5 Oct 2014

Insight for 5 October 2014 - Racing for Survival

From Insight, 8:12 am on 5 October 2014

Horse Racing Industry under Pressure

Former top jockey Lance O'Sullivan, OMNZ, has spent 23 years as a rider becoming New Zealand's most successful winning jockey with 2479 wins.

But as Insight has been finding out, he - along with many others - fears for the industry's future.

Insight: Racing for Survival

Lance O'Sullivan gave up the saddle to dabble in a few things, including commentary for Trackside TV,  before becoming a professional trainer, following in his father Dave's footsteps and that of his brother Paul, who trains in Hong Kong.

Horses and racing for entertainment have been part of New Zealand since the early days, with the first race taking place on a makeshift course in Christchurch's Hagley Park in 1851.

While O'Sullivan is still passionate about the sport, he is not so happy about the current state of thoroughbred racing in New Zealand.

"You do have to love it because, unfortunately, the financial rewards aren't there for the amount of work that we do," he says.

Horse Racing at Te Rapa

Racing at Te Rapa Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

There are 679 registered public horse trainers in New Zealand and a further 311 owner-trainers.

O'Sullivan believes there are probably too many trainers. He says while it is not difficult to get a trainer's licence, the problem is that it dilutes the pool.

"There are only so many owners and horses racing here in New Zealand - and with so many trainers,  there are only so few that can really survive and make a really decent livelihood from it."

He makes the comparison with Hong Kong, now regarded as one of the super racing centres in the world, where they race twice a week and only have about 23 horse trainers.

At his Wexford Stables at the Matamata Racecourse, O'Sullivan currently has 40 horses, but says even with that number he budgets for a financial loss.

"I know it sounds pretty sad, but that is just the reality."

Horse trainer Tony Pike holding horse by reins

Horse trainer Tony Pike Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

The president of the New Zealand Trainers Association, Tony Pike, says the industry is very labour intensive and agrees with O'Sullivan that training horses is just not profitable, although he runs a training establishment in Cambridge.

"We don't make money and probably lose money - and the money we do make is either by winning races or selling horses overseas," he says.

Both men agree that changes are needed in the industry and believe that stake money is too low for the majority of races.

Until recently, Gary Chittick owned one of the top five horse studs in this country, the Waikato Stud near Matamata.

He has now sold the 600-hectare stud farm with its manicured lawns, well-maintained gardens and post and rail fencing to his son Mark.

Horse breeder Gary Chittock stands with mare and foal

Horse breeder Gary Chittock Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Gary Chittick has worn many hats, including a stint chairing the Manawatu Racing Club and the New Zealand Racing Board, but says it is a difficult industry to keep everyone happy.

"I am disappointed with the amount of money from gaming turnover that is filtering back down to people racing horses."

However, he believes racing horses is still essentially a combination of sport and passion.

 "It is only a business for a limited number of us - and most of the people who we sell horses to, it is something they do apart from their business.  Also got to remember that for a significant number of them it doesn't matter what the stakes are - they don't win any races because their horses aren't good enough," he says.

The over-arching government body, the Racing Board, controls all betting in New Zealand. It takes in about $2 billion  on betting, but 83 percent of it is returned to the punters in winnings.  The board divvies out about $142 million to the three racing codes - thoroughbred, harness and greyhounds.

Thoroughbred racing gets about half, and in the last financial year received $72 million.

Glenda Hughes has been the chair of the Racing Board for about a year and is well aware of the criticism levelled at it from various sectors of the industry.

Chair NZ Racing Board, Glenda Hughes

Chair NZ Racing Board, Glenda Hughes Photo: Supplied

"I want more to be distributed to the codes," she says.

While I was looking over Lance O'Sullivan's stables in Matamata, his father called in.

Dave O'Sullivan is retired now - but not before working 50 years in racing after leaving home at the age of 15, starting first as a jockey and then as a successful trainer.

He says it's a game that is difficult to succeed in, but it's worth it - even though it involves a lot of hard work.

"It is not just going to be put on a plate - you have to start at the very bottom," he says.

And Dave has no regrets: "I just loved every moment of it."

And for his son, Lance, his passion for racing will keep him in the industry - although with a caveat.

"There are only so many years that you can continue to open your doors and lose money trading each day," he says.

Facts and Figures:

In the 2104 financial year

  • 467,000 people attended a race meeting
  • 2875 races were run at 345 race meetings
  • 5500 horses started in a race
  • 12360 individual owners had a horse start
  • 679 registered public horse trainers and a further 311 owner-trainers
  • 52 race course in New Zealand - 22 in the South Island, 30 in the North Island

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