Widespread track closures, an overhaul of the NZ Racing Board, outsourcing of the TAB’s commercial activities and a goal to double stakes headlined sweeping changes to the New Zealand racing industry when the Messara Report was unveiled in Hamilton tonight.

Messara addressed the gathering through pre-recorded video footage, describing the New Zealand racing industry’s “deeply distressed state” quickly becoming evident once he began his investigation at the request of Racing Minister Winston Peters.

“In my view prize-money is the best lever. In New Zealand’s case stakes will need to double,” Messara said. “A reduction in the number of tracks is an essential part of the overall package.”

The Racing Minister pulled no punches as he described the racing industry’s malaise as terminal if allowed to continue down its current path, urging the several hundred stakeholders in attendance at the Claudelands Conference Centre to get behind the recommendations put forward in the Messara Report.

“If you think I’m a harbinger of doom, read the Racing Board annual report,” Peters said. “I know a dead horse when I see one.”

Messara’s executive summary in the report delivered a month ago to the Racing Minister lists 17 key recommendations. They include:

  • Changing the governance structure with the NZRB to become a body named Wagering NZ and responsibilities devolving to the individual codes.
  • Establish Racing NZ as a forum for the three codes to agree on matters such as commercial agreements with Wagering NZ, betting rules and integrity body budgets.
  • Change the composition and qualifications for directors of industry regulatory bodies.
  • Request a Performance and Efficiency audit of the NZRB under s14 of the Racing Act, focussing on NZRB operating costs.
  • Amend the Racing Act’s Section 16 distribution formula to a more equitable base.
  • Independently review the structure and efficacy of the RIU and allied integrity bodies.
  • Begins negotiations for the outsourcing of the TAB’s commercial activities to an international wagering operator.
  • Introduce Race Field and Point of Consumption tax legislation to bring the NZ racing industry into parity with Australia.
  • Repeal the existing annual betting levy of $13 million.
  • Clarify legislation to vest racing club property and assets to the code bodies for the benefit of the industry as a whole.
  • Reduce the number of thoroughbred racecourses from 48 to 28, without forcing the closure of clubs.
  • Upgrade tracks and facilities at the remaining venues with funds generated from the sale of surplus tracks.
  • Construct three all-weather tracks at Cambridge, Awapuni and Riccarton with assistance from the Provincial Growth Fund and longer term support the Waikato Greenfields Project.
  • Increase thoroughbred prize-money to more than $100 million per annum through a three-tier racing model.

The single most contentious aspect of the Messara Report is bound to be the proposal to sell up nearly half of the country’s 50 thoroughbred racecourses – some of which are dual-code venues – with the end goal of 20 venues in the North Island and nine in the South Island. The plan would bring to end racing at the likes of Avondale, Rotorua, Stratford, Hawera, Waipukurau and Woodville in the North Island, with the South Island list including Timaru, Kurow, Oamaru, Winton and Gore. The West Coast would have just one track, Kumara.

Legislative changes to enable that to happen will be brought into play, but pre-empting that process will be a phased in removal of raceday licences at targeted venues, beginning in the 2019-20 season with Dargaville, Thames, Wairoa, Stratford, Reefton, Greymouth, Hokitika, Kurow, Omakau, Waimate and Winton. Those clubs would still be granted licences, but on the condition they would be staged at another venue in the same region.

The Racing Board’s respective Chair and CEO Glenda Hughes and John Allen attended tonight’s presentation and afterwards were putting on a brave face.

The New Zealand Racing Board (NZRB) has welcomed the release of the Messara Report, they commented in a joint statement.

“We appreciate the recognition of both our contribution and our challenges by our Minister for Racing and the support he is providing to New Zealand racing at this critical time,” said Hughes.

“Ensuring a long-term sustainable future for our entire racing industry is our utmost priority, and the NZRB offered our full support to Mr Messara, including meeting with him and supplying information to assist with his work.”

“NZRB has not been sitting on its hands while the review has taken place, we have remained fully committed to the priorities we have underway to significantly lift investment across the three racing codes, and continue to explore our broad strategic options for the future,” Allen added.

“We expect our work, alongside the key recommendations in this report, will lead to meaningful, positive change for our industry, and support the thousands of hard-working Kiwis who are the lifeblood of racing in New Zealand,” said Allen.

The mood amongst New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing principals was buoyant in welcoming the findings of the Messara Report.

“It’s time for change,” NZTR Chair Dr Alan Jackson said. “We believe this report will create a blueprint for a thriving thoroughbred industry.

“While our Board has yet to consider the report in detail, the major recommendations are in line with NZTR’s views and it is reassuring to have those policies verified by an independent and expert voice.

“But implementing the report will still require a considerable amount of work and investment,” Jackson said. “We need to work with the Government, the New Zealand Racing Board and the Racing Industry Transition Agency to ensure that this opportunity is not wasted.

“We are confident that racing has a bright future in New Zealand but real change and brave leadership will be required if we are to achieve the report’s target of doubling prize-money.

“We are at the cross-roads in terms of sustainability and we need to move quickly. It’s a heavily regulated industry and it is vital that any recommended changes to the Racing Act are put in place as soon as practicable, to allow each Code to achieve their potential.

“The current wagering business model is under severe competitive pressure, and we need additional income streams and reduced costs if thoroughbred racing’s share is to grow.”

NZTR also endorsed the Messara Report recommendation that the NZRB outsources much of the TAB’s commercial operations.

“This is something NZTR has been advocating for some time,” Jackson said. “This is one way of overcoming a lack of scale, which has made it increasingly difficult for the NZ TAB to operate in what is now a highly competitive wagering market.”

View the full Messara Report: https://www.dia.govt.nz/vwluResources/Racing-Report-August-2018/$file/Review-of-the-NZ-Racing-Industry-Report.pdf

Credit: The Informant