Leaders miss opportunities on race day

National leader John Key places a $20 bet on Nom Du Jeu to win the Melbourne Cup at the Ruck and...
National leader John Key places a $20 bet on Nom Du Jeu to win the Melbourne Cup at the Ruck and Maul TAB in Rotorua yesterday. Photo by NZPA.
Hats, handbags, high heels and of course horses were dominant features at the Ellerslie race meeting yesterday, when Taking the Pulse made a visit to the birdcage and beyond.

It probably was a sign of an increasingly tight election campaign but neither the stood-down racing minister Winston Peters nor the acting Racing Minister, and Prime Minister, Helen Clark was there.

Mr Peters was campaigning in Tauranga and Miss Clark was in Upper Hutt commenting on another leaked tape recording from the August National Party conference.

It was a pity Mr Peters was not at Ellerslie given that the police yesterday cleared him of any wrongdoing regarding donations.

It would have given him a chance to front some critics.

Act New Zealand leader Rodney Hide laid a complaint with police in September alleging NZ First had breached the Electoral Act by failing to declare donations.

Police said they were satisfied "no offence was committed".

Mr Peters was remembered yesterday as one of the best racing ministers in New Zealand's history, although there was disquiet in some of the upper levels of the main stand that he had damaged the reputation of some parts of racing with the donations dramas, even though he had been cleared.

The embattled NZ First leader used his blog yesterday to remind racing enthusiasts just what his party had achieved for racing.

"In the 2008 Budget, we secured additional funding for the industry, namely $3 million a year for the Racing Promotion and Sponsorship Scheme to promote feature races and increase stake money.

"We were attacked in Parliament by National and the Greens for this achievement and accused of all sorts of improper practices.

"But the point we want to make is this: yesterday, the National Party released its racing policy and guess what? It agrees with all the gains New Zealand First has made for the industry and includes a promise to retain the Promotion and Sponsorship Scheme as well as other New Zealand First initiatives."

New Zealand racing contributes about $1.5 billion per annum to the economy and supports more than 18,300 full-time jobs, while horse exports are worth about $130 million.

National's racing policy recognised there was a growing acceptance that racing, breeding and ownership were facets of a unique agribusiness that involved many small business people, party racing spokesman Lindsay Tisch said.

The 2004 New Zealand Racing Industry study revealed that the industry has a significant role in critical areas of community building, family education and training, health, leisure, employment and environment.

However, the rest of the policy was pretty ordinary, except that Mr Tisch promised National would ensure the Department of Internal Affairs had unrestricted access to online betting information surrounding suspect transactions, and the party would oppose the introduction of betting exchanges.

Young people spoken to at the races were more interested in fashion and the fields than the election.

Some incredibly high heels were on show but, sadly, they sunk deep into the grass as their wearers struggled to look elegant in a paddock.

Taking the Pulse had secured owners tickets, thanks to a cousin.

Those tickets gave access to almost everywhere except the Champagne Lawn, where some important-looking people were wining and dining.

Personal charm won the day and Taking the Pulse got through the three security gates to talk politics with the rich and sometimes famous.

Although it is too late to change campaign tactics, there was general agreement Miss Clark had misread the mood of the voters by continuing to personally attack National Party leader John Key.

Her campaign had been perceived as negative, while Mr Key was seen as providing a vision for the country.

His 100-day action plan, released yesterday, was welcomed as sign of decisiveness rather than the vague mini-budget promised before Christmas by Miss Clark if she leads the next government.

Everyone was promising to vote on Saturday but the main interest was in the announcement by the Auckland Racing Club that in February, Auckland Cup Week would feature two signature races - the $2.2 million New Zealand Derby and the $1 million Stella Artois Auckland Cup, with more than $5 million in stakes, trophies and fashion prizes across three days.

The announcement was tailor-made for a politician to make, adding some sort of regional support through government funding.

A racing minister from Auckland would have fitted the bill.

Prime Minister Helen Clark was in Upper Hutt yesterday talking about the leaked National Party tape.

National Party leader John Key was in Tauranga talking about a 100-day action plan.

Mr Key takes the point.

dene.mackenzie@odt.co.nz

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