BRAD STEELE AND GREG MITCHELL ARE THE LAST HOPE OF THE HARNESS RACING TEAM IN QUEENSLAND…..Part 1

BRAD STEELE AND GREG MITCHELL ARE THE LAST HOPE OF THE HARNESS RACING TEAM IN QUEENSLAND…..Part 1

11/09/13

I’ve regularly written here over the 17 years that this website has been operating that of the three codes of racing – harness racing is the one that I’ve always found the most aesthetically appealing.

As a child of 12 attending and/or calling trots at the old Maryborough Showgrounds was such a thrill that I’ll never forget those wonderful days until the day they plant me. Yes, it was a non-TAB harness meeting with not a lot of prizemoney on offer but the close-up action, the drivers’ colours, the horse’s number bobbing around on the top of its head, the packed betting ring and the close finishes, all helped launch my eternal love of racing. As I got a wee bit older and could go and experience the glitz and glamour of a night at the Albion Park night trots, or to the thrilling meeting and up close and personal action of Stephens Paceway in Queen Street at Southport, or at Cairns when I worked in the National Bank up there for a period of time, or to Rocklea in Brisbane, the love affair with the light harness sport only grew.

“They” say the industry is now stuffed and I’ve been guilty of saying those words numerous times in the last decade yet deep down in my heart of hearts I know that if I could just take my teenage grandchildren to the Albion Park of yesteryear – anytime from opening night on 7 September 1968 right through to the late 1980’s, with an accompanying sumptuous dining experience at Silks Restaurant, that on the balance of probability, they’d fall in love with the place, but sadly they never got the chance – as the place died after they were born and no end of resuscitation attempts has breathed any life back into it. I accept that the kids of today have their heads buried in things called tablets that don’t help headaches, smartphones that are amazing, I-Pods, Internet, Facebook and this that and the other, and we all know that they seem to have a limited attention span nowadays away from those aforesaid items, but I defy anybody to tell me that they couldn’t help but see the sheer beauty of that little black mare, Kilkenny’s Return, with her glossy white gear, or that pretty face of Paleface Adios and his daisy-cutter action winning not one, but two Queensland Pacing Championships, or Rod Hill or Wayne Wilson calling home Noodlum in the 1975 Queensland Derby at Albion Park after the highly touted New Zealand visitor missed the start by 50 metres but still had the audacity to win, or that good sort from Western Australia Red Vicar winning a Queensland Pacing Championship, or Welcome Advice winning the first Inter Dominion ever run at Albion Park, or any of scores of other highlights I could name. The names of the equine athlete may well change down the annals of time, but the love of the sport and of adulation of witnessing great racing and top horses competing never fades.

Today as I sit here penning this story my heart is filled with sadness. We had such a wonderful industry and all the various administrators running the sport over the last couple of decades took it for granted to the point where it slipped away right before our eyes, just like terminally ill patients sadly pass away in hospitals every day of the week. No one came to rescue it – in fact some even helped speed up the demise of the sport. A succession of people in high places came along but after a Racing Minister like Russ Hinze they all proved pretty useless at keeping the momentum happening with the industry. “They” still bag Russ Hinze to this day, but a Racing Minister like that would sure get some action in the camp nowadays and the Queensland harness industry would never have been allowed to disintegrate to where it is today, if he were running the sport at State government level. They say he spent too much money, but I don’t ever remember Queensland going into receivership because of his excessive expenditure in the racing industry. If nothing else he and then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, a religious man who disliked gambling to the point where he banned poker machines, acknowledged the wonderful contribution that racing made to Queensland through taxes, employment and recreational benefits.

