’s in the top four or five meetings of the year and achieving everything we wanted.
“This year they ran seven races on Sky 1 in Australia (which boosts betting by 30% compared with Sky 2) and that’s unheard of for a harness meeting on a Saturday. And it’s raising awareness and helping us to export other races over there.’’
While HRNZ has already approved Ashburton to run the Jewels again in 2019, Rennell says no decisions have been made beyond that.
“We’ve had feedback that some people don’t like Cambridge and Ashburton and we’re keeping an open mind. We’ve already reacted to feedback on the stakes, increasing the trotting races to $125,000 (pacing stakes are $150,000).’’
What happened here could also be affected by decisions yet to be made in Australia, he said, where there was a mindset to change the racing season to the same as the calendar year and to reduce the number of feature races run in winter.
Southern Harness Racing chairman Kevin McNaught says the province would “bend over backwards’’ to get the good horses down for the Jewels but only if it was run in summer.
“The risk of getting a bad day is too high in June. If we got a cold southerly with hail or snow, people wouldn’t forgive us for years. And even if it was good on the day if we had a bad week leading up to it the underfoot conditions wouldn’t be great.’’
McNaught says even at Ashburton this year the Jewels came close to disaster when held just one day before an horrific day’s weather on the Sunday.
While the extra cost of getting both horses and people to Southland was another factor, McNaught didn’t think it was a game wrecker.
“The fundamentals around the Jewels are right but we need to discuss some of the peripheral issues. And it’s better to show initiative and see if we need to make changes now before it stagnates and we’re forced into something.’’
McNaught, whose centralised Southern Harness Racing now runs the affairs of seven Southland and two Central Otago clubs, says with increased stakes there was a real sense of positivity in the province.