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OPINION: Racetracks or real estate? The burning question at the heart of Victorian racing’s future

Michael Cox on Monday

There was a time when the Melbourne Racing Club was hailed as a progressive club with a lucrative side interest in real estate and gaming machines. The MRC has since established itself as one of the city’s biggest property developers and a prolific operator of slot machines, but the question is being asked: does it have a dwindling interest in the actual business of horse racing?

At the heart of that question is the uncertain future of Sandown racecourse.  

The story of a racing club sitting on a pot of real estate gold and ‘selling the farm’ isn’t a new one, nor is it uniquely Australian. In recent years the owners of iconic venues like Arlington Park and Hollywood Park in the United States both caved to commercial pressure.

Folkestone in England made way under a wide scale cost-cutting ‘rationalisation’. And not every race club has a choice; Mauritius Turf Club recently had its lease on the wildly popular Champ de Mars Racecourse terminated after more than 200 years.

For those fighting for Sandown’s survival, last week’s two major announcements regarding the future of Victorian racing were of no surprise. First was the revelation that Racing Victoria were in the process of purchasing a property near Tullamarine Airport in the city’s north-west – dubbed ‘Project X’ and containing a lack of detail befitting a project with such a mysterious name  – and secondly, despite protestations by participants, the MRC would build a second track called ‘The Heath’ on the inside of its course proper when a widening of the existing track was favoured by trainers.

The possibility of a second track at Caulfield has galvanised trainers, a group in direct competition and notoriously driven by self-interest.

 “Getting horse trainers to pull together and agree on an issue is like herding cats,” trainer Pat Carey told Asian Racing Report earlier this week. “I have never seen trainers and jockeys aligned on any point before like they did in opposition to the inner track at Caulfield.”

It wasn’t just the safety issues with the new track that have riled participants. Many believe that these announcements are simply a continuation of the long-standing strategy to strip Sandown of its relevance, condemning the track to its inevitable sale. The multi-million dollar projects and acquisitions create a need that requires justification. 

Carey is old enough to remember all of Sandown’s greatest moments – he was there when “the Goondiwindi Grey” Gunsynd wowed crowds in the 1971 Sandown Cup, and when Taj Rossi capped an incredible spring as a three-year-old in the Sandown Guineas – but he is still young enough to fire-up whenever the topic of Sandown is raised.

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Zipping, warhorse and true Sandown legend. (Photo by Getty Images)

“I am 60 and I was going to Sandown before some of these people making decisions on the track today were born,” Carey says. “The reason crowds don’t go to Sandown today is because the racing calendar is so poor and the members’ facilities are not up to standard. Like a lot of the racing put on – and the horrible racing that will be run at the inner track at Caulfield – you can’t expect people to go, it seems designed for people to stay away from the races.”

Carey is one of many trainers wondering why Racing Victoria wants to spend millions on a track in the city’s north-west, when Sandown sits on the same side of town as Victoria’s two largest and fastest growing training centres, Cranbourne and Pakenham.

Sandown is regarded as having one of the best track surfaces and is arguably under-utilised. Others to have gone into bat for it include champion trainer Peter Moody and respected horsemen such as Mick Kent and Colin Little.

“Why the bloody hell is it even being considered?” Moody told the media in 2019.  “A beautiful galloping track like that, it’s an asset to the industry.”

With Sandown the industry has a bird in the hand, but rather than invest, protect and develop it as a racing venue, the MRC has been pushing detailed redevelopment plans through Greater Dandenong Council – which the club itself attributed $500,000 as cost – all the while repeating the long-standing mantra that a members’ vote is required to sell the 112-hectare facility.

Technically, that vote would actually be to change the club rules – specifically the second listed in its club rules and bylaws ­– a vote that would allow the MRC to relinquish responsibility for racing at Sandown.

MRC officials have reported that the club loses $15 million combined on its three tracks annually, $4 million of that via Sandown, while it makes more than $25 million per year through its gaming and hospitality entity Pegasus Leisure Group.

Just last week, the Pegasus Leisure Group assumed ownership of Waverley Gardens, a gaming and hospitality venue, from Hawthorn Football Club. That venue is located less than 5km from Sandown.

It is the latest of a string of deals over the past five years which have seen the MRC purchase such venues from Australian rules football clubs, who have sought to divest from their gaming assets due largely to public perception. 

While the MRC plays down how advanced plans are for Sandown’s sale and redevelopment in the pliant racing media – including industry-owned platforms – the conversations at Greater Dandenong City Council and among property developers are far more advanced.

The nature of debates and discourse among non-racing media reporting on Council discussion make it seem like a matter of not if but when Sandown will be sold. Early artwork on proposed development of the racecourse, which sits in the electorate of Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, showcases the benefits of schools, shops and infrastructure.

As more commercial interests get their hooks into the project and the government starts counting the possible revenue and other opportunities, it will be a difficult snowball to stop.

 We will leave the last word to the ever-erudite Carey. 

“The clubs have got off their chains and are running amok playing property developers and not answering to the peak body,” he said. “The attitude seems to be ‘we want to do what we want with our racecourse’. The officials seem to forget that they are nothing more than exalted members. They are conducting business on hundreds of millions of assets as exalted members. They are meant to be in a position to serve the constituency.”

 “The MRC were a proud organisation whose committeemen and members were heavily involved with breeders and who raced horses. They raced and bred horses but that doesn’t seem part of the modus operandi anymore”

“Executives come and go,” Carey concluded. “But you can only sell the farm once.”

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