So after all that we finish up where we are today – merely left with just the sad skeleton of a once great and proud harness racing industry. As stated earlier, it’s been under the whip for a decade or more and going up and down in the one spot. Some say Bob Bentley and his Board buggered harness racing, but as far as I’m concerned that’s rubbish. The writing was on the wall long before Bob Bentley came on the scene. The industry that once raced with full fields all over the State from Cairns in the north to the Gold Coast in the south and inland to Toowoomba is but a shell of its former self, to the point where as at today it has just three functional racetracks. Albion Park’s still there. It’s the flagbearer harness track. Fancy having a harness track just 10 minutes from the CBD? How marketable is that place given its geographical location? Yet all it’s ever done is go backwards in the last decade or two with no one going to race meetings there even when champions like Blacks A Fake were racing there. Today it sits there with a condemned grandstand and a huge amount of totally wasted land that could have had an income producing large motel, hi-rise housing development, or a car park on it had some past committee had any foresight whatsoever, but instead the Albion Park of today is a total embarrassment. It has less atmosphere than Chenobyl had about five minutes after the reactor blew that time and it has less going for it today than it had on opening night in September 1968 – that’s amazingly 45 years ago. Where else in our society today would you find a place or entity that is demonstrably worse than it was 45 years ago? It would be akin to driving around in an FJ Holden today – and trying to imagine that that vehicle outperformed the modern day motor car with all its air conditioning, ABS, airbags and all the other associated bells and whistles. It would be going back to the days when if a human being had a heart attack they automatically died.

Redcliffe has been a wonderful servant to harness racing in Queensland. Many of the best pacers that ever set foot on a harness racetrack in this State came out of stables at Redcliffe. But as things age they get tired and the Redcliffe track needs money spent on it to get it back up to speed. Who’s got any money in the racing industry to help them out? No one – yet the government makes a bloody fortune from racing. They “take” that fortune from the racing industry but return precious little. Politicians in general aren’t real bright, but then again I guess if you pay peanuts you’ll get monkeys. They seem to fail to understand that life’s a two-way street. Every villager in the town can go to the well and take a bucket of water out of that well every day if they so desire, but if they continue to take day-in-and-day-out, then one day the well will dry up, then it’s useless to everyone – as everyone is dead, they died of thirst when they ran out of water. The facts and realities are that the State government does bugger all for racing. Sadly money that is put into their coffers from gambling taxes doesn’t go back into racing – it’s used to fund all the often desperate and dateless losers in our society and/or ridiculous projects like researching the mating habits of some silly rare frog that someone with clearly too much time on their hands found up a tree in a North Queensland rain forest. It’s all so stupid it defies belief. But I digress – so back to the score at the Test and we’ve got Albion Park and we’ve got Redcliffe and that’s it – just two tracks. What a sad and pathetic legacy that is of such a once wonderful buoyant industry. I guess as at today we also have Parklands on the Gold Coast, but it’s closing down in a couple more weeks and has its send-off on Friday 27 September.

I accept Bob Bentley and his Board did little to help harness racing, but a change of government from Labour to the LNP in 2012 gave the industry new hope. Not much has changed in the first 12 or 18 months of the new Racing Queensland regime. Just more promises which is pretty typical of what habitually happens both in politics and on racing Boards. Racing Queensland Chairman Kevin Dixon told a greyhound industry meeting that I attended in April 2012 that he expected to announce where the new greyhound track would go in South-East Queensland “by Christmas” (2012). We’re fast heading towards Christmas 2013 and still not a murmur, so maybe I’m just getting blasé, but I don’t take any notice of all the words and promises – we want to see some actions, as they speak much louder than words just like the saying goes. Talk is cheap – I learnt that about 40 years ago – so by the time you get to my age and stage, it’s all pretty much water off a ducks back.

