New Zealand Trotting Cup starts have often been a shambles, like this one two years ago when the outside horses got a flying start.

HRNZ backtracks on big race handicaps - review underway but status quo for 2022

Harness Racing New Zealand has backtracked on its decree that the country’s top races like the New Zealand Cup will in future be run as handicaps.

HRNZ chief executive Gary Woodham said tonight the present free-for-all conditions would remain this year and be reviewed to see whether changes are needed in 2023 and beyond.

The announcement comes after a week of turmoil in the industry after general manager of racing, marketing and communications Catherine McDonald sent an email to clubs declaring it had been unanimously decided at an HRNZ board meeting that the New Zealand Trotting Cup, Dominion Handicap, Auckland Trotting Cup, Rowe Cup and Invercargill Cup (which is already a handicap) had been changed to handicaps to hopefully see better and more competitive fields and improve betting turnover.

The decision came as a complete surprise to both the Christchurch and Auckland clubs who were not consulted and had major objections.

It also saw the TAB suspend its markets on both the New Zealand Cup and the Dominion as bets had already been taken on both races from punters assuming their fancies would start on level terms.

A portion of McDonald’s shock email to clubs which left industry participants reeling.A portion of McDonald’s shock email to clubs which left industry participants reeling.Woodham made no comment in his release tonight on how McDonald came to deliver the decision, and even underline that it had been unanimous, when it is understood Addington’s representative was not involved in any meeting where handicapping was agreed to, only that they would discuss it once supporting data was provided.

Woodham said an independent team of industry experts was assessing the first six months of the new racing calendar and the handicapping issue was part of their review.

“One thing we need to know is what will the horse population look like in the future?” Woodham said. “Do we have enough highly-rated horses to make our top races fair and competitive?

“We have had handicap races in the past for the very same reasons we are looking at it now. If we have rating 75 to 120 horses in the same race we have to do something to make it a good contest. We are always looking at improving our wagering product.”

Woodham said the review was expected to be completed by October and any changes would then have to be ratified by the HRNZ Board before they are implemented.

Common sense prevailed

Addington Racing Industry Manager Darrin Williams was pleased common sense had prevailed.

“It doesn’t mean there won’t be changes in the future - I’m sure there will be differing views - but HRNZ has a duty to consult,” he said in an earlier interview.

“The club was most uncomfortable with the process. To say we’re doing this without any industry discussion, and with no facts to back it up, is unacceptable.

“It might be that we should have some handicaps but you can’t change the biggest race of the year when it’s so close.

“People would be up in arms if NZTR said the 2000 Guineas in November won’t be at set weights and they’d already set a horse for it.”

Williams said consideration would also have to be given to what a handicapped cup would mean for the lead-up races, which were all free-for-all stands.

More discussion needed, says ATC

Auckland Trotting Club president Jamie Mackinnon said his club understood why the issue of horses being handicapped in Group races had arisen with the dominance of two horses this year in the open class ranks.

“But this was sprung on us by HRNZ and there needs to be more discussion.

“Whatever we do we must keep in mind the importance of offering regular opportunities for our elite horses to race in New Zealand. If horses are unfairly treated through handicapping then we will cause them to be sold or to continue their racing offshore.”

We can support the idea but require further clarification on the following:

• If it is deemed that handicaps are to be introduced then we favour a penalty and not punishment. A 10 metre maximum back mark we would support.

• More discussion is needed around the races for which a horse could receive this penalty. It can’t just be Group or Listed races of any kind. For example, if Akuta had lined up in “The Race” and won, this would not be an acceptable penalty.

• We have not seen any statistical information that supports the theory that there would be an increase in betting if the favourite was handicapped. Could it actually be the opposite?

• Handicapping the favourite wouldn’t necessarily build the field size. Isn’t the motivation there already to get your horse into the cup regardless of whether it has a winning chance?

TAB reopens futures markets

Markets for the New Zealand Trotting Cup and Dominion Trot were tonight reopened with Self Assured ($2.10) and Sundees Son ($2) warm favourites.

Our runners this week

Thursday night at Cambridge

Whiz On Bye (Scratched).

Whales Harness