Cambridge "thrilled" to be hosting The Race

By Michael Guerin

New Zealand’s racing first “slot” race based around the hugely successful Everest concept has been confirmed for Cambridge in April but with a significant stake increase that will instantly make it the richest harness race in New Zealand.

The $900,000 invite-only race on April 14 will be simply called, The Race.

Harness Racing New Zealand programmed the race as part of their radical overhaul of the New Zealand calendar for 2022 and the idea has now been picked up by the Waikato-Bay Of Plenty Harness Racing Club who will sell slots for $75,000 each for a minimum three-year term and add then $150,000 to the stake.

They hope to add more, either via sponsorship or through other partners to next year take The Race to $1million and $1.1million the year after.

If the latter is achieved it would become the richest race of any code in New Zealand, although with major progress being made by the newly-formed Auckland Thoroughbred Racing super club it wouldn’t surprise to see stakes for one of their elite races like the New Zealand Derby increase by then or soon after.

It would also seem only a matter of time before New Zealand thoroughbred racing instigates its own slot race but with Ellerslie, the most likely venue for it, set to close for the installation of a StrathAyr track in March it will hardly be an immediate priority for them.

So that leaves harness racing and Cambridge in particular with clear air for at least the next two seasons and a new centrepiece of the revised national calendar.

Chief executive David Branch has spent hours researching overseas slot races and discussing them with leaders in all three codes before coming up with the $75,000 buy-in and $900,000 stake.

“We are really excited to be the home of The Race and I am thrilled our executive backed it,” says Branch.

“It is going to be a great opportunity for New Zealand harness racing but also horses from right across Australasia and we want to make it a race and event representative of our region, which everybody knows is steeped in horse racing history.”

One of the key elements of Branch’s race conditions was even the last horse home getting $37,500 back, or half of the cost of the slot.

The $900,000 stake will be divided up $400,000 to the winner, $125,000 for second, $85,000 third, $65,000 for fourth and the remaining six starters each getting $37,500.

The race will be a 2200m mobile with preferential draws for three-year-olds then mares before older male pacers are drawn to make the race potentially attractive to horses like Bettor Twist and even Akuta.

The initial idea of a $500,000 slot race with 10 slots of $50,000 was really more of a sweepstake race, with HRNZ reluctant to put any extra industry funds into it as they target other areas they believe need that money more.

So the extra $150,000 for the Waikato-BOP club is the creme on top with the promise of more for slot holders who buy in for three years.

Some of those interested in slots will be owners of not only this season’s stars but those who consistently own horses racing at the top level, who will be able to start their own horses in the race with no need to share prize money with a slot holder.

Businesses or individuals who buy slots will have the opportunity to negotiate with the connections of Australasia’s elite pacers for them to race in that slot, with prize money often divided 50-50 between the parties.

That of course means most slot holders will have losing years during their three-year contracts but that will be nothing new to racing owners used to the gamble of buying yearlings while any business that buys a slot has the potential tax advantages of writing it off as part of their marketing budget.

It's believed Australian harness racing bosses are in the final throes of discussions to announce a A$2million slot race but that would be unlikely to launch to 2024.

That could see harness racing boast a calendar at the highest level of New Zealand Cup, Inter Dominions, Hunter Cup, Miracle Mile, Australian Slot Race, The Race at Cambridge and the moved Auckland Cup.

Even if those already established races don’t increase in stakes it would mean the best pacers can target over $6million in just seven races every season.

Add in the West Australian features, Victoria Cup, New Zealand’s other $100,000 to $250,000 races and the revitalized Queensland winter carnival and harness racing could be on the verge of entering its richest ever era for superstar pacers.

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