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Brian De Lore talks to John Messara


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Some interesting insights



Talking to John Messara:

From all the experience you have gained over 40 years in racing and breeding, how do you view racing and breeding today on a global basis compared to where we have been in the past?

We are in a challenging era in racing, compared to the past. The level of competition from other forms of gambling and leisure is intense, and there has been a definite evolution in community standards, all of which require adjustment for an industry that has generally resisted change. These challenges are especially in evidence in the younger demographic that all racing stakeholders are desperate to attract.

What was the single most important lesson you learned through all your years as a racing administrator?

I learned that dynamic and committed leadership and a sound management team are critical to success – in the end, it all comes down to people. 

Racing Minister Winston Peters asked you to write a review of New Zealand Racing which you accepted and completed in less than three months. What struck you as the most blatantly obvious problem with NZ?

It was obvious that the returns to owners had got too low, that the industry was capital hungry, incapable of modernising itself, and struggling to offer an attractive wagering product; all these factors were driving the industry down. 

What was the motivation for you to take up the challenge, without being paid a fee for your work, and how much did it take out of you to complete it in such a quick time?

I took up the challenge because I have a soft spot for the NZ industry and have admired Kiwi horses and horsemen and women for decades. I have always felt that NZ was part of our racing family and that I might be able to help. In fact, it was a privilege to be able to assist.

I threw myself into the task and I was determined to deliver the Review by the agreed time. I was fortunate to pick a great team to assist me in their particular areas of competence, which included John Rouse (past CEO of the AJC and currently a Trustee of the ATC), Darrell Loewenthal (retired senior public servant from the NSW Department of Racing) and Craig Nugent (immediate past CEO of Tabcorp). I was nevertheless tired by the end of it.

The initial advice you gave was to start with a blank sheet of paper. If we had done that, would we be better off than we are two years later?

I approached the Review as if I was dealing with a blank sheet. At the time, I asked the Minister if there were any “sacred cows” and he replied that I was appointed to tell him exactly what I thought was needed to get the industry back on its feet, with no exceptions. I did exactly that in the Review….I pulled no punches! 
However, what I soon learned was that New Zealand’s starting-point was some way behind where we began in NSW in 2011 – there’s considerably more organisational and legislative reform needed in New Zealand before the real work can begin.

The Messara Report had 17 key recommendations and stressed urgency and high-quality leadership, but many will argue that the process has lacked urgency with a degree of leadership procrastination. What would you say to that criticism?

I disagree; as I have said elsewhere, it takes time for government departments to carefully do their due diligence, write legislation and set up new structures. It will be worth it if we can get the Review recommendations accepted and enacted.

One of the criticisms I have heard going around race clubs, some of which are earmarked for closure, was that you only had a cursory glance at the course and didn’t consult the committees. Can you explain to those people the reasoning and the process you adopted on venues?

I can assure you that while we did not sight every course we studied the operational and financial metrics – for example, wagering figures, race meetings scheduled, profit & loss and balance sheet details and attendance numbers – of each racecourse before making the recommendations. We were also mindful of the geographical locations to ensure that each region in New Zealand would continue to have access to racing. Finally, we compared our list with that of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, who were also undertaking a venue review. I can say that our conclusions were very close to those arrived at by NZTR.

Today you are addressing members of the NZTBA at a luncheon in Cambridge. What is the most important message(s) for New Zealand to take on board to recover NZ’s lost ground going forward?

I really only have one message. Racing Reform Bill No1, and shortly Racing Reform Bill No.2, initiated by your Racing Minister, should provide the tools for your industry to pick up all the lost ground.

It is time to select your future leadership team and get behind it, unselfishly. There will be those who want to reject racecourse consolidation and others who will be threatened by a joint venture deal by the TAB. If those reforms don’t happen, I am afraid the industry will only have itself to blame for the consequences.

The goal to double the prizemoney stills seems a long way away. We are losing good people because of racing’s apparent long-term unsustainability, but we have a tight group of passionate racing people whose whole life is racing. Do you have a message of hope for these people?

Yes, I do. Please do not give up and allow the reforms now in the pipeline the chance to have their impact.

The question of animal welfare during your time as Chair at both Racing NSW and Racing Australia was high on your priority list, and you drew a considerable amount of vitriolic criticism from your peers in Australia, but you ultimately have been proved correct on the horse traceability issue. Can you explain how that unfolded?

Yes, I and my Board at Racing Australia believed that we needed to account properly for the Australian thoroughbred herd before horses began racing and after they had finished racing. We did not have the capacity to do that and so we set about bringing in national traceability rules enforceable under the Rules of Racing. A campaign was then set in motion by the Breeders Association to have me sacked, including signed petitions to each State Racing Minister. Regrettably, nearly all breeders ignorantly joined the call. Happily, the state governments supported Racing Australia, the traceability rules were brought in and everyone now agrees they are essential. Traceability is the foundation stone of any animal welfare program!

The wagering landscape in Australia appears to be evolving quickly with the consolidation of the Corporate Bookmakers with Sportsbet (owned by Flutter) becoming a powerful competitor to TAB Corp and recent talk of a consolidated Australian totalisator pool. What’s your view on this and where do you see it going?

This will make for a better regulatory framework and underpins my call for the NZ TAB to piggyback on one of these giants.

Could further consolidation and mergers one day see one single national body running all racing in Australia? Or am I dreaming?

Yes, you are dreaming. There continues to be significant interstate rivalry in Australia, which mitigates against the most efficient usage of racing’s resources.

Can you explain in one short statement the benefits of outsourcing (partnering) our TAB and why you didn’t recommend selling it?

The current scale of your TAB operations is not sufficient to enable it to compete with the myriad other betting products, in terms of the funding required for development and innovation in a super-competitive world. The NZ TAB cannot be competitive without continuous investment in technologyand this cannot be funded without affecting prizemoney. There are so many benefits that can flow by joint-venturing the TAB’s commercial operations with one of the world’s wagering giants, not the least of which is a bottom line that will sustain a doubling of prizemoney, so necessary for the future success of racing. I agree that the TAB should not be sold and this will be clear in a joint venture agreement. But let’s make the TAB  competitive and efficient by leveraging on one of these giants.

We have had ‘racefields’ and the POC levy legislation in New Zealand from the start of July this year but few betting operators have signed the contracts. Do you think we should have been better organised with the contracts at the beginning to collect those funds?

The reform agenda undertaken by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is a once-in-a-generation initiative.  However, government departments never move quickly, so we have to be patient. The three revenue initiatives recommended in the Review have been legislated in the first Bill, and I understand that already most of the Australian online wagering operators have voluntarily signed up to the new regime – that’s a great start. 

The controversy on the use of the whip is gaining momentum. Do you think it’s inevitable it will be restricted if not banned totally? What would you do if you could make a ruling for NZ now, and why?

After a recent trip to the USA and contact with other racing jurisdictions, I am convinced that it is inevitable that the whip, or crop, will go. Community standards are changing and there are a few things we need to accept if we want our sport to remain relevant. I would, therefore, ban the whip from January 1st, 2020 and take international leadership on this issue. The new rule would require jockeys to keep both hands on the reins, but they could carry the crop for safety reasons.

Where do you perceive the New Zealand racing and breeding industry to be in five years?

If in the second Bill the Government were to put in place the structure whereby all the recommendations in my Review could be executed, and if the Industry has competent and passionate leadership, then New Zealand can again take its place among the leading racing jurisdictions of the world, with the benefits shared by all participants with consequent upside to the New Zealand economy.

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