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Warrnambool’s May Racing Carnival goes ahead, but local economy is the loser


The biggest event on a south-west Victorian town’s social calendar has gone ahead with no one there and the biggest loser was the local economy, short-changed by up to $14 million.

Each year, the town of Warrnambool’s population nearly doubles to 60,000 as visitors flock to the annual May Racing Carnival, a three-day jumps racing affair dating back to 1872.

This year’s carnival was different to most — coronavirus restrictions meant racing took place behind locked gates in front of empty grandstands for the first time in the carnival’s history.

Police cars patrolled the racecourse perimeter, ready to move along people hoping to glimpse the action or those who lingered too long on their daily walk.

Studies backed by the Warrnambool Racing Club put the economic value of the three-day event at almost $14 million for the wider region.

There was no such economic boost this week, with hotels and motels empty, and pubs nowhere near the typical bursting point seen.

But the races went ahead anyway.

Heading for home

This year’s carnival was held over two days instead of three.

Visiting jockeys, trainers, in-house media and other essential workers were told by Racing Victoria (RV) not to stay in Warrnambool, and to return home after Tuesday’s racing — even if they had to be at the track on Wednesday as well.

“There will be no industry staff staying in Warrnambool and RV and the Warrnambool Racing Club are telling any participants that don’t live locally to drive to the racecourse and back home on the same day and not stay locally.”

two racehorses jump a steeplechase in Warrnambool
Runners in the event’s Grand Annual Steeplechase.(Supplied: Racing Photos)

The ABC is aware some racing industry personnel from outside south-west Victoria stayed in small towns surrounding Warrnambool instead of returning home.

“A small group of our essential staff, who have passed our health checks, have stayed outside the City of Warrnambool and have adhered to all Government directives around social gatherings and distancing,” Racing Victoria spokesman Shaun Kelly said.

No late scratching

Warrnambool City Council asked for the event to be postponed due to fears of possible coronavirus transmission to an area that has been reasonably well protected by bans on non-essential travel.

Victorian Racing Minister Martin Pakula speaks in front of the camera in front of Victoria's parliament house.
Victorian Racing Minister Martin Pakula.(AAP: Julian Smith)

Councillors wrote to Racing Minister Martin Pakula hoping a postponement might also mean the racing carnival could happen in a way that benefits the community and not just the racing industry.

Mr Pakula denied the council’s request, saying the May Racing Carnival “would proceed and that the industry was observing very strict protocols to greatly diminish the risk of COVID-19”.

These protocols including shortening the carnival, banning crowds, and “no industry staff staying in Warrnambool for the carnival”.

Racing Victoria said it did not share the city of Warrnambool’s concerns, given the strict biosecurity protocols in place.

A full field

During the carnival, accommodation in Warrnambool and nearby towns is usually full.

The town’s bars and pubs are near bursting and restaurant bookings become hard to come by.

For an economy already in shutdown, seeing the biggest event on the city’s calendar still take place with no way for local businesses to benefit was tough.

Horses on a racetrack
This year’s event was cut back from three days to two.(TVN Racing Channel)

Hotel Warrnambool manager Steve Philpot said the carnival was almost as busy as Christmas for his establishment in previous years.

While admitting the risks of opening the races to the public are “far too great”, it’s hard for Warrnambool to miss out.

“It’s food, it’s accommodation (but also) it’s social gatherings, it’s the meeting up of people from across Australia.”

The Warrnambool Racing Club itself is also taking a hit, despite the races going ahead.

It is Chief Executive Tom O’Connor’s first year at the helm of the club, one he said has been far from ideal.

“There’s certainly going to be a shortfall in our budgets, but I think the racing industry is very resilient and with great community support the club will be able to get through — like many businesses out there,” Mr O’Connor said.

Mr O’Connor said the club hoped to recoup money lost within the next 12 months.

Horse racing is the only mainstream professional sport still running in Victoria.

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