Leona Prendergast has been a staunch supporter of the racing industry for decades.
Recently she was awarded a life membership of the Ashburton Trotting Club and she talks to reporter Sue Newman about the strong future she sees for racing in the Ashburton District.
When Leona Prendergast stepped down from the Ashburton Trotting Club’s committee, she immediately picked up a new job, one very dear to her heart.
The 80-year-old decided it was time to move aside and let some new blood come through and, for her 22 years around the club’s board table, she walked away with a life membership and with a very special role as the club’s ambassador.
“I went on the committee in August 1995 to try and help the club out. I was a hands-on sort of person, not a leader, but you need those too. I’d set turning 80 as my time to step down and for younger people to step in,” she said.
She’s a little unsure what her role as club ambassador involves but says she’s keen to help steer the club in the right direction, to help it move into a new era where the two racing codes – harness and gallops – work together for the betterment of the racecourse.
“A lot of changes have to happen around the racecourse and now’s the time, it’s a new beginning. I’m just as dedicated to helping gallops as trots and I’m dedicated to making the Ashburton Racecourse second only to Addington and Riccarton in the South Island.”
While each of the two codes continues to have their own committees, Leona said she can see there is now a real desire by both to co-operate in driving towards a bright future for the racecourse.
“We won’t get any progress without co-operation and we need to get some outside income so we’re not solely reliant on race days. We have a lot of ground and we have a great facility but this income is important, it’s the future of the clubs and it seems there is a real will to do something for this facility.”
Leona says she doesn’t have the answers, but she knows solutions to the ongoing need for funding need to be found.
“It’s about what we can do to stimulate interest, to get some income in. It’s not just a quick financial boost, there needs to be sustainable, ongoing income.”
Change is already under way with the MSA taking over the accounting role of the club and its race day administration moving to Christchurch
For someone who has spent most of their adult life involved with racing, there’s nothing better than to be part of developing a new future for racing in the district, she says.
The industry is changing but Leona believes its future is still strong, however, for most clubs as race-day crowds and on-course betting decline, that future will be tied up in a struggle for money.
One solution, she says, is for the TAB to increase its return to clubs. Even a two per cent increase would make a difference.
Changes to the handicapping system that are currently being trialled could help from a participation point of view, ensuring race-days provide win opportunities for horses of all levels rather than seeing dominance by the big stables, Leona says.
Racing has always been a part of her life. As a child in Central Otago her dad followed harness racing, her uncle gallops and Leona and grandad went to both.
With husband Dick she farmed at Palmerston for a few years and during that time Dick trained horses on the side. They later moved to Oamaru to train full time before relocating to Chertsey.
Leona has never held a trainer’s licence and admits she's happier mucking out stables rather than doing hands-on horse work.
“I didn’t really think I had the ability to train, I don’t think I had the guts to do it and I’m not a confident person around horses, I’m a horse woman.”
Over the years the couple bred horses as well but, like most breeders, can only count a few who paid their way.
Dick and Leona might no longer run a training establishment but she still puts in several hours each day at friend Ben Waldron’s stable doing whatever is needed.
She’s only ever been a small time punter, attends plenty of race meetings and has only missed one New Zealand Cup day.
“It’s just not the same watching it on TV,” she says.
While receiving a life membership was a nice recognition for her years on the committee, Leona said more importantly she was now looking ahead to being involved, long term, in helping secure a solid, long-term future for the Ashburton Racecourse.
- Ashburton Guardian