Animals, jobs culled as horse racing faces collapse in Covid-19 ‘insanity’: John Freeman

President Cyril Ramaphosa and his team impressed South Africans when they got out of the starting blocks early with a comprehensive plan to curtail the spread of Covid-19. But just over a week into the second phase of lockdown, immense financial pain is being felt across the country, with huge job losses looming for a country that was already struggling with a staggeringly high unemployment rate by world standards. As John Freeman, an influential leader in the horse racing world, sets out in this article, there is a sensible way to ease Covid-19 shutdowns in his sector, a path that can allow for moderate activity while factoring in health risks. It’s a route that has already been taken elsewhere, so the model is there to keep the horse racing industry on life support while a vaccine or cure for Covid-19 is found. But, as with the bizarre tobacco ban and a strange rule to allow individuals in suburban areas to exercise in limited hours while poor people queue up in hazardous conditions on the other side of town, the rules in place for horse racing do not make sense. Freeman makes an impassioned plea for clear thinking and a move to change the status quo fast, to prevent more horses and jobs being culled out of necessity. The horse racing industry, which employs about 60,000 people and contributes an estimated R3bn a year to the economy, is on its knees. – Jackie Cameron

By John Freeman*

I don’t watch the news anymore. Too depressing because, being at the coalface of our industry, I get reminders of how dire circumstances are daily. No-one that I have spoken to knows anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19. But people are telling me how they are culling horses and/or asking me to help them place their horses. I have been a court appointed appraiser since 1995 and keep a close watch on market values and I have also been a buyer at horse sales for over 40 years. When asked nowadays to offer an opinion on value I simply can’t. I REALLY don’t know! How can one value something that no-one can sell?

There are many many BILLIONS invested in our industry! Do those billions and the many lives they have supported for generations just get wiped out?

The present attrition rate of horses and the jobs that go with them is truly alarming. Not just in the racing industry but in the entire equine community. There are well over 40,000 horses of all sorts in South Africa – possibly many more. I have friends in the sporting horse industry who tell me that their plight is no different to ours but keeping a racehorse is somewhat more complex and a lot more costly, so the burden is so much bigger. I have seen other people’s input on all sort of media. The front page of The Mercury yesterday proclaimed: “SA’s Horseracing Industry under threat” – it’s true and should be shouted out loud.

Mike de Kock’s interview with Nicholas Godfrey which includes the Drakenstein-sponsored video put together by Andrew Bon can be seen here: https://horseracingplanet.com/2020/05/06/mike-de-kock-issues-grim-warning-of-mass-equine-euthanasias-amid-south-africas-racing-shutdown/

I signed the Petition initiated by Snaith racing this morning. Please join: http://chng.it/Xbvx9r5jFt

Hazel Kayiya’s excellent interview last night on Newzroom Africa can be seen here: https://youtu.be/aSa8YO1TT5I and you can read the NHRA’s press release below.

Thank you to all those that are trying so hard to help. I must throw my 5c worth into the ring now because I can’t just stand by and watch this insanity. Sure this too shall pass; but we will never be the same again. We need and must try to stem the tide – urgently!!

I am not ashamed to tell you that I cried last night after one of the many calls I get from people who I know love their horses but have had to take drastic measures – it’s dreadful. I am very sure of my facts and dread being forced to take such a horrible decision myself one day. If the breeding season this year remains under threat I don’t know what I will do. What do you do when faced with no income and have to “get-rid-of” horses. It leads to the retrenchment of people that you have equipped with special skills over many years. I started the grooms school trust in Cape Town over 23 years ago. In the first 18 years we invested over R20m in training and education of grooms. I met the most amazing people in the process and felt enriched by the experience. Do we lose all of that as well now? Racing folk know each other as a family; because we care for each other.

The killing field that this ban on racing has created makes people, faced with retrenching staff, make very tough choices. I know of lots people that are forced into this situation. If only we could race and give them hope we could stem the tide.

