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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
With increases in prize money, wagering, government support and yearling prices, thoroughbred racing and breeding in Tasmania looks to be in rude health, but dig a little deeper and there are significant challenges in the island state.
Newly appointed Tasracing CEO Andrew Jenkins is walking the Hobart track as he talks to Asian Racing Report about the opportunities and challenges facing Tasmania’s racing industry.
He doesn’t need to look far to see what success looks like. If he casts his eye across the nearby Derwent River, he will see Tasmania’s greatest tourism success story of this century, the Museum of Old and New Art, MONA, built on David Walsh’s professional gambling windfalls, many of which have come from racing. But a shared geography and funding source are about the only two things the two northern suburbs venues have in common.
Perhaps more instructive for Jenkins and his Tasracing team is what has happened at the venue which abuts the back straight of the tri-code Elwick racecourse, MyState Bank Arena. Over the course of the past two years, it has been the scene of the explosion of interest in Tasmanian basketball. The National Basketball League team, the Jackjumpers, have captured young hearts and minds in the way a racing administrator could only ever dream of.
The product of another wealthy man with a vision, NBL executive chairman Larry Kestelman, the Jackjumpers have shown how smart strategy, community engagement and commercial nous can invigorate a sport, even in a small market like Tasmania, with a population of just over 500,000 people.
The neighbours-done-well may offer Jenkins a north star, but under his feet is a reminder of how important it is to get the simple things right, especially when it comes to racing.
The $12 million re-development of the already troubled Elwick track in 2020 proved a major headache for Tasracing. It has taken substantial work, and time, for the track to get to a level where jockeys, trainers and owners are happy with it. Having got through the two-day Hobart Cup Carnival unscathed, there is a sense of relief from Jenkins, a matter of weeks into the CEO job, as he reports that the grass is greener than it has been for a while.
“The track team were effectively starting from scratch, from where it was mismanaged at the first attempt. It’s starting to get some resilience to it,” he said.
Resilience is a good word to use in relation to the Tasmanian racing industry. The state has produced some equine and human champions of the turf and sits at the centre of an $185 million industry, but in the isolation of an island state, success has been achieved primarily through hard work.
Anthony Darmanin celebrates as outstanding Tasmanian mare Mystic Journey wins the 2019 All Star Mile. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)
On a national level, Tasmania is barely a blip on the radar, but for one news cycle at least in February, it became a talking point in the wider interstate rift in Australian racing. Robyn Whishaw, Tasmania’s representative on the board of the paralysed national body, Racing Australia, resigned with a pointed public statement at the toxicity of the board.
It occurred just days after Jenkins’ assumed his permanent position as Tasracing CEO, and while he admits that the dysfunction in RA has knock-on effects at state level, especially when it comes to equine welfare, there are more pressing challenges on his agenda.
One of the first is rebuilding the culture of consultation both within Tasracing and across the broader Tasmanian racing industry. The ‘head office’ style of Jenkins’ predecessor Paul Eriksson did not resonate well with either his staff or his Tasmanian constituency.
A damning consultants’ report in April 2022 painted an organisation with no faith in its senior leadership or its ability to relate appropriately with key industry people. Eriksson left the job, and Tasmania, suddenly in June 2022, only to reappear soon after as chief executive of Racing Australia.
For Jenkins, who joined Tasracing in January 2022 as chief operating officer, rebuilding relationships. remains a key plank of his first 12 months in the permanent CEO role.
“I will be working very hard on making Tasracing a terrific place to work. There have been concerns in the past and our culture survey from April last year is a matter of public record and that identified that there was work to be done,” he said.
“We have made some great strides in engaging with our people, flattening out the organisation and making the place somewhere that people want to turn up.”
The external relationships may be harder to mend, with participants demanding more is done in key areas, particularly integrity.
The Monteith Report, released two years ago, recommended that integrity be brought under Tasracing’s auspices from a state department. Despite universal support for the reform, the treacle-like nature of political bureaucracy means it has yet to go before parliament. Jenkins predicts it could be another six months before the new office of racing integrity and the new Tasracing Integrity Commissioner role is initiated.
Newly appointed Tasracing CEO Andrew Jenkins (Photo: LinkedIn)
For trainer Glenn Stevenson, those integrity structures are crucial to the industry’s faith in the system. Stevenson, who has a team of about 20 horses in work, based at Wesley Vale in the state’s north, is concerned that the current system does not make for a level playing field.
“It’s nothing personal against the people that work in integrity, but I feel they are under-resourced,” Stevenson said.
“It’s not their fault but I believe that it needs to get more professional. They hold us to the highest standards and I believe they also need to pick their game up, and a bit of money needs to be spent and get the right people in the right spots.”
A disqualification Stevenson received in 2017 for a caffeine positive still rankles the experienced trainer, who believes a bigger stable would not have drawn such attention.
“I’m an easy bloke to make an example of, and I felt that was the case there. I am not sure that would be the case for everyone else. If everyone gets treated the same, make it a level playing field, that’s what we really want,” he said.
The other area Stevenson would love some focus on is race programming, with increased prize money for maidens and more focus on boosting focus on feature races at sprint-middle distance, as opposed to staying races traditionally dominated by mainland trainers.
