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    IF A tree doesn’t bend in the wind it breaks! Sadly the shrinking forest which is harness racing in South Australia is beginning to... Q&A puts Neal and Miller under spotlight

    IF A tree doesn’t bend in the wind it breaks!

    Sadly the shrinking forest which is harness racing in South Australia is beginning to crack as the two main trees – Harness Racing SA and the SA Harness Racing Club – seemingly refuse to bend.

    For those who have been living in a cave during the past fortnight, the governing body issued the club an ultimatum….either the committee stood down by last Friday or racing will cease at the venue.

    As expected the committee members dug in their heels, with HRSA staying true to the word and switching programmed meetings to other tracks.

    In reaction, trainers and drivers held a conference during which time it was decided to strike.

    The strike is not a reflection of taking sides, but is a demand the two parties sort out their problems for the betterment industry.

    It was resolved by participants to boycott Friday’s meeting which has been transferred to Strathalbyn, having originally been set for Saturday night at Globe Derby.

    At the time of printing numbers were low, with HRSA extending nominations in an attempt to avoid cancelling the race card.

    There is no clear direction as to how long and which switched meetings the trainers will boycott should the dispute continue!

    In a bid to find out exactly what the two organisations are thinking, PAUL COURTS asked HRSA chief executive Ross Neale and SAHRC President Richard Miller a series of questions.

    ROSS NEAL – Why are the participants being used as pawns in this when all they want to do is race at the better track option which is deemed Globe Derby?

    We are not using anyone as a pawn or trying to hurt anyone. We are just trying to right the course of the ship, which has been wayward for some time. I think the issue is the club members are entitled to know the full situation which they’re not being told.

    Were participants considered before making the ultimatum?

    Absolutely! The board considered long and hard about participants, be it owners, trainers, drivers, employees… everyone, but has lost confidence in the committee to effectively manage the club and its future. Another compelling factor is not only the lost money, but where has is it gone? It’s not over expenses on the sport like improving racing or training tracks.

    Why now…why take the meetings away now?

    Affectively the situation has been worsening for a number of years and the board has reached a point of frustration that it can no longer sit back and watch further decline. The board also considered the direction the club is going with the Tavern, and as such, believe it’s not the direction club should embark.

    Why is this even HRSA’s business?

    In order for harness racing to be vibrant we must have a highly functioning club which is also secure moving into the future. At the rate the club has been losing money and has to sell of land to get themselves out of trouble, it’s hard to see that future being bright. With developers holding options over significant portions of club land, if they were to exercise those options, where does it leave the industry?

    Is HRSA just after the assets club?

    No. Despite what anyone says it not the endgame to take the assets, it’s just to see the venue run properly. HRSA gives a greater percentage back than nearly any other racing code in any state. We are not about claiming assets from any club but helping the clubs and industry prosper.

    So if the committee does stand down how would putting in a new committee fix the problem?

    The existing committee has shown it can’t run the club profitably and can’t move it forward…the board stated in the first press release its lost confidence in them. The Cunningham Report recommended a flat structure for the industry, which includes running operation. That doesn’t mean the club won’t have committee operating it. The board believes new people can begin rebuilding the club and move forward.

    BOTRA has attracted sponsors for the Golden Nursery at Globe Derby, will you consider running that meeting at Globe Derby even if the matter is not resolved?

    I understand their concerns but I can’t answer that at the moment as it will be board decision.

    Are willing to mediate and move races back to Globe Derby until a solution is found?

    Sorry, I can’t answer that either as again it is a board decision. But I can say we’ve received no formal request at this stage.

    Is HRSA over staffed and needing a streamline to better reflect the industry?

    We run on a very low budget. In fact, we did an internal process a few weeks ago, which led to a redundancy, which reflects the needs of the industry. We return a large per cent to the industry.

     

    RICHARD MILLERIn your statement on behalf of the club after receiving the ultimatum you wrote HRSA has hindered the club. In what way have they managed to do this?

    The land sale for example. The board is occupying office and rents from us, we’ve asked them to vacate early, to relocate, and offered office accommodation but they didn’t agree and tried to offer a bargain to us we could not tolerate. Also when asked to respond to the local council on the housing development they opposed it, which is not in the spirit of supporting the club and industry.

    Has the sale of the land wiped out all club debt?

    All but wipe it out but to a manageable level. We have two loans – with a banker and member of the club – and with delays in the sale we have incurred more interest on loans we have to pay. Although there have been delays in settlement we have received money progressively and used that to retire a lot of debt. There is no doubt debt conditions forced the decisions to sell. The board claims we are insolvent which we definitely are not.

    Does the club have the money to build the new facility or does it have to borrow or even sell more land?

    We will have to borrow money or sell more land. All land earmarked for sale has been declare surplus and won’t affect harness racing. The land is not being used but we still have the cost to maintain it. One of our priorities is to upgrade the track, which we will do once our financial situation is rectified.

    The club appears to have a ‘build it and they will come’ ideal towards the new facility and making a profit, is the answer that simple?

    Being on the main road should mean we are able to operate profitably to levels of all our local competition. Where we are now we cannot attract the off the street patronage we will be able to receive when we are located in the open on the main road.

    The club has made operating losses between $500,000 and 900,000 each year during the past six years, what has been put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen this financial year and beyond?

    It’s inevitable we will make a loss again this financial year because of interest costs and that was a contributor to the last two years as well. We have reduced expenditure and are working to lessen the loss as much as possible. Where we are located it is not profitable and we want to move to new venue on the main road as soon as we can, but during this period we have to manage loss as best we can.

    HRSA say they are contributing $400,000 pa, is that the correct figure or is it $250,000 as reported by SAHRC?

    They say they are and it makes it feel like they’re a donor. The payments come from meeting fees and other payments such as leasing the building on the site, which is a commercial arrangement. We spend about $500,000 on racing operations and the money we get in from HRSA is in the vicinity of $250,000, so we still have to subsidise it. That $250,000 is our contribution to harness. A major problem is loss of on course tote revenue as we got $500,000 in 2006 and now we get nothing.

    Is the $250,000 on top of paying race day wages which is an expense HRSA is covering for the club?

    The race day payments HRSA covers are for things such as the chasing vehicle, gate attendants, farrier and a couple of track attendants to clean up track etc, but not office or catering staff, which we pay, along with the groundsman.

    Are willing to mediate with HRSA?

    From the club’s perspective we are mindful of industry and are happy to find a resolution which takes into account the club and industry’s needs. Racing there should have no connection to any dispute. Racing should be a separate action from any problems between the club and HRSA. There are a lot of trainers living around Globe Derby and if they are not racing there then it is not equitable to travel due to cost compared to prize money.

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    Paul Courts

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