So it’s hardly rocket science to conclude that the harness racing industry in 2013 in Queensland is but a shadow of its former self. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that “it’s pretty much stuffed”. However I’m prepared to stand back and smell the roses for a while longer and watch their two newly appointed code specific Board members for harness racing – Brad Steele and Greg Mitchell – have a go at picking up the threads of an industry and then seeing if they can knit a fine head-turning cardigan out of the threads. It’s a huge job they are undertaking, but they put their hand up and knew when they did that, that they were on what I’d call “a kick in the guts to nothing”. At least they are new names having a go, not the same old same old – and as such they are entitled to have the full support of the industry as at today. Yes by all means howl them down and throw rotten fruit at them in the Queen Street Mall in three years time if nothing has picked up, but they are entitled to a fair go. At least it’s not as if we are recycling the same names of past failures on that board, in the case of these two men. They both addressed an industry meeting last Sunday at Albion Park and by their words and what they no doubt picked up in no uncertain fashion from industry attendees on the day, was that they are blatantly aware of the many and varied issues confronting the industry – and that’s good, as step one in fixing any problem along the path of life is to accept that a problem exists in the first place.

I’m a steadfast believer, as I’ve written here numerous times that committee people on metropolitan race clubs should be changed every two years – country race clubs are understandably different because they don’t have the membership or population base of city clubs. Many city committee persons are in office at metropolitan race clubs for years and years. That simply shouldn’t be allowed. Why is that? Well put simply, if they had any constructive ideas to offer their club, two years is plenty of time to instigate those changes. In the relay race that is running a race club, each person should run with the baton for two years maximum – then they should pass it to some new blood with fresh legs to have a run with it. That simple strategy does two important things, firstly it optimises the chances of getting new ideas happening all the time and secondly it importantly seriously reduces the possibility of a “boys club” mentality taking over that club. I see “old men” on race club committees all around Australia. Some will die in the role and haven’t had a new idea since they came up with a brainwave 10 or 20 years ago. It’s absurd. They have nothing to offer and are depriving some much younger and more vigorous person the opportunity of showing his or her talents. The “old men” sit around like revered figures, because of some past glory, or past achievement – and club members are so thick that they keep voting them back in. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s primarily been the “boys club” mentality in race clubs that leads us to where we are today – which is sort of half way between a rock and a hard place.

So for race clubs of all codes to succeed into the future in the ever changing world of racing, the club has to what I call “grow up quickly, wake up from their slumber – and get a new mentality”. They have to come up with innovative ways to attract new punters and get regular and substantial turnover increases happening on their product. They have to build motels on course, or car parks and increase revenue streams that way. If industry bosses would have bothered taking notice of what’s been written on this website over the last 17 years in that regard, the racing industry would have been far more self sufficient than it is now, instead of it being almost totally reliant on government hand-outs to get by.

Whilst it’s fair comment that the world generally changes for the better, that’s not always the case. Taking harness racing away from the annual RNA Show in Brisbane and the numerous country shows, because of insurance costs, put a huge number of nails in the coffin of the sport. We need to get back to the grass roots support for the harness industry. The children of today never get to see the pretty black horse in the glossy white gear like Kilkenny’s Return, or the Paleface Adios lookalike go around at the local show, so a whole generation has come through our society and wouldn’t even know what “the trots” are. They think it’s when you need to find a toilet quickly. They have no idea how exciting the sport can be to watch. I defy the young people to gin around with their silly tablet, smartphone, or I-pod when Stormy Water is launching a run out three or four wide at the tight RNA Showgrounds in the final of the Fourex Trot with $2,000 to the winner, on the closing night of the RNA with a live radio broadcast off course. How the hell did we let all that die? I fancy a lot of people have a lot to answer for, so we have nothing to lose by giving a couple of new blokes a go. Even if they try and fail well at least “it’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.” I’ve got it in my water that they can make a difference and I sincerely hope that they can, because truly they are the last roll of the dice as far as I’m concerned.

Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the ideas that were put forward at a harness racing industry meeting at Albion Park to do something constructive for harness racing.

Today on www.brisbaneracing.com.au there’s the second montage of photos from Eagle Farm last Saturday plus a further update on the Clifford Park cushion track being ripped up. On www.sydneyracing.com.au there’s the “What’s In A Name” segment from last Saturday’s races, whilst on www.melbourneracing.com.au Matt Nicholls writes on Victorian racing.