Time to stop parochialism, grow industry

Bruce Sharrock is buoyant about the state of New Zealand racing. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Bruce Sharrock is buoyant about the state of New Zealand racing. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Thoroughbred racing is riding a wave again after a mega-deal with an international company and the announcement of huge stakes increases in the coming years. That announcement featured details of a million-dollar race day at Wingatui. New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing chief executive Bruce Sharrock, in Mosgiel recently for an industry roadshow, tells Hayden Meikle why the future is so bright.

Meikle: What is the aim of these roadshows, Bruce?

Sharrock: To engage our stakeholders and participants. I think it’s important we meet them on their turf and understand their issues. Equally, we want to share what we’re doing. It’s pretty busy — there are a lot of things going on — and this just gives the opportunity to crystallise what’s happening. It’s also about strategic direction, so people understand where we’re heading. I enjoy them.

Do southern racing people express different views and concerns from their northern counterparts?

Yeah, 100%. Every region has their own issues. Particularly trainers — they’ll have issues relating to a group of horses they have in at the moment, or an inability to get a series of races or whatever.

Where do you see the future of Otago and Southland thoroughbred racing?

I guess you look back to our big announcement a few weeks ago. We haven’t got a proper name for it yet but we’re calling it the Southern Focus Day. We want to turn that day into something special. Given the success of the Southern Mile, and the innovation it created, we think there should be a highlight day here in the calendar. It will be the premier meeting in the country. There will be no Ellerslie, no Waikato — Wingatui will be it. Stakes are increased and you should see North Island horses coming down, and North Island jockeys coming down to ride. It should be a big event. I can see the support the South Island garners when it does something well. I can see 10,000 or 12,000 people, opening the infield and really making an event of this. The students are back, so the timing works.

So if southern racing people had any fears of being ignored by NZTR or left behind a bit, you can assuage those?

We always hear "don’t forget us" or "we need this or that". The reality is we also get that up north. Everybody wants more of what they think they deserve. But we have to come together to grow our industry. The parochialism has to stop, and we have to understand what we are all feeding into. We all have a part to play. Our best tracks on our best days are what generate the best wagering returns. We need to keep that so we can feed everybody more. But I want to see country racing strong. I want Kumara, Kurow, Tauherinikau, Taupo to be strong. That’s where people get connected. Equally, your provincial meetings have a a very important role to play. Then there’s the metros, and we need to up-spec those. We need people to turn on their telly in Australia and go, yep, I know that track. We have to think of the audience for our product.

What about further consolidation of tracks in the South. Is that a possibility?

I won’t make comment on that. We’ve currently got out for consultation and submissions what I’m calling the final iteration of venue plan. At the end of February, everyone will submit if they feel they’ve got a case for whatever. I don’t see a big move on consolidation., A lot of things have changed, even in the 18 months I’ve been in this role. It’s really hard to recommission something you’ve decommissioned, and it’s expensive. We have to get a better optimisation out of our venues, because they’re assets for the industry. I wouldn’t be deep in fear. But equally, I’m not making any promises until we see all the submissions and make a recommendation to the board. It’s never a permanent thing. Like any industry, the dynamics that feed us are changing every year. One of the drivers for how much product we can put out there is our foal crop — how many foals are being born each year. That’s been on a decline for the best part of 20 years. We’ve got to turn that around. If it continues to decline, we won’t have the stock, and we can’t hold the race meetings, so you don’t need all the racecourses. What we’ve put to the board is that we put a five-year window around a venues strategy, so we review them in five years. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

There has been a lot of interest in this big deal between the TAB and international betting agency Entain. What has it meant for NZTR and the industry?

Horses leap out of the starting gate at Trentham. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Horses leap out of the starting gate at Trentham. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
It means financial certainty for a period of five years. For the first time ever, we’ve got a guarantee, so we know what our funding levels will be for five years. The second thing is they are a world-class wagering operator. This is not their first rodeo. So what you’re going to see is the experience you get digitally and visually will really start to up-spec. And I think we’ve just got some numbers that mean we can start to do some things. You’ve seen that with the stakes increases. The idea is that we really have to excite our people — our stakeholders, our breeders, our owners. We want to give them confidence to either stay in the game or come back to the game.

Can you compare the mood and confidence in the thoroughbred industry to where it was seven or eight years ago?

It jumped really quickly. People could see a way forward, you know. Back in 2016, we were racing for $51 million in stakes. This year, we’ll race for $90.8m, next year will be $100m, and the year after that will be $104m. So we’re going OK.

Are you going to bring harness racing along for the ride?

We don’t have a responsibility for that. But I believe we have a collective responsibility to make sure the racing industry as a whole improves. As the leading code by a margin, if we can get our ship in order and provide a good product and show the community that we’re a fully high-performance sport, everyone will benefit.

How do you sell racing to people who don’t understand the sport or who don’t fancy gambling?

I’m an animal lover. Anyone who loves animals— come and get alongside a horse. They become your son or your daughter. I’ve had dealings with professional footy players and they are in tears because their horse has won a maiden at a midweek race meeting. It’s just the emotion that grabs you. That can be the part that’s hard to sell, because people might start to think you are quite ruthless with these animals.

What was your rugby and league background?

I created, right back at the inception of professional rugby in New Zealand, a global footy agency. I spent about 25 years doing that — and I’ve still got an interest in a handful of guys at the high level. It was myself and Craig Innes, the former All Black. About two years ago, we were bought out by a business called Wasserman. They’re American-based and one of the biggest in the world. I think they had 13 players involved in the Super Bowl.

Sharrock believes elite New Zealand jockeys like James McDonald, pictured on Everest Day at...
Sharrock believes elite New Zealand jockeys like James McDonald, pictured on Everest Day at Randwick last year, need to be celebrated more. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
You mentioned jockeys. Do they need to be promoted more?

I’ve got a real passion for turning our jockey programmes around. They are genuine athletes. But they don’t think they are, and our stakeholders don’t treat them that way. James McDonald is a freak. He is the world’s best jockey. We talk about our highest-earning athletes and he’s never mentioned. He would earn three times the highest-paid All Black. So we need to bring these athletes into the mainstream.

What’s your favourite track in New Zealand?

It probably relates to personal success. I own a horse called Justaskme, who’s a great old campaigner. He won a race at New Plymouth last year. He was tailed off last with 600m to go. He was carrying 60kg — he was topweight. He flew around the corner and won quite easily. It was unbelievable. His half-brother won that day as well, so it was very special. In terms of pure racing track, I was always a Trentham fan. They’ve got work to do down there, though.

All-time favourite racing memory?

I can’t go past the Waverley Star-Bonecrusher race in 1986. That still sticks. Look at the nuances that played out after that race — Bonecrusher went on to be a champion, and Waverley Star never really recovered. It broke him. They were two supreme athletes who just went at each other. I will always remember that.

And what race day is on the bucket list?

I’d like to go to the Everest. Never done that. It started with 5000 people and now there are 45,000 singing Sweet Caroline and watching races. How cool.