The beginning of the 2021/22 racing season could very well spell the end for some NSW country trainers, with their livelihoods in dire strife.
Following the second major NSW-wide COVID-19 lockdown, 16 community and picnic meetings have already been abandoned, while the future of even more once-a-year race days are up in the air, potentially costing participants millions.
As of September 5, Racing NSW trainers, owners and jockeys will have already missed out on the chance to race at Louth, Cobar, Bingara, Gulargambone and Mendooran. This doesn't account for future race dates either, with the Collarenebri, Geurie, Enngonia, Grenfell, Come By Chance, Jerilderie, Lockhart, Pooncarie, Tabulam, Mungery and Burrangong picnics all calling it quits well ahead of their race days.
The financial implications of these abandoned meetings read disastrously for participants, with the lost prize money pool totalling $843,500 - of which Racing NSW were up for $666,250 as base prizemoney - and you can add to that the additional Breeder Owner Bonus Scheme pool of $226,187 that won't be on offer.
That is over $1 million worth of potential prizemoney that participants will miss out on from August 1 through to October 9, which equates to $15,281 a day.
Since August 1, Racing NSW have responded, adding just three extra meetings, hosting two picnic race days at Coonamble (August 7) and Gunnedah (August 28) and a community meeting at Gilgandra (August 28), while adding one extra race (yes, you read that right, just one race) to the Armidale SKY 2 meeting on Saturday September 11.
Effectively, in response to the million dollar-plus loss that participants face in only the first 70 days of the new season, Racing NSW have replied by adding a poultry $135,000 worth of prize money and $24,074.50 worth of BOBs bonuses - a discrepancy of $733,363 in favour of the state's administrative body.
Now, it is easy to blame Racing NSW for everything, but they are the state's administrative body, and they must make sure clubs are in a situation to comply with COVID-19 guidelines so they can safely host meetings.
If clubs are not in a good place, or clubs don't want to risk racing due to financial concerns or pressure from their community, that is completely fine, and it does make it hard for Racing NSW. But in saying all of that, $733,363 is a massive hole - one that will only grow in the coming days and weeks, with the future of many more October and November meetings still up in the air.
Yes, it all depends on the COVID-19 pandemic and the NSW lockdown, and what restrictions will be in place when the lockdown finally ends. But the question remains, how will Racing NSW look after participants? And how will it make sure the $733,363 in prize money is redistributed back to trainers, owners and jockeys?
If there are no community and picnic meetings, less horses will stay in work over spring and summer because there is simply not enough lower-class racing available for those slower horses. Then when racing returns in full flight, presumably later this year or early next year, there is likely to be a major horse shortage, which could lead to a decrease in betting turnover due to smaller fields and all those associated problems.
Add to that, there is the equine health and welfare concern, with some slower horses potentially pushed on to retirement and life after racing earlier than usual due to a lack of racing. This will put pressure on off-the-track resources and this could lead to horses slipping through gaps in the system.
Now, what is the answer? It's probably not as easy as we all think but putting on regular and consistent community and picnic meetings at larger tracks seems the obvious answer. Racing once every three weeks, which seems the norm at the moment when looking at Racing NSW's scheduling of "pop-up meetings", doesn't work for trainers and jockeys. Although, hosting a community meeting one weekend and a picnic meeting the next weekend could work, rotating the meetings throughout the state's regions, effectively giving trainers of lower-class horses two or more genuine chances to race per month. This would be cheap and effective, and it gives grassroots trainers and owners a good platform to race, earn money, keep horses fit and have more horses ready for TAB programs - a win-win for Racing NSW and its participants. Another option is just bailing out trainers and jockeys with financial aid, which would also benefit owners, who are the ones currently footing the bill to keep horses in work for little racing. These are all questions that Racing NSW should have asked themselves, and they potentially could have? Time will tell if there is an answer coming. But for the moment, there seems to be very little response to a situation that is crippling the backbone of racing in NSW.