It’s obvious that the Command Council want horse breeders to be treated differently to other farmers. How do they think a farmer feels when he has horses (that have been waiting to go to auction and can’t) compared to cattle, sheep etc that can be put to good use. It’s damn unfair and is causing people to do crazy things. I can cite many examples but a very recent one is that of a very well-bred filly foal with a skew knee (a non-congenital defect) that was put down recently. She would normally have been kept just for her pedigree. Even if the mare sale happens there is no doubt in my mind that a lot more mares will be put down for economic reasons very soon. They have no present value because of this ban on racing.

I have begged people to explain to me the rationale behind the Council’s decision. A friend suggested that I visit a website called supportbusiness.co.za. There I found the item below. So why is it possible to transport livestock but isn’t it ok to transport horses to an empty racecourse for exercise? AND if it’s ok to take horses to an empty racetrack to do no more than they do every day; get fed, groomed, ridden and trained by the very same people that will take them to the racecourse – with exactly the same safety precautions that they deal with every day anyway why can’t it be a “ghost race” with no spectators? Give those that have to do all of this hope!

So from the above it’s uncertain why cattle and other live animals are allowed to be trucked but not horses. Horses are bred on farms = agriculture. In this sense our horses are no different to livestock other than that they create more employment than almost all other types of farming and create massive revenue for the state. Given the opportunity, racing is a major contributor to tourism and forex revenue as well. I don’t have to explain how that works! So we MUST keep the game alive! It’s our duty. The racehorse is man’s finest genetic achievement. In over 330 years our type of horse has evolved into a very special athlete. We must not let our stud book be destroyed. You can never get those lost genes back.

Racing AND breeding horses is also “green friendly”! Just look at an aerial view of any major city, be it NY, Paris, Sydney, Hong Kong, Seoul, Rio, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and you will see a huge patch of green: a racecourse! An open space generally surrounded by well-established  trees (in places like Chantilly they even have forests) that provide outdoor relief to congested cities. Racing is also eco-friendly. In fact the biodiversity in the centre of Kenilworth racecourse is said to be home to more  rare species of fauna and flora (for its size) than almost anywhere else in Africa. Think nature conservation.

This morning I read Herman Mashaba’s open letter which starts with: It is not the loss of freedom… rather it is the extent to which our lives are being governed by arbitrary, illogical and personal hobby-horses of a cabinet left to handle these matters as they see fit.

I know that state officials have visited training centres to see how well racing folk are implementing lock down rules and have, without exception, given it the green light. So we are all doing our bit and since we are doing it every day in training why can’t we do it on a racecourse, without any spectators? Beggars belief. Please will someone in the Command Council see the sense in this. Racing is NOT a contact sport! If you don’t allow the resumption of racing (GHOST MEETINGS like they do in other parts of the world) then you shouldn’t allow training because it’s EXACTLY the same! And if you don’t allow training I cannot stand the chaos and loss of life and jobs that will follow. A racehorse just cannot stand in a stable.

As desperate as I am I have to say that Herman Mashaba may be right! The people in the command council clearly don’t know enough about our industry to make the right decisions? How do we help them?

Following my comments on Twitter yesterday a journalist from the Sunday Times called me. She knew nothing about our industry but had some preconceived ideas about “elitism and big crowds”. I explained what a “ghost” race meeting was and how important our industry is to so many lives and the incredible bond that exists between owners, trainers and grooms, work-riders and service providers on many levels; all because of their love of horses. I asked her to investigate how we are expected to survive if we are not allowed to extend the training that we do every day onto a racecourse – no crowds, no extra risk. I hope that she got the picture because I know how these things can be distorted by the media.

Racing in Australia has continued because the state recognises the huge value that the industry adds to their economy and because it is safer “than going to any supermarket” read what Champion Trainer Chris Waller has to say.

I believe that during an interview on TV (I didn’t see it) one racing official’s explanation of the need to allow “ghost racing” was covered by images of large crowds on course. That surely didn’t serve our cause; in fact exactly the opposite! Why would the TV people do that?

  • John Freeman is publisher of SA’s ‘Racing Bible’ the SA Turf Directory. With over 44 years’ experience in the thoroughbred industry, he specialises in stallion selection and management.

