A couple of months into his new role as Canberra Racing Club CEO and Darren Pearce has hit the ground running in his quest to reinvigorate the industry in the ACT.
Racing is under fire from several quarters. The greatest unrest stems from the departure of big-name trainers due to a number of pressures.
The prohibitively high cost of workers compensation and the lack of certainty around securing places in the rich Highway Handicap in Sydney are at the top of grievances.
And it’s created uncertainty in the industry.
There is an upside: a proposal for a major property development to provide homes for thousands of residents on under-utilised land at Thoroughbred Park.
For this to happen, there needs to be a zoning change.
The development ensures financial sustainability for Canberra Racing Club, allowing it to invest in a bright future.
Darren will be the key driver of the project and the industry’s reinvigoration as a whole. He comes to the role with impressive credentials, providing confidence for those in the industry.
Appointed CEO of the Australian Jockey Club in 2009, the role’s youngest ever appointee, he was founding CEO of the Australian Turf Club and executive general manager of Media and International at Tabcorp.
Darren now looks forward to overcoming the challenges facing ACT racing.
“We are working on a legal and commercial solutions strategy with the government,” he says of progressing the workers compensation issue.
“We don’t want to lose jobs and the industry in Canberra.”
And to secure places for Canberra-trained horses in the Highway Handicap?
“We need to look at the overall contribution we make to Racing NSW,” Darren says.
“On average, we provide 350 starters a year for Racing NSW events. We need to look at our relationship holistically with Racing NSW and be prepared to pay our way if we want to be a bigger part of the fast-paced growth of racing in NSW.”
He is also addressing the state of the Acton synthetic track, which requires significant redevelopment.
“It’s not where we want it to be. We are doing a major renovation at the moment. If it doesn’t work, we will look at replacing the artificial track. When the track is right, it will be a competitive advantage for Canberra racing.”
Land rezoning offers enormous potential – and a challenge.
“Problems can be overwhelming,” Darren says.
“There is a massive opportunity with the rezoning of the surplus land. We are expecting a public exhibition of the rezoning in December this year, then the work will begin on planning our future.”
Darren’s focus is firmly on generating community support for the sport, which may have waned as issues mounted, and also for the Canberra Racing Club as its works through the various challenges facing the industry.
Adding to the pressure, the ACT Greens are pressing to stop about $40 million in ACT Government funding – close to $7.5 million a year over five years – that goes into Canberra’s horse racing industry.
But Darren understands the hill his industry needs to climb and remains optimistic.
“Respect is earned and we need to win back the respect of the government and community. I see more positives than negatives in our future if we get this right.”
To suggest it’s a transformative time in Canberra racing is a significant understatement. Progress will require a combination of skills, including resilience, leadership and energy. Darren appears to have these in abundance.