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Council challenges Taranaki horse racing club's 'sweetheart' lease deal

A name change more than 20 years ago is putting the 120-year history of horse racing in New Plymouth in doubt.

Race horses at New Plymouth raceway return to the stables after training. Source: rnz.co.nz

By Robin Martin of rnz.co.nz

The council says Taranaki Racing Incorporated has been operating illegally at its central city site and is consulting on the terms of a new lease - including the option of asking the club to leave.

At least one councillor was adamant the club should never again enjoy the kind of "sweetheart" deal it got in 1959, when the Taranaki Jockey Club found itself in a spot of bother and turned to New Plymouth's council for help.

The council bought the land and gave the club a perpetual lease - rent-free - which included control of all buildings, the track and most of the land.

It also pays the club's regional council rates bill.

First-term councillor Annaka Carlson said the community consultation process had glossed over the details.

"They've pretty much had a free ride at the expense of ratepayers. We're covering their Taranaki Regional Council rates and the council is covering its rates as well, which are cost neutral but we are missing out on that revenue and in these times of Covid-19 where we are tightening things up, that's information the community needs to know about."

Carlson said the previous lease smacked of the old boys network.

"I would describe it as a sweetheart deal for sure. I mean you just have to look at the history and the facts to see it was a pretty amazing deal that would never stand up in today's society and do we want that to continue?

"I guess that's for the community to decide and ultimately for us councillors to decide once we've heard their views."

The Taranaki Jockey Club stepped into a legal minefield when it changed its name to Taranaki Racing Club in 1999, essentially making its lease terms null and void.

To further complicate things, the Taranaki Racing Club was dissolved in 2012 when Taranaki Racing Incorporated was formed.

Chief executive Carey Hobbs said they would not give up the New Plymouth Raceway without a fight.

Taranaki Racing Incorporated chief executive Carey Hobb Source: rnz.co.nz

"We're the same club here with the same offices, the same staff. We've raced for 120 years here without much change. We believe that natural justice says we are the racing club here and the lease that was first brought together in 1959 should continue."

Hobbs said the council got the land for about a third of its estimated value in 1959 and the club had covered maintenance costs ever since.

A 2008 report found racing generated $230 million in economic activity in Taranaki, employed about 300 fulltime workers in the region and partially supported another 2000, he said.

Hobbs that would be at risk if the New Plymouth course was forced to close.

"While some of the races could be transferred to other courses, the Rugby Union would take an All Blacks test to Stratford or Hawera. It's just the way it is. We've got the population. We've got some significant racing events that happen here that wouldn't be transferred anywhere else in Taranaki."

Hobbs signalled the racing club would head to the courts if any decision went against it.

New Plymouth deputy mayor Richard Jordan said nothing was happening immediately.

"We have a view that they don't have a lease at the moment. That's our legal opinion. They have a contra view of course, Taranaki Racing, but we are not at war.

"What we've gone and done is gone out to the community and asked them four simple questions about what they think would be the best use of that land."

Perhaps confusingly, the council is seeking feedback online via a form entitled "the Pukekura Raceway Survey" - a name the racecourse has not used since 2018.

Ratepayers are being asked to choose between granting a "forever" or perpetual lease, a 33-year lease, a three to five year lease, or ending the lease completely.

The were mixed views on the streets of New Plymouth today. Jim Duff thought the lease should remain as it was.

"Give them original lease again. That is what was the agreement they had. I think they are entitled to it."

Heather White did not want racing to go.

"I'd love to see it still going. I love horse racing and I know a lot of horsey people and it's such a great day out for family."

A man who preferred not to give his name said the race course should be paying a lot more than what they were.

"Go for the three to five year lease paying a bloody reasonable going rate for the land."

Ngaire wanted to see change too.

"I just think it should be a whole new lease. Not the old one, more modern, more up to date."

The council has received more than 1700 responses to its survey, which closes today.