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Harness racing set for return but race form in newspapers is not as TAB implements cost-cutting measures

27th May, 06:42

Gore trainer Tony Stratford talks about Gore being left off the harness racing calendar.

Live horse racing returns on Thursday after the Covid-19 shutdown but punters who aren't tech-savvy can expect a tough first-up run.

Due to the significant cost-cutting measures from the Racing Industry Transition Agency (RITA), the TAB is no longer supplying its tried and tested form guide to New Zealand newspapers for the first time in several decades.

The TAB's phonebet betting service is also gone, with phone bets only able to be placed via touchtone.

Trackside Radio has been culled from the AM frequency with punters having to go stream race audio via the TAB app or website.

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But Stuff understands the NZ Racing Desk, which is funded separately from RITA, will continue its editorial racing service.

That service is also distributed to the mainstream media.

Stuff editorial director Mark Stevens said the TAB's decision was unfortunate for the racing fans among newspaper readers, as it means Stuff's mastheads would no longer carry race form.

"Those with an interest in form, fields and results will hopefully know the alternatives for finding those, and we will continue to carry editorial coverage of key race meetings and industry issues in our mastheads," Stevens said.

The cuts come despite the TAB, which operates under the banner of RITA, being granted $50 million of the $72m taxpayer-funded Government bailout to the racing industry.

RITA has been in crisis mode due to Covid-19 taking a massive chunk out of its lucrative sports betting market and the shutdown of domestic racing for the better part of two months.

RITA has laid off 230 staff in a desperate bid to save costs, including the face of sports betting in New Zealand Mark Stafford.

More job loses are possible at RITA with an independent review of the structure of the executive leadership team currently underway with consultation on any proposed changes expected to start next week.

The demise of Trackside Radio is another blow for punters that only compounds the 2014 loss of Trackside TV ceasing its broadcasts on free to air TV.

But all is not lost with the TAB confirming they are: "Working with the team at the Raceform publication about their resumption to align with domestic racing getting up and running."

Stuff understands that may not come until closer to the time of July 3 when New Zealand's domestic thoroughbred racing restarts at Riccarton.

For the meantime, harness and greyhound punters will have to rely on The TAB's website, app and the websites of the three racing codes and TAB outlets for race fields and form.

The harness racing resumption comes at Addington on Thursday, with the second leg of a doubleheader on Friday due to an abundance of horses being nominated.

Due to the Covid-19 shutdown, Addington will be the first harness racing meeting since March 23.

Addington's meeting and those for the foreseeable future will be closed to the public, including owners, as clubs adhere to strict Covid-19 protocols.

But when crowds are allowed back on course there will be another inconvenience for punters with the TAB looking to phase out manual betting facilities - aka talking to an operator behind the counter - in favour of an increased number of self-service terminals and improving customer education of its online platforms.

Racebooks will be available, at individual clubs' discretion, when punters are permitted back on course.

Harness is not the first live racing to return since the Covid-19 shutdown.

Greyhound racing kicked back into action on May 5.

RITA executive chair Dean McKenzie said the TAB's monthly revenue dropped almost 50 per cent below forecast and customer numbers were down more than 35 per cent since the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

"The implication of COVID-19 has extended beyond the immediate impact to the TAB, with racing and sport continuing to look unpredictable over the next year," McKenzie said.

"The reality is these changes will help the TAB to be a leaner, more efficient business and focused on driving our core wagering and gaming offering to our customers."