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No