Let’s face the facts about night racing!

IN his latest blog, Mike de Kock argues that the time has come for authorities to re-consider night racing at Turffontein.

He writes:

THEY say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, unless, of course, you happen to be in the vicinity of Turffontein Racecourse!

We in Gauteng have had a number of meetings at the city track interrupted or partly abandoned this season due to lightning. The reasons for taking precautions against the mean Highveld blitzes are obvious, but the stipendiary stewards seem to have found a new “toy” in the lightning detector.

Sadly, like with reading races, they are still learning to interpret the lightning device. There seems to be no clear cut policy and it looks like we have another issue here for NHRA boss Lyndon Barends to deal with  – goodness knows he’s had his share of problems to address over the last few months!

Let’s face a few facts.

In summer, bad weather in Johannesburg normally comes around in the late afternoon. When they do, the age-old Gauteng thunderstorms are known to happen after 3pm.

As it stands these days, we have late starting times to our race programmes, 1pm or even 1:30 seem to be the norm. When the storms and lightning appear, invariably our race days are interrupted halfway through, just when punters have settled down and the exotic bets are gathering momentum.

On Charity Mile Day, for example, racegoers and a host of invited guests had to wait for almost an hour and a half for approaching lightning to blow over, and they could only have so many more snacks and drinks before boredom set in and some started leaving the racetrack.  This happened before the feature race had been staged.  Last Tuesday evening’s meeting at Turffontein had to be abandoned due to lightning after Race 5.

There are several more examples I can mention but the point is, during weather interruptions it is obvious that betting turnover is lost at the affected meetings.  Punters lose their cool. Industry participants lose nomination fees, staff fees, travel costs and, to be frank, their tempers too!

Are there any good reasons, whatsoever, for our race meetings to start as late as they are?  Does it not make sense to start at 11.30 or 12pm, thereby almost ensuring that most race days are fully completed?

Late starts is one issue, racing at night is another.  Has the time not come for the racing industry to do away with night racing? This season, night meetings were cut down to nine from last season’s 20 due to dwindling turnovers and dwindling attendance figures.  And, naturally, lightning is an automatic risk at every night meeting. Night racing really has not been near as popular as expected since it moved from Newmarket some years ago.

Back in 1996, when night racing was introduced as a novelty at the old Alberton track, we drew consistently big crowds and turnovers were more than good enough to sustain it. That, however, was a different era.

When Newmarket closed down, a number of high-profile owners demanded that the lights be moved to Turffontein for night racing to continue and while Phumelela kept its word on the issue, the owners referred to have hardly raced in Gauteng in recent seasons. They’ve abandoned the ship.

What we have now with night racing is nothing but sheer aggravation and inconvenience to horsemen and their staff.  Late-afternoon traffic in Johannesburg is madness – getting horses and humans to the track from the training centres is a mission on its own. After races most horses and grooms only get home around midnight, some have to be up again at 4am to start work. Staff and travel costs are higher, operational costs are higher too, it’s a tough night out there for officials, horses and handlers.

Most importantly, we don’t get a fraction of the old Newmarket crowd at Turffontein. There is far less interest in the night events. Sponsors have never embraced the concept and we have it on good authority that, with moderate turnovers, night racing is being run at a loss.

-A day race meeting normally yields close to R4,5-million, a night meeting up to R1-milion less.

-Ninety percent, yes 90% of off-course outlets close at 6pm.  You read that right.

-Around 75% of punters cannot place a wager after 7pm because they have no access to totalisators or online betting! Interest fades into the evening, and betting activities wane as a result.

Facts are facts, and in this case we have a Listed company losing money by trying to please a minute proportion of racing’s elite.  Surely the time has come for Phumelela to re-consider the viability of night racing. It makes sense to cut losses, perhaps that’ll leave some more cash we can add to the stakes pot, please God?

Night meetings seem to be working pretty well at Greyville, and there’s always been an opportunity to re-introduce the one-popular “twilight” meetings held in the Cape several years ago. Upcountry, however, we have run into  a brick wall.

Overall, I’d like to have a simple answer to a simple question:  If night racing at Turffontein is fundamentally no good and draining industry funds, why are we persisting with it?