History tells us non-local trainers have won the past seven editions of the Tasmanian Derby, five of the past eight editions of the Tasmanian Oaks, four of the past five Hobart Cups and five of the past seven Launceston Cups. Combined, those races are worth $900,000 each year.
Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott have won five feature races in Tasmania over the past seven weeks, scooping close to $500,000 in prize money. Stevenson doesn’t begrudge the big stables for coming and winning these races, but would love some more investment in races the locals can win.
He knows he is lucky to have a horse like Turk Warrior, the sprinter-miler who has won over $600,000. On Sunday, he notched his 11th career win in a Magic Millions series race at Launceston, and less than 24 hours later Stevenson was at nearby Carrick trying to bid for his much-coveted half-sister at the Tasmanian Yearling Sale.
The daughter of Stratosphere was eventually purchased by Star Thoroughbreds, one of Australia’s most successful syndicators, which is headed by Tasmanian-born and Sydney-based Denise Martin.
Lot 47, the Stratosphere half-sister to Turk Warrior, was secured by Star Thoroughbreds for $105,000. (Photo: Magic Millions/Sharon Chapman)
She was one of the jewels of Grenville Stud’s draft at the Sale, which defied doom and gloom predictions to post stronger than expected returns to the Tasmanian breeding industry.
If the rest of the Tasmanian racing industry is looking to the value of progressive thinking and innovation, then they need look no further than the McCulloch family-run Grenville at nearby Whitemore.
Bart McCulloch’s 198cm frame is readily identifiable at any sales ground. The one-time Australian Rules football draftee is one of the driving young forces in the Tasmanian industry, and having made his name in the banking sector, is now also applying that commercial lens to stallion and mare selection.
Off a strong base set by Bart’s father Graeme, who has mixed breeding and training over the past 40 years, the Grenville breeding strategy has now moved towards pedigree and speed, the two most valuable aspects in Australian bloodstock.
That strategy has seen the average price of Grenville’s yearlings in Tasmania increase from $24,000 five years ago to $53,000 this year. In real terms that is another $700,000 annually in the McCullochs’ pockets from the Tassie Sale alone and has allowed them to wrest status as Tasmania’s leading commercial breeder from the long-time incumbent, Armidale Stud, run by the Whishaws.
“It’s a nice reward for continuing to invest with upgrading mares and in our case, stallions as well,” Bart McCulloch said after the sale, topped by a filly bred by Grenville by one of Australia’s leading young commercial stallions, Capitalist.
In the scheme of the broader Australian breeding industry, the likes of Armidale and Grenville Stud are relative minnows. They are family businesses subject to fluctuations in the market and the economy, where backing the wrong stallion, or losing a key client can be tumultuous.
Pressure, and family history, weighs heavily on the shoulders of the likes of Bart McCulloch and his contemporary at Armidale, David Whishaw, as they battle the usual challenges of life on the land, staff shortages, and the fickle fortunes of the bloodstock game. Unlike the major players on the mainland, scale is not on their side.
The Grenville Stud team with the sale-topping Capitalist filly. (Photo: Magic Millions/Sharon Chapman)
They, and the other breeders with aspirations such as Mandy Gunn and Cameron Thompson, need a solid base underneath them and a local racing industry willing and incentivised to support them. The Tasbred bonus incentive scheme is assisting with this, but local trainers are still not participating at the level desired.
Of the 110 yearlings sold at Carrick, 50 of them were purchased by Tasmanian buyers, but none by the biggest trainer, Scott Brunton, who opted not to attend the sale this year.
The lack of depth in the local buying bench was one of the major concerns that Magic Millions Managing Director Barry Bowditch had ahead of the sale. In the end, the market dropped off less than 10 per cent on last year, but the work is far from done.
“You had to have trepidation coming down here, you didn’t know what the buying bench was like,” Bowditch said of the local market.
“I think it’s about strengthening participation down here, giving them reasons to come to the sales with confidence, and taking horses home and having owners for them.
“The quality of horses being bred down here continues to get stronger, and from the Magic Millions perspective, we are in for the long haul and continue to strive for a very vibrant industry.”
Inspections at the Magic Millions Tasmanian Yearling Sale. (Photo: Magic Millions/Sharon Chapman)
Magic Millions recently signed a five-year extension on its agreement with the Tasmanian government and Tasracing to sell in Tasmania, giving the breeders the certainty on a platform to showcase their product.
And certainty and consistency is what all the participants which Asian Racing Report spoke to in Tasmania wanted.
“That’s why Tasracing and the Tassie government will continue to invest in our programs such as our Tasbred series,” Jenkins said.
“We want to provide stability and confidence for our commercial breeders and anyone else who is trying to have a go at breeding in Tassie.“
‘Having a go’ is a minimum standard that Stevenson would love applied across the board, especially within Tasracing and the government.
“We need the people involved running the show and in government to stand up and get the job done. It’s a big industry for Tasmania and it should only be getting bigger and stronger,” he said.
With a long list of issues to address, the ball is now in Jenkins’ court.
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