On almost every day of the year, somewhere in Victoria a country race meet is held. Those races are a vital and vibrant part of the industry.
Christine Puls has spent most of her working life at race tracks around country Victoria and South Australia. On a busy week, the jockey spends hours on the road, travelling from her home in Horsham to tracks as far afield as Mildura, Swan Hill, Hamilton, Bendigo, Echuca, Geelong, Ballarat, Kyneton and Kilmore.
“Some days I leave home at 8.30am, drive to Mildura and get back home around 8.30 at night. Sometimes it’s a bit later,” said Puls, who in 2019 became the 24th winner of the Victorian Wakeful Club Lady of Racing Award.
“When people think of ‘country’ racing, they think of places like Ballarat and Geelong, but there’s country racing way beyond those places. Some of the other tracks get overlooked, but a country cup meeting can be a huge event and weekend meetings pull in the crowds, too.”
For Puls, driving long distances to race is part of the job and she and husband and fellow jockey, Dean Yendall, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I do 95 per cent of my racing in the country,” said Puls. “I love the team effort that the volunteers put into events. They set up the track and the committee rooms, put on meals for the riders, and organise facilities and activities for the kids. For me, that’s what makes country racing special.”
While Yendall rides regularly in the city, country racing makes up the bulk of his work too and, like Puls, he prefers the more ‘laid-back’ atmosphere of country racing.
“I ride better horses there and that makes it exciting, because you know you have a better chance of riding a winner,” he said. “Plus, while you might drive long distances, the traffic in the country is nothing like the traffic in the city!”
While the spotlight often shines on city racetracks, country race meets are a vital part of the industry. Victoria has 67 country racing clubs, including 54 professional clubs and 13 picnic clubs at places such as Balnarring, Drouin, Woolamai and Yea. Together they run 450 races and contribute more than $750 million to the Victorian economy each year.
Each country club brings its own landscape, history and atmosphere and is often the lifeblood of local communities.
“In many cases, the country race track is the social fabric that holds communities together,” said Scott Whiteman, Chief Executive Officer of Country Racing Victoria.
“Added to that is the fact that other clubs and services within those towns gain some much-needed funding support. We’ve got football clubs, netball clubs and local Lions clubs who work at the race meetings held in their backyard. They receive funding and that helps those organisations.”
But Whiteman says fiercer competition for the leisure dollar is encouraging the country racing industry to look at new ways to remain profitable, an important focus given that country racing provides more than 8000 Victorians with full-time jobs.
“We’re keen to see more people get into racing and we want to see the number of owners increase, too. Ownership of horses is more affordable than people realise and there are ways to get into racing and to enjoy the thrill of winning a race, whether it be at a once-a-year venue such as Manangatang or the royal grounds of Flemington.”
Whiteman believes country racing has a bright future, as it embraces a diverse group of racegoers. He said the community atmosphere, affordability of attending the meetings, and the ‘grassroots’ nature of the racing offers something different to metropolitan racing, ensuring both sides of the sport can co-exist and flourish.
“Country racing has a lot of strengths. It brings communities together and it’s affordable. We have activities for the kids and so it’s very family-friendly. There are good fashions on the field events and people can get up closer to the horses and the jockeys.
“I love racing full stop, but the beautiful part about the country is the relaxed atmosphere and the fun of catching up with people you might not see that often. That’s the heart of country racing.”