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Great response . . . MP Andrew Falloon and SC Racing Club secretary/treasurer Kevin Fahey with signed petition coupons clipped from the Timaru Courier and a photograph of Phar Lap behind them. PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

Just over two weeks after opening, more than 2300 people have signed a petition opposing the possible closure of Timaru’s Phar Lap Raceway at Washdyke.

A total of 850 have filled in newspaper coupons and more than 1500 signed the petition online.

South Canterbury Racing Club president Noel Walker said the petition was a joint effort between the club and National MP for Rangitata Andrew Falloon.

“It has to be lodged as an objection in Parliament and that’s why we’re using Andrew,” Mr Walker said.

The petition is expected to close on December 31.

Riccarton Park ‘logical’ site

One reason given by the Messara Report for ending thoroughbred racing at Timaru is that a synthetic all-weather track will be built at Riccarton Park in Christchurch and once that occurs the Phar Lap course would not be required.

However, a lot of work still has to be done for that to occur.

Tim Mills, chief executive of the Canterbury Jockey Club, said the report recommended a synthetic track be built at Riccarton Park, starting in the 2020-21 racing season.

Asked about the cost, Mr Mills said:

“Costs and funding have not been confirmed and remain matters, amongst others, of discussion with New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing.”

He said the overall industry recognised synthetic tracks were a necessary evolution of the sport.

“The Canterbury Jockey Club is certainly receptive to being involved in discussions about one being constructed in the southern region and believes that Riccarton Park is the most logical and suitable site.”

Kevin Fahey, of the South Canterbury Racing Club, said many horses did not like racing or training on synthetic tracks, which were also not popular with owners and trainers.

The Messara Report recommended that money to pay for a synthetic track at Riccarton and another at Cambridge come from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund, with co-funding by some racing clubs and funds from the sale of surplus freehold racecourse land.

If thoroughbred racing ended in Timaru, then Riccarton and Ashburton would benefit.

The Messara Report said the South Canterbury club could use Riccarton for both jumps and flat meetings and Ashburton for flat meetings.

The racing club, which has held meetings in Timaru since March 1860, made a submission to the Department of Internal Affairs objecting to the Messara report’s recommendation that a thoroughbred racing licence not be issued for the raceway in 2022-23 and racing relocated to Riccarton, in Christchurch, or Ashburton.

“We’re disagreeing with some things in the report but agreeing with others. They should be worrying about the top-heavy stuff before worrying about the bottom stuff,” Mr Walker said.

The Timaru Harness Racing Club, which uses the raceway, and Timaru District Council also made submissions on the report, which was commissioned by the Government, to Internal Affairs. Submissions closed on October 19.

Australian racing administrator John Messara proposed closing 20 tracks nationwide, with proceeds from the sale of freehold land owned by those clubs going 0to New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing.

Mr Walker said this would never happen in Timaru.

“We’re an equestrian reserve which was set up the people of South Canterbury. The Phar Lap trustees are the owners of the raceway.

“They’d have to change the Act to get the land.”

Mr Falloon said if Timaru was to lose thoroughbred racing as well as Waimate and Kurow, it would leave a large hole in central South Island racing.

He was optimistic Racing Minister Winston Peters could be persuaded to retain the Washdyke track.

When the Messara Report was released, Mr Peters said it revealed thoroughbred horse racing was at a tipping point of irreparable damage.

The petition will be available for signing at the Timaru Harness Racing Club’s meeting on Saturday and South Canterbury Racing Club’s next meeting on December 28.

“My intention is to have officials produce a Cabinet paper with a set of recommendations for decision,” Mr Peters said.

“While it is too early to say what Cabinet will agree upon, the severity of the situation means the status quo is unlikely to prevail.

“Cabinet will also consider establishing a transition agency to help guide the process, particularly if there are changes to racing governance.”

There are seven thoroughbred meetings a year at Phar Lap Raceway.