A seriously good day at the races

A bloke walks past a stable and a horse says: “Hello, I’m a Melbourne Cup winner.” He turns around and says: “Oh my god, a talking horse… are you serious?” And the horse says: “No, I’m Rainbird; Sirius won it the year before.”

The joke has been going around since Sirius, a 3/1 favourite, won the Cup in 1944. Racing can be like that; go to most country tracks and nothing seems to change. Same old one-liners, trainers with their tired-looking faces from too much 4am trackwork, and ‘ol timers studying form guides searching for a winner in the last.

But as we take interest in thoroughbred racing again during this Spring Carnival, a time when self-imposed “experts” tip a ‘cert’ and we refuse to believe there never is one, it seems some country racing clubs have changed. For one moment let’s erase the notion racing is only about blokes in a betting ring feeling invincible with their trifectas, schooner in a plastic cup in hand.

Now enter the Strathalbyn Racing Club. Okay, its next meetings on Sunday, October 8 and the first Wednesday in November with a race that stops a street won’t be a smidgen of the glamour and the excitement of the thundering hooves of international equine champions at Flemington, but they will nonetheless offer their unique experience of a great day at country races.

As the Sport of Kings gets another airing at one of the greatest race meetings in the world, Kristy Martin, the new business development manager at Strathalbyn, and the club’s revitalised committee, will bring us the Sport of Everyday People.

Simply, the blinkers have been taken off. The amenities have been modernised, covered in fresh paint, there’s new signage and everything has been cleaned.

Kristy Martin, the new business development manager at Strathalbyn Racing Club, wants us to see a day at the races as a fun outing, an opportunity to meet new people; networking they say. It’s also about us promoting our region as country race meetings in South Australia are now on free-to-air TV on Channel 78 or 68, with the coverage extending nationally and to Asia and the United States of America.

“We believe the Strathalbyn Racing Club can be a new means of selling this part of the Fleurieu Peninsula to the world,” Kristy said. “We are the jewell in the crown from a country racing perspective when you consider the region and our centralisation.

“We need to educate people on what racing is really about, and show them this other side of racing. Racing is more than a race; it’s an industry within itself and it can play a much bigger role in tourism across the Fleurieu Peninsula.

“We recently had a syndicate of 10 flying in from Hong Kong for our race day… they had an amazing experience. No one would have any idea just how many people arrive here from all over the place. We also had a group from Perth who did a tour of our beautiful Langhorne Creek wineries, cruised the Coorong and then had a great day out at the races right here.”

Kristy believes today’s generation of racegoers are there for the fun, the social environment aspect. After years of thoroughbred racing being seen solely as a place for diehard punters, there is increasing interest in becoming a part of a syndicate. The cost is comparatively reasonable; it’s the thrill of having a runner in a race and living the dream of part-owning a horse.

It’s all part of the romanticism in this game, if you like, but it had nothing to do with us choosing to run the image on our front cover of Never Without You. Trained by Ryan Balfour, he’s a stunning chestnut gelding, the grandson of a Golden Slipper winner, Rory’s Jester, and he won the last race, the McIlroy Auto Group Benchmark Handicap this particular day at Strathalbyn a few weeks ago.

Kristy is one of the few women in a senior administrative role in South Australian racing, and her ability to see another side of this sport has already been paying off since she joined the club in November with marketing experience including from the Langhorne Creek Regional Wine group.

“What we have needed to do is market racing at Strathalbyn as a special event rather than just relying on the same membership coming along and hoping for good numbers,” Kristy said.

However, those who have been coming here for years remain as welcomed and valued as ever, perhaps none more than Maxine Brook and her group of friends, whom they say “wouldn’t miss the Strath races for quids.”

Actually, it was shillings and pence when Maxine first attended a race meeting here, and has rarely missed one since. They quip before the starter at the barrier gates turns on the green light he first asks whether Maxine is here.

“I have just always loved the Strath races, right from the days my husband was a trainer,” Maxine said. “It’s just so friendly and relaxed, and at most meetings there’ll be 16 of us ladies sitting together in the members’ bar.

“We each put in our dollar each-way for each race, and oh, we have a wonderful time. I can remember my grandmother being here; she would put her 50 pence each way on her special for the day.”

Maxine’s twin, Geraldine, is a regular also, and recalls the 100/1 winners she has fluked over the years. There’s Jill Clarken – a big name in racing in these parts – who says it’s a memorable occasion whenever anyone in the group wins (she laughs).

They are indeed a delightful bunch of ladies, and in recent years behind the scenes they have raised thousands of dollars for charities including the local CFS from running their small raffles and whatever.

Hearing this makes you really feel there is more to these Strathalbyn race meetings than meets the judges; it’s about the people, not just the horses.

Kristy said there were 40 registered trainers who worked their teams here, and as many as 120 horses on a Saturday morning. “This represents a lot of owners, stablehands and so on. Racing is important to so many people who rely on it for their living.

“It’s a tough industry, racing. I sometimes wonder whether it is worse than milking cows in terms of the extreme hours, what with being here at 4.30 in the morning when it’s incredibly dark and cold working their horses.

“I just admire everyone involved. They are tough people, and then they do it all again at night, feeding the horses again. They’re a resilient bunch, and they always seem to be waiting for the next win.”

The old committee room once for men-only has been spruced up with the finest of decor and is being renamed. Here, the mixed company looks over the magnificent long straight and surrounds, the winning post, and observes the chatter between trainers, jockeys and owners in mounting yard. The view is sensational, and people around the world saw a the smiling faces when the favourite won the first. “That’s terrific,” Sirius would have said. But he’d be wrong. Tawriffic won the Cup in ’89.