Robert Carmichael has been involved with Woolamai Picnic Race Club since the day he arrived home from boarding school in the 60s armed with his newly attained tractor driving licence and was asked by his dad to ‘go down to cut the track.’
Robert remembers the big, steel cables that were originally used as running rails. They were cast-off cables that the pit ponies used to pull skip carts out of the mines. ‘Jockeys never went near the rails then, OH&S would die if they saw it now’, laughs Robert. The cables were replaced with wood, then aluminium and now plastic.
Over the years, Robert has been prepared to do anything required to keep the club running, he’s managed the bookmakers, parked cars, handled gate receipts, assisted with course maintenance and been on hand to help with all improvements carried out on the reserve.
When Robert’s dad retired in the ’80s, he took over as President and later his wife Bev became the Club’s secretary. In the early days of Robert’s involvement, there were 3 clubs using the same track. Robert and Bev were heavily involved in the discussions that led to the amalgamation of the three clubs into the Club that is now known as the Woolamai and District Racing Club.
Not so long ago, Robert would help other clubs by volunteering for them on race days. The reciprocal arrangement meant that the on-day teams knew the ropes having tackled the same jobs at their own tracks. These days the only volunteers are the Committee themselves.
Robert is now Chairperson of the Picnic Working Group that has 4 members who are representatives from the Picnic Clubs. They have regular meetings to discuss problems and issues concerning picnic racing. They send their ideas to RVL and CRV when they think change is needed.
As with most picnic Clubs, on the day Woolamai is very much a community affair. Several local organizations get involved, the local Citizens Band and Cricket Club run the kiosks, the Football Club runs the bars, the Fire Brigade parks cars and the local riding club clears the grounds of rubbish after the event. With crowds of up to 3,500 on Cup days, the community organizations’ involvement is critical to the smooth running of the day and the money that they are able to raise forms an important part of their fundraising efforts.
Online ticketing courtesy of Country Racing’s central booking system has made pre-sales possible. After some teething problems where older volunteers struggled with the process of scanning the new codes, the digital tickets have proved successful. Bev confirms that up to a third of tickets are now sold online in advance for some of the meetings.
This has helped enormously both in terms of increasing gate receipts and information gathering. The Club can make a fairly accurate guesstimate of how many attendees the meeting will attract and make informed decisions about what’s required on the day. ‘It’s giving people what they want, that’s how the younger generations are operating these days, everything is done on their phones’, says Robert.
Asked what picnic racing struggles most with, Robert replies ‘We’re lucky as we have horses all around us but some of the other Clubs, especially the remote Clubs, are struggling to get good horse numbers.
‘Another issue is that Racing Victoria is demanding that we operate like a Professional Club, whereby if something is put into place there it also gets pushed on to us. This can make it very hard and time consuming for the volunteers involved in Picnic Racing. Clubs are also finding it harder to make ends meet because they are having to pay for services that were once done by volunteer groups.
‘For example, we have recently been told that we have to have our own first aid on course to tend to the public and not rely on the course ambulance that looks after the jockeys’.
When the Pakenham Picnic Racing Club disbanded it was a sad day for the Woolamai Club. ‘We had always had a good relationship with them and worked together very closely. Over the years as they improved their facilities, we got lots of hand me downs, which we were very appreciative of, running rails and so on’, says Robert.
Woolamai managed to pick up Pakenham’s New Year’s Day meeting in 2015 after the closure of the Club. It was hailed a huge success with a large crowd of over 2,500. To the Club’s disappointment and racegoers’ disbelief, the fixture wasn’t awarded to them in 2016.
With no other New Year’s Day meeting in Gippsland, it’s a dispiriting blow for the team. ‘With 70-80,000 visitors to the region over the Christmas period looking for something to do, and great support from the local community, we’ve got the audience and we are sure that we could build the meeting up to be a very special event, like Balnarrings Australia Day meeting’, said Robert.
