Country racing gets a gee-up with more prize money

Country racing gets a gee-up with more prize money

When David Bullock uses the whip and sends his memory galloping through the 36 years he has worked at Bathurst racetrack, he recalls the big crowds and characters.

Once upon a time even a midweek meeting could attract a thousand punters who would work their way through several kegs of beer. One winning owner was so happy he rode his horse into the bar of Bathurst’s Knickerbocker Hotel and shouted everyone inside.

”It’s just completely different now,” Mr Bullock said at the race meeting on Tuesday, where he optimistically estimated the quiet crowd at ”maybe a hundred”.

He does not even bother to tap a keg any more. Too much beer would be wasted. ”You struggle all the time,” he said of the club.

Bathurst is far from alone. Across the bush, the racing industry can barely raise a trot at many meetings. Poor crowds are only part of the problem. Many clubs are struggling financially, the number of owners, trainers and horses has fallen because of unsatisfactory prizemoney, and even the bookies are battling to put food on the table.

A Dubbo bookmaker, Kenny Orbell, has been doing race meetings ”from Bong Bong to Broken Hill” for 33 years. It was now ”impossible nearly” to make a decent living as a bush bookie, he said, gesturing at Bathurst’s near-empty betting ring.

But there are short odds on a brighter future. When the starting gates crash open at Mudgee and Bowraville today, the old prizemoney of $10,000 a race for a TAB bush meeting will jump to $15,000. At country non-TAB meetings, the increase is from $3500 to $6000.

The extra money has come from the victory Racing NSW scored against corporate bookmakers in March, forcing them to pay more for the racing product on which they rely.

While the legal battle was eventually settled in the High Court, its most profound effects will be felt by the battlers of bush tracks, like Peter Stanley. The Orange trainer was cheering on Racing NSW in its fight because country racing faced a ”dismal” future without the increase. ”We would have all been looking for other jobs,” he said. The extra money ”is going to keep us all rattling along”.

Kody Nestor, a Dubbo jockey, agrees the court win has been a lifesaver for a sick industry. ”In the last couple of years I’ve been doing 100,000 kilometres a year just to ride and make a living. Without the court case win we would have been gone. I know from talking to trainers and owners that if we had have lost the court case they would have thrown the towel in straight away,” he said.

Max Walker, a board member of Racing NSW Country and the chairman of the Mudgee Race Club, which is still in good health, said people should not think the extra prizemoney would solve all the problems of struggling clubs.

There also needed to be better management and upgraded infrastructure, he said.

David Henderson, who works as a clerk of the course at country tracks, said the prizemoney would boost the industry but predicted it would be a double-edged sword for some. The extra cash would also lure a greater number of superior horses trained on the other side of the Great Dividing Range. ”It’s going to be hard on the country trainers,” he said.

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