Track sale plan – ‘communism’

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Central Otago racing clubs are preparing for the next phase of a fight as they face the prospect of losing an Omakau racetrack worth possibly more than $1million.

The Racing Industry Transition Agency (Rita) board, set up by Racing Minister Winston Peters, is finalising a draft Bill this month as part of reforms which are set to overhaul the racing industry.

Last year, a report from Australian racing administrator John Messara recommended thoroughbred (gallops) racing at Timaru, Kurow, Oamaru, Waimate, Omakau, Winton and Gore should cease.

It also recommended transferring the assets of clubs that are closed down, using funds from the closed clubs to upgrade facilities and tracks at the reduced number of racetracks that would remain.

The move continues to confuse and frustrate Central Otago racing industry leaders, who have spoken up against the proposal since last year and point out the Omakau track is a complex case, as it is jointly owned by the Central Otago Racing Club (gallops) and Central Otago Trotting Club.

Although trotting is highlighted in the Messara report, the recommendations are for thoroughbred racing.

Omakau and other clubs received more information about the proposal in a notice sent to clubs last month containing a summary of recommendations the board was considering.

Tony Lepper, who stepped down as Central Otago Racing Club president in September, likened the move to strip clubs of their assets to “communism”.

“We’re going to do everything we can to stop this,” Mr Lepper said.

“It’s asset stripping from the provinces and moving it to the centres.”

Kurow Jockey Club president Simon Williamson was similarly outraged by the recommendation.

“We don’t live in Russia,” Mr Williamson said.

“That’s just preposterous to think they can sell your ground and take it off you by force and sell it for the betterment of racing.”

Mr Lepper said a formal valuation of the Omakau racecourse had not been done, but he believed it would be worth about $1.2million.

Central Otago Trotting Club president Graham Sinnamon said it was a “challenging” and “desperate” time, amid a complicated matter.

“Racing desperately needs change but I don’t see how this [the recommendation] can happen until we see the detail and how they propose to approach it.”

The trotting club is administered by Harness Racing New Zealand.

Harness Racing New Zealand chief executive Peter Jensen said it was not a straightforward process.

“I’m sure there’ll be opportunity for submissions from the industry. It’s not black and white,” Mr Jensen said.

“We’ll wait to see what the legislation is.”

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing chief executive Bernard Saundry said he was not familiar with the detail of the Racing Industry Transition Authority’s (Rita) latest recommendations.

“Our understanding is the draft Bill will be finalised by mid-November, at which time we will be in a position to comment.

“It is important to distinguish between the Messara report and what the Rita board are advancing with Government. We are not aware that the vesting of assets is a recommendation from Rita – to be clear, it was in the Messara report.”