The way that the Calendar falls next year, Woolamai have been given a meeting on the New Year’s Day Public holiday – January 2nd. However, having been given no good reason why they can’t have a fixture on New Year’s Day, the Club will persist in lobbying the industry.
‘Country Racing have been very supportive of us, it is now Racing Victoria that we need to convince’, said Robert.
Asked what the highlights of his time with the club are, Robert replied, ‘We’re very proud of what we’ve achieved. Last year the Club was able to build a new administration complex, which houses jockeys, stewards, the race day office.
We received $75k from the Victorian Racing Industry Fund (VRIF) after the Former Premier and Minister for Racing, Dennis Napthin ordered that unclaimed dividends be re-distributed back into the 3 codes of racing. We were also able to put in over $125k of the Club’s money.
Bev has really enjoyed interacting with a wide range of people in her role with the Club, ‘When I take bookings for our pavilions, I get to know people on the phone and through emails, then go and meet them in person on the day. They often give me a big hug and say thank you, it’s wonderful to see them all enjoying their day’, she says.
Woolamai race course is set in the middle of a farming community so we don’t have a town to support us but we have got a lot of loyal sponsors and by keeping the sponsorship at a reasonable price pick up the odd birthday, bucks or hens groups that enjoy having a race named after a member of their group.
The absolute highlight for the Carmichaels was winning the trainers’ premiership twice at Woolamai. ‘Cefn Price won 32 premierships in his 33 years at the Club. In the last year we managed to win it, said Robert, ‘We’re good friends so he was quite happy that it was Bev and I that stopped him winning!’
Bev’s really proud of their horses’ achievements, particularly of Downtown Charlie and Just Jordie, who holds a Club record for the most wins by one horse – 11 races in total over the 1000 metre distance.
‘Horses are my side of it, I love the horses and enjoy racing at the picnic. It’s a huge thrill to have your horse win a race, especially when you have bred and trained the horse yourself. I have ridden all my life and still do, but I’m not sure how long we can keep training, we’ve still got one horse racing but it might be the last’, says Bev.
‘My daughter helps us out but I find it hard to step back and let her do it. I love the contact with the horses so struggle to stand on the other side of the fence!’
Robert adds, ‘being on both sides of the industry has given us a great perspective on what’s required to run the Club and what picnic racing’s all about.
‘We really try to look after our winning connections and sponsors at Woolamai. We take them into the Club Rooms, watch the race video, have a drink and a sandwich, and a bit of a chat about the race. Training horses is a hard game and I think people appreciate the effort we go to, afterwards they want to come back to race at Woolamai again.’
Both Robert and Bev agree that the most threatening issue for their Club is succession planning. ‘We’re both in our 70s now and can’t keep on running the Club forever’, says Robert.
‘Not only do we need new blood but we need competent, committed people with a bit of an understanding of racing. The Club can go downhill very quickly, as we found out a few years back, when Bev and I had to jump back in after stepping back.’
The year after they took back control of the club, Woolamai won the Club of the Year. ‘Seeing the Club progress and get better and better over time is what we strive for’, says Robert, ‘It’s the thing that I’ve enjoyed most. We built 13 pavilions so that we could run hospitality ourselves and the Club could profit from it, we’re always updating things and trying to keep the place looking good.’
‘We’ve been involved as a family for generations now, both of our daughters are involved. Cindy’s the youngest on the Committee and she also does Clerk of the Course at Woolamai and Drouin. I’m still working on our son, but he does stay at home and look after the farm and milk the cows when we are away racing.
‘It’s very hard to get younger people to give up their time to volunteer at the Club, particularly as the industry and OH&S are demanding so much more from us. The Younger ones just want to go to the races and have a great day out, not work for the day.
‘It’s my big fear that our failure to get the younger generations on to the Committee will threaten the future of our Club.’
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Featured image courtesy of Naomi Seccombe Photography. All other images by kind permission of Bev Carmichael.