Horse racing returns in New Zealand as lockdown eases

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — New Zealand’s financially troubled horse racing industry reopened Thursday after being shuttered for months because of the coronavirus outbreak, leading the return of organized sports as the nation moves toward normality.

A harness racing meeting which took place without fans at the Addington racecourse at Christchurch was the first since New Zealand went into strict lockdown on March 24.

Greyhound racing, which has a much smaller following than harness or gallops racing, was able to resume live racing earlier this month because it was more easily able to follow social distancing guidelines. Thoroughbred racing is due to resume on July 3.

Harness racing is the most popular form of racing on New Zealand’s South Island and a major employer. The Christchurch event offered some hope that the return of race meetings under New Zealand’s easing lockdown regulations will allow the industry to weather turbulent financial times.

Horse racing was already under severe financial pressure in New Zealand when the coronavirus struck.

The pandemic has already led to substantial job losses in the racing industry and betting income has plunged while race meetings in New Zealand have been suspended.

Trainers have kept horses in work during the almost two-month shutdown and the demand for starting places has been so great, with 290 horses entered, that the Addington meeting had to be split over two days with nine races on the opening day and 12 on Friday.

“It is all a bit surreal really with all that has been happening,” leading harness trainer Phil Williamson told media organization NZME. “You have got to support it and hope that it is the lifeline for the future … and not some knee-jerk reaction with no substance to it.”

Williamson has two horses entered at Addington and four at a meeting at Invercargill on the South Island on Saturday.

The New Zealand government recently allocated $45 million to the racing industry to help it meet its financial challenges.

“We can’t gild the lily,” Minister of Racing Winston Peters said in announcing the bailout. “The racing industry has been hit by the perfect storm of COVID-19 while in a weak financial state and in the midst of a reform program.

“As a result, there is a genuine risk of insolvency and the industry losing the future gains of its reforms.”

Under the reforms proposed by the Racing Industry Transition Agency, 20 thoroughbred or harness racing courses around New Zealand will close or lose licenses to hold meetings.

State-owned betting agency, the TAB, has recently cut almost one-third of its staff, closing a few of its storefront betting agencies. The organization has proposed ending face-to-face betting on racecourses, where bettors give cash to an operator and receive a ticket. On-course bettors are likely to have to use betting apps in future.

New Zealand’s decision to close its borders and go into lockdown quickly to slow down the spread of the coronavirus has been largely successful and restrictions are gradually being eased. A total of 21 people have died of COVID-19 in New Zealand and 1,504 have been infected, but there have been no new reported infections for the past five days.