Qld Racing Looking For Better Days Ahead

14
Jun

It was British rock band Chumbawamba who belted out the catchy lyrics ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again, you are never going to keep me down’.

Queensland. Great weather, great beaches and let’s hope for a brighter future for the state’s amazingly resilient racing industry.
The groovy song hit the airwaves in 1997 but there should be a remix for Queensland’s racing industry.

The resilience of racing in the Sunshine State is extraordinary – you can give it a black eye, knock it down 100 times but it just keeps rising off the canvas and punching on.

Despite all the monumental blunders in the last few years, Saturday’s Stradbroke Handicap day crowd of 14,000 at Doomben was the biggest there since Black Caviar packed the joint with 19,000 in 2011.

There was a feel-good vibe in the air and some justifiably proud moments for rank-and-file Brisbane Racing Club staff who rolled up their sleeves and pulled off the massive logistical exercise of transferring the carnival from Eagle Farm to Doomben.

It involved rebuilding 3,000 square metres of marquees, moving 10,000 chairs and over a kilometre of event fencing.

On the racing front, local trainer Desleigh Forster summed up the resilience of the local industry after she lost her much-loved galloper Cylinder Beach who was almost like a family member.

There were a few tears but a willingness to get on with the job.

Little-known local trainer Paul Butterworth couldn’t have cared less about the turmoil in Queensland racing when he won the Group I JJ Atkins with Capital Gain.

The closure of the Eagle Farm track mid-carnival infuriated many but Butterworth was just so excited to have a Group I runner – let alone winner – he would have been happy had the JJ Atkins been run on the dirt at Gympie.

This was all more evidence that you can knock racing in Queensland down, but it is never down for the count.

And that is even more amazing given events of the last few years.

Let’s not forget that two years ago, almost on the eve of the Stradbroke, the Queensland Government removed all Queensland Racing boards.

The unprecedented step, which led to the removal of then CEO Darren Condon, came in response to the greyhound live baiting scandal.

Condon was made the scapegoat for the greyhound atrocities but he had faced an impossible job with a position too wide-ranging for just one person, being across every single issue in three vastly different codes of racing.

It led to another period of turmoil, cost-cutting and prizemoney slashes presided over by interim Racing Queensland chief executive Ian Hall, from KPMG.

Half a million dollars was cut from the Stradbroke and almost $19 million more slashed across the industry.

While other states were going forward with more cash and some bold visions for the future, Queensland was lurching backwards.

There were plenty more potholes along the way before the devastating debacle of the Eagle Farm track, which we were all promised would be among the best in the land.

But the $10 million layout turned out to be a shambles, money basically flushed down the drain and now there is going to have to be plenty more money to fix it.

Yet despite all the woeful moments and even worse headlines, there is a quiet sense of optimism emerging in some quarters.

The worst may be over, rock bottom may have been reached. Everyone is now searching for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Rob Heathcote, who trained Buffering to seven Group I wins, says Queensland trainers and other industry participants are hoping for a boost through the potential $11 billion merger of Tabcorp and Tatts Group.

Despite the Queensland industry’s gripes with Tabcorp and the Tab-owned Sky Channel in recent years, plenty of Queenslanders are keen for the additional money that would flow back to the industry as a result of the merger.

“We are all sweating on the TAB deal providing a pot of gold and giving the industry that financial boost to get us back to where we should be,” Heathcote said.

“For instance, at the moment it is very frustrating to be racing against a stack of opponents on the Sunshine Coast on Sunday for just $9,000.

“We have had to endure plenty of pain over the last few years. The Queensland racing industry has an uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot.

“But you have no choice but to be pretty buoyant when you look at the future.

“As a racehorse trainer, you have to be an eternal optimist and that is why we get up at 3am each day.”

Rob Heathcote is hoping for light at the end of the tunnel after tough times in the Queensland racing industry Photo: Steve Hart
No-one can gloss over the fact that everything is far from fine and dandy in Queensland and there is a long way to go to rescue the industry.

Even on Stradbroke Day, both UBET and Tabcorp reported wagering turnover was down.

UBET chief operating officer Brendan Parnell conceded the forced shift of Straddy Day from Eagle Farm to Doomben affected turnover.

“The smaller field sizes and one less race did impact turnover on Stradbroke Day,” Parnell said.

So what of the future?

Racing Queensland CEO Eliot Forbes sees much more positive times ahead.

Over the next three years he has pledged to boost prize money in a sustainable manner, invest in racing infrastructure projects and build a new customer engagement model.

“RQ is at an exciting stage in planning for the future prosperity of all three codes across Queensland, ” Dr Forbes said.

“Earlier this year RQ provided to government its infrastructure plan in order to ensure racing is in the best possible position to grow and prosper over the next two decades and beyond.

“The projects will be funded by the Racing Infrastructure Fund (RIF) which has $63 million available now with a further $61 million of inflows expected from the UBET agreement up until 2023.

“RQ is now liaising with the relevant clubs and has commenced detailed feasibility analyses and project programming.

“We have a clear line of sight on what we want to deliver in the future.”

Former US president Thomas Jefferson once said: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
The same could now be said of the resilient Queensland racing industry which is dreaming of better times ahead.

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