1 May, 2020
Country racing back in the zone
THE COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in horse racing being one of the few sports still operating in the country but the industry has not escaped major upheavals, including grappling to ensure biosecurity measures are strict and adhered to,
It has been an evolving environment over the past month with Racing Queensland (RQ) trying to keep abreast of protocols. Sunday saw the introduction of a new Greater Western Zone, causing reconfigurations in racing right across Central Queensland.
The new zone encompasses the whole of the Western Queensland corridor, aligning with the Local Government Western Alliance. Trainers and jockeys within this zone can race freely from Mt Isa to Roma. All areas are, to date, Coronavirus free.
The lack of local race meets within central western Queensland has been felt by the local racing fraternity and wider community, and no doubt the changes have caused confusion and angst among local industry members.
Longreach Jockey Club president Rob Luck has been one of the key local racing representatives pushing for meets to return to the west.
“Hats off to RQ for the hard work that has been done to keep our whole industry going during this time”, Luck said.
“With all the uncertainty, Longreach and many other western clubs had to make the tough decision to say no to racing in the best interests for our communities at the time. But now, with changing circumstances, Longreach is happy to run race meets again.”
Negotiations and planning has enabled the club and RQ to get racing back onto dirt tracks.
“Our goal is to reboot racing in the west”, Luck said. “It’s taken a lot of work to get approval to resume, and it has been the Covid-19 containment within the whole of Western Queensland that has allowed us to get going again.”
On the advice and support from Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young, the notion for the Western Queensland Zone was in response to restricting movement from the coast to inland communities.
“RQ has kept a strong alliance with health authorities and after many conversations and soft pressure, a resolution was reached on how we could make this work within our coronavirus-free area”, Luck said. “That is what got us over the line, the fact that we don’t move jockeys and horses from east to west.
“While the green light has been granted to race again in the Central West, it is up to each community to run a meet. In Longreach’s case, the race track is owned by the club so we can give it the go-ahead.”
When the RQ announcement came last week, some trainers and jockeys were disappointed to learn the scheduled meeting at Emerald had to be abandoned due to re-zoning.
“Unfortunately the call was made close to Emerald’s meet which was hard for some who have prepped horses and allocated jockeys,” Luck said. “However they must appreciate a lot of work went on behind the scenes to allow us to run meets closer to home. The alternative would have been no racing in the Central West.”
Jockeys are the most affected by the new changes with previous measures allowing them to ride in two zones. Now they can only select one.
This has raised concerns surrounding jockey availability in the Central West, an issue that has always been faced by the industry. Bush racing relies heavily on jockeys who ride in multiple districts.
Central West racing officials are hoping a pool of jockeys will be attracted from the North West and South West to satisfy the local fields.
Barcaldine-based jockey Brooke Richardson has praised all efforts to maintain the nation’s third largest industry.
“I don’t think there would be one jockey who hasn’t been
stressed by the possibility of their livelihood coming to a halt overnight, but
I feel blessed that the industry on my home turf and nation-wide has been so
proactive,” Richardson said.
“RQ has gone above and beyond to keep jobs going. There are so many cogs in this big machine, from breeding and spelling farms, right through to race tracks and stable operations. It’s such a massive process. If it were to shut overnight there would be huge repercussions for the Australian economy.”
Like many within the local racing community, Richardson understands the recent changes come with pros and cons, but the changes are mainly a big win for country racing.
“I will be pleased to see everyone out here get the opportunity to keep racing horses in the west and in more suited company,” Richardson said.
“Some trainers were finding it difficult for their horses to get a start in a race due to having to compete with provincial class horses. Hopefully the new zones will see our country class horses receiving the runs they deserve, more frequent meets for our district trainers, and maybe some normality returning to stable operations.”
Another welcomed “plus” for local stakeholders is that RQ has fixed Greater Western Zone prizemoney at the TAB price of $10,000 per race for the non-TAB meetings.
As the west gears up for racing to recommence, stringent measures will be adopted to ensure the safety of all involved.
Country racing must adhere to strict protocols such as providing competent security staff to ensure meets remain patron-free, monitoring that only essential people are on site, temperature checks on all key personnel, strict handling and cleaning of saddlery and equipment, and jockey leg-ups.
“These measures have been put in place to protect our region,” Luck said. “Hopefully because of these changes, down the track we will be able to ease the restrictions within our zone because the boundaries have been put in place to coincide with clean regions,” Luck said.
“It's going to be a bit different seeing our race tracks like ghost towns, but it’s a vital step in getting racing back to normal.”
The new program is: May 3 Longreach; May 9 Mt Isa and Charleville; May 16 Barcaldine (TBA), if not, Longreach will take this date; May 23, Mt Isa; May 30, Longreach.
RQ will review biosecurity measures after May and revise program if needed.