Day At The Track

"Ghost meetings" the norm for now

10:00 AM 17 Mar 2020 NZDT
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Rob Auber handles the MC duties with class at a strangely quiet Charlton Pacing Cup,Harness racing
Rob Auber handles the MC duties with class at a strangely quiet Charlton Pacing Cup
Elizabeth Crews photo

Harness racing administrators are scrambling to re-invent and reorganise a plethora of events and meetings as the impacts of Coronavirus (COVID-19) dramatically alters the racing landscape across Australia and the world.

Victoria became the first state to declare a State of Emergency around the pandemic on Monday, enacting powers to restrict movement, gatherings and events - but the declaration was not before Harness Racing Victoria had already implemented a ban on patrons on Saturday, limiting on-track attendance to essential staff and licenced participants with a horse engaged.

South Australia has since implemented similar bans and other States are expected to follow suit.

"Ghost meetings" are now the norm, with Charlton's biggest annual racing meeting, the Charlton Pacing Cup, being run and won in front of a non-existent crowd, closed bars and empty stands.

The club's marketing manager Andrea O'Gorman said Sunday's cup was definitely unlike any previous, but the decision was an easy one.

"We were on the front foot in consultation with HRV. It was an easy decision because it was the only one that could be made - as disappointing as it was, there's a bigger picture than our pacing cup meeting," Ms O'Gorman said.

The bare marquees in front of the impressive new Charlton Park Community Hub on Sunday were a stark illustration of the impact the virus is having across Australian communities large and small.

The first Pacing Cup in the new facility was to have been a major celebration of the community's achievements in reaching a long-term goal to build a new multipurpose sporting complex.

But Ms O'Gorman said the club was very comfortable with the decision.

"It was the responsible action and these things happen. In the context of things, lets be honest we are just a little club. We live in an ageing town, so we have to think of not just sporting interest but also the community," she said.

"Looking at the bigger picture we don't want to jeopardise people who are involved in the sport, because they need this - it's their employment."

Harness Racing Victoria has advised race meetings across the State will, until further notice, be restricted only to staff and licenced participants who have a horse engaged.

Next Sunday Mallee town of Ouyen's Pacing Cup, will go ahead without spectators. A major annual community event, the cup provides an important economic boost for the remote town. But it's also a major social fixture, bringing the community and former residents from across the State together for family and school reunions - underpinning the reasons for the patron ban.

And no one would envy the task of Mildura Harness Racing Club secretary manager Michelle McGinty, who is the final stages of organising Victoria's only three-day Pacing Cup Carnival.

With most of the logistical work already done, McGinty is again working overtime, now cancelling, scaling back and rebooking all the resources, accommodation, entertainment and service providers required for a five-day program of events.

"It's very disappointing for all of us, but at the end of the day, the health and wellbeing of everyone involved has to take priority," McGinty said.

"Rest assured, we will be back bigger and better than ever for next year's carnival, though, and we hope industry and racing fans will still support our event this year, off course, and in any way they can," she said.

"There will obviously be a lot of disappointment, but it's the proper cause of action and hopefully people will understand."

HRV CEO Dayle Brown said the announcement of crowd restrictions followed the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer declaring a ban on public gatherings of 500 or more people.

"We acknowledge our decision is a significant one, but we must protect the health and wellbeing of our people in the industry," Brown said.

"In the future we will be listening to advice from medical experts and act accordingly to mitigate risk to health," he said.

"We have limited staff numbers working at tracks and in the HRV office, with a business continuity plan in place to allow staff to operate remotely.

"This will ensure our harness racing continues to go ahead as usual, but I urge those contacting HRV to be patient as some adjustments are necessary."


Terry Gange

NewsAlert PR Mildura

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