Horse racing calamity on the horizon if corona lockdown continues

NHRA press release:

The horse racing industry is running against time to save more than 60 000 jobs, the welfare and lives of the almost 20 000 racing horses and much desired foreign exchange earnings currently threatened by the continued lockdown of the country due to the corona pandemic. The industry is asking the National Command Council (NCC) to give permission for the industry which is on the verge of collapse to resume controlled closed horse racing during Level 4 as the only way to starve off massive jobs losses, closures of horse training and racing facilities and to avoid potential health hazards that would result from mass euthanising or abandoning of distressed horses.

The National Horseracing Authority (NHA) CEO, Vee Moodley, says if government allows closed racing during level 4 as proposed by the industry regulating body, this will save the majority of the 60,000 jobs in the industry. Without competitive racing, the industry is not generating income to pay salaries for personnel needed to care for the horses, training and racecourses.

“We are in dire situation as an industry because all the lost revenue impacts directly at least 6 people who look after the horses before, during and after each race. Our plea to our government at this stage is not for the industry to operate as business as usual, but to do the least to save jobs and horses. We are asking for closed racing which will involve about 65 people per racecourse and about 15 minutes of racing per day. That is all it will take to avoid the collapse of this industry at this stage,” says Moodley.

Despite the prospects of significant economic impact on racecourses, jockeys and the staff who look after horses, Moodley says the industry was one of the first active sporting codes to adhere to the National State of Disaster regulations once announced by the President Cyril Ramaphosa on 15 March 2020. Beside applying strict safety and physical distancing regulations, the industry voluntarily embarked on closed racing from 16 March 2020 to 26 March 2020.

“The health and safety of all stakeholders is of paramount importance to us, thus we acted swiftly in joining government to flatten the curve.  We are proud that up until now, through the stringent enforcement of the rules, we have no reported cases of Covid-19 in any part of our industry and we intend to keep it that way,” says Moodley.

Financial Impact

Like most economic activities in South Africa, the horse racing industry has suffered massive financial losses in the last 6 weeks due to the suspension of all sporting activities. The NHA has worked out the following financial impact estimates:

  • Trainers have lost about R30m per month plus 15% reduction in business operation.
  • About 4,500 grooms have lost about 1% of Stakes of R30m and loss of income from incentives scheme,
  • Jockeys have lost 10% of stakes of estimated at R30m per month plus R3.5m in riding fee monthly.

“The most vulnerable group that has been most affected by this lockdown are breeders who breed horses for racing, which is the most labour-intensive part of the industry were some 12 are created for each R1 million expended. If there is no racing, there is no demand for the horse and therefore no money accruing to breeders,” says Hazel Kayiya, NHA’s Executive: Racing Administrator

She adds that the loss of income has led to a 20% spike in the number of horses being euthanised with between 300 to 400 horse currently facing the fate every month, as well as, horse abandonments, resulting in the loss of jobs and bloodlines. The NHA expects the number of euthanised horses to increase by 50% per month if racing continues to be banned in SA.

Proposed restart through controlled and Closed Horse Racing Events

The racing industry supports governments efforts to deal decisively with the Covid-19 pandemic, and every decision being undertaken and considered by the NHA puts the health of the public and participants first.

The NHA has put through a request to the President and the NCC to consider a partial restart of the industry to protect jobs and the welfare of the industry’s key participants – the horses.

The NHA has proposed that horse racing be restarted under strict conditions:

  • With 8 races of approximately 2 minutes each per day between 12h00 – 17h00
  • All racing to be held behind closed doors with no spectators. The races will be broadcast under normal channels both domestically and to 42 other countries internationally
  • Approximately 65 persons are required per race meeting and these people are located at various areas within the racecourse, applying strict physical distancing protocols. These includes trainers, jockeys, grooms, officials and staff deemed necessary to host a race meeting safely and successfully.
  • All Covid-19 health and safety protocols to be always followed, including observance of guidelines for physical distancing, sanitation and hygiene, and use of appropriate personal protective equipment as determined by the National Department of Health.

South Africa is the 8th most important horse racing market out of 65 countries, and this is significant for horse export, and profitably television rights.

“We have applied to government for financial assistance, and we are told that is under consideration. But the partial opening of industry for closed racing that we are proposing, and which poses no health risk at all, will do away with the need for government financial relief,” adds Moodley.

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