by Adam Hamilton
Slot racing is not everyone’s cup of tea.
But it has certainly been a huge hit Down Under and now harness racing is about to have its first dabble.
Australian thoroughbred racing started it Down Under with The Everest, which is now in its sixth year and quickly established as one of the greatest races on the very strong Australian racing calendar. It even rivals historic and ironic thoroughbred features like the Melbourne Cup and Cox Plate for interest and coverage.
This year’s Everest in October will carry a thumping $A15 million purse.
Australian greyhound racing chimed-in with $A1.145 million The Phoenix earlier this year and it, too, was a tremendous success by every measure.
It is no secret talks are well advanced for an Aussie harness slot race, but while we await that, New Zealand will jump in first when the $NZ900,000 “The Race” is run at Cambridge, in NZ’s North Island on April 14.
Even by the admission of those closest to it, “The Race” model isn’t ideal, but the fact it has been so warmly embraced by slot holders and horse owners speaks to the interest and even fascination in slot races, especially in this part of the world.
It also speaks to the willingness of so many high-end players in harness racing to throw their support behind it when it both needs it and creates an exciting vehicle for them to do so.
With the bulk of the prize money coming from slot buyers, it’s not far shy of a sweepstakes.
The man behind “The Race” – or at least the man who has to bring it to life – is Cambridge’s young, innovative and passionate CEO Dave Branch.
The concept for the race was first suggested by the country’s governing body, Harness Racing New Zealand, but that’s essentially where they left things. Branch, his board and a few key supporters have been frantically working ever since. And I mean frantically.
The initial proposal was for a $NZ500,000 slot race with all prize money coming from the 10 slots
Branch and others knew that simply wouldn’t wash or go anywhere near doing the “The Race” justice. So managed to find a surplus injection of $NZ150,000 and boosted the slots to $NZ75,000 each.
With respect to the $150,000 “top-up,” that’s still simply not enough to make the concept viable in the longer term and Branch knows it.
“The plan is to get to at least $NZ1 million next year and over $NZ1.1 million in 2025. We know the extra investment over and above the money from slot holders is vital,” Branch said.
“But for now, we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got and the time we had to make it all happen. It was just before Christmas when we announced, ‘The Race’ and there wasn’t much of a lead-in with the first running less than four months later.
“It’s fair to say it’s been a monstrous task and a real education process over here (NZ). There just wasn’t a great understanding of how slot races worked.
“People said it wouldn’t work or we couldn’t make it happen in the time we had, but I like a challenge. The doubters just fuel my desire to make it happen and make it as big a success as we can.”
The challenge was amplified big time with NZ’s borders closed because of COVID-19 as lingering strict limits on crowds at major events.
“The borders thing hurt on a few levels, not the least being trying to attract Aussie interest, be that slot buyers or horses for the race. Things have improved as we’ve gone and the borders open a couple days before the race and that’s helped,” Branch said.
“But we are really restricted with crowds and that really hurts our bottom line and ability to make money from the event to try and build on the prize money for next year.
“When the race was first touted, we thought a crowd of about 5,000 was possible because we’d had 4,000 to the Harness Jewels, which is the other big event we’ve had at Cambridge.
“Now we’re faced with waiting on (NZ) Government rulings, but probably a best-case of maybe a crowd of 2000. That doesn’t just hurt with the general admission earnings, but what those extra 3,000 people would spend at the track on food, drink and wagering.”
Pleasingly, five of the 10 slot owners are Australian-based or strongly connected to Australia.
And three Australian-trained pacers are confirmed runners on April 14.
They include evergreen 10-year-old Alta Orlando from Australia’s biggest stable, Team McCarthy. He is very close to topping $A1 million in career earnings.
The added “bonus” of Alta Orlando’s raid is his driver. Australia’s hottest young reinsman, Jack Callaghan, will drive for the first time in NZ when he partners Alta Orlando in “The Race.”
“I’ve had the most amazing past 12 months and adding to it with my first trip to drive in NZ is incredible,” 20-year-old Callaghan said. “It’s fitting it’s on Alta Orlando because he’s been such a special horse to me. He was the first real open-class star I drove and I ran third on him in the Inter Dominion (final) last December.”
There are also two mares in the race, Stylish Memphis and Spellbound, who will get the benefit of preferential barrier draws over the 2200 metres.
“That’s a big reason we are running,” Stylish Memphis’ trainer Mark Jones said. “Cambridge can suit horses racing up on the speed and drawing one or two will give us every chance to be right up there.”
Branch and his team have defied the odds and knockers to make The Race a reality and for that they should take a bow.