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March 11, 2019 | by  | in Features Splash |
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The Messara Report on New Zealand Horse Racing

My mum’s family loves a “flutter”.

 

A “flutter” is Kiwi slang for betting. Usually on horse racing, but we’re also partial to the odd greyhound meet or two. In April 2018, the Minister for Racing, Winston Peters, released the Messara report, calling for the closure of several small racecourses around the country. Of the current 48 thoroughbred racetracks in the country, 20 would close. On the West Coast, for example, small venues such as Reefton, Greymouth, and Hokitika would fold and be amalgamated into the larger Kumara racecourse.

 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Racing in New Zealand is, in the words of the report, in a “deeply distressed state”. Many of the small racecourses  hold one meet a year, sometimes less. The sale of the closed courses would finance the renovation of the remaining, larger courses in order to bring them up to an acceptable standard. The Messara report was inevitable; our small racecourses were always in a terminal state. But it doesn’t make it any less sad.

 

Horse racing in New Zealand used to be central to everyone’s lives. My grandad was a bookmaker. He ran a bookie. A bookmaker accepts and pays out on bets, making money by charging a fee. Back in the 20th century, New Zealand carried a ban on betting. So, my grandad, a first-generation immigrant, ran an illegal scheme. What else was he to do?

 

What every gambler knows is that betting is a dichotomy: You’re either a villain or a victim, and most of us placing bets are victims. My grandad played his part of villain. He was a bonafide 1950s New Zealand hustler—I’ll always be proud of that. A cynical person would say he sold hope to the hopeless, while a more optimistic person might call him an entrepreneur. When I asked Mum, she said she knew nothing about it—As she should; she wouldn’t nark. Or maybe Grandad kept his family away from it, making sure his two worlds never intertwined. Both are plausible explanations. Regardless, like so many other Kiwi families brought up in unique venues all across the country, gambling is in our blood—especially horse racing.

 

Mum said that the races were a community event, something that united a multitude of different ethnicities and religions in Hastings, resplendent in their Sunday best. On any given Saturday afternoon, the static voices of transistor radios playing from sheds, gardens, and cars would sit on the still Hawkes Bay air. Whether Māori, Middle Eastern, Chinese, or Cook Islander—everyone followed the races. The area Mum grew up in was largely working class, and the religion of the working class family was often Catholicism. Some religions didn’t gamble, but according to Mum, Catholicism has always been guided by the idea of being relevant to people. You “take it to the people and meet the people”. This might seem odd to the atheist reader, but it makes perfect sense for a Catholic rationalising their vices. Mum is Lebanese and Irish; you’d be hard-pressed to find two more doggedly Catholic ethnicities. For her, betting on the races “had a certain intelligence to it”. At this point, you can be sure this is Mum justifying horse racing, and that she’s probably wearing rose-tinted glasses. But there’s nothing wrong with making good to yourself your escape from the mundane.

 

Everyone benefited from horse racing. Back then, going to the TAB was an event. For Mum and her siblings, the entertainment was the car ride itself. They’d park outside a set of flats, and the kids would walk along the concrete block wall, practicing their balance. Grandad would place his bets, because even the villain falls under the spell of favourable odds. He’d come out, and by that time, they’d be hiding on the floor of the car—you could do this back then; back when cars were mini houses and everyone drove 180 km/h without seatbelts and there were 900 deaths on the roads. He’d play along, saying, “Where are the kids?” He would mark his racebook, knowing what he was betting on ahead of time—and when he got sick, Nana would do it for him though she hated it, because Nana was an honest woman and would rather her husband was neither villain nor victim.

 

For Dad, who grew up in rural Southland, the Riverton Easter races were an institution. Everyone went, from West Otago to Central, to the Catlins and all the small towns in between like Nightcaps, where Dad was born—that, you’d only know if you’d lived there your whole life. The races spanned three days, during the last of the good weather. They were a seasonal event for a rural community who lived according to the seasons. You would go as a family, bringing food with you. It was one of the only times of the year when you ate chicken. Chicken, because the hens had stopped laying. Not one for attaching sentimental value to animals, the family put the chickens under the meat cleaver. Back then, it was a treat. Hard to imagine, I know, in a world of $9.99/kg breasts. The adults would bet on the horses and the kids would run around picking up coloured tickets. It was there that Dad got a “nasty crop of boils”—probably from horse poo. Horse poo is great for throwing and makes for great ammunition; you just had to pick the ones with the hard tops ‘cause the soft ones would go all over your hands. Again, everyone benefited from the races. The adults got to enjoy a rare social occasion, away from the demands of farms and mines and backbreaking manual labour—and Dad got to scone some poor fool in the face with horse poo.

 

Racing has never been about flash new buildings or state-of-the-art synthetic tracks in New Zealand; it’s an escape for the people. This is why betting is called “having a flutter”. For a demonstration of how important racing is to New Zealanders, read (or watch) the 1964 novel Came a Hot Friday by Ronald Hugh Morrieson, made into one of New Zealand’s most successful local films in 1985. Arguably New Zealand’s best novel, written by (arguably) New Zealand’s best author, it stars New Zealand’s most famous personality, Billy T James, stealing the screen as the Te Whakinga kid. The villains of the novel are local bookmakers, who the protagonists attempt to outwit. Racing is authentic New Zealand, through and through, and Morrieson paints a vivid scene of the gambling dichotomy—villain vs victim—played out in the small towns of rural Taranaki. What Morrieson knew is that sometimes, when you win, you represent a third factor: the victor. By removing these small racecourses, which are as integral to small towns as the dairy and the bottle store, you remove a piece of heartland New Zealand. No longer will anyone be the victor; the Te Whakinga kid will never ride again. Ironically, two of the racecourses that formed the setting for Morrieson’s book, Hāwera and Stratford, are among those slated for closure.

 

There is nothing wrong with a flutter, every now and then. You can always hear the drone of the greyhounds “at the fourth annual Edward Peterson meet in Timaru, racing for the rose plate”, coming from my uncle’s flat and ute. This is what he knows; this is what he was brought up on. He doesn’t have a gambling problem; he can’t afford one—years on ACC after a hernia from being kicked in the stomach by a cow will do that to you. His previous wife Jenny had an unhealthy interest in gambling, which, in his sister (my mum)’s words, “got in the way of things”. But every now and then, he might bet on the result of a race at Whanganui, “a bob each way”. You might buy a cup of coffee—my uncle puts money on the horses. This is his culture, and his soul refuses to be gentrified.

 

I hate horse racing. You can’t be a villain or a victim if you simply refuse to play the game. But I’m a prude, a killjoy. It is as much a part of our culture as the name Koorey; another part of an immigrant life. You see, gambling is but an escape from the mundane. Something to take your interest and help you forget about life for a while amongst the wheeling lights of the Nag ‘N’ Noggin pub in Westown, New Plymouth. Somewhere along the way, the Messara report will softly kill our flawed, but beautiful gambling culture. And the Te Whakinga kid will never ride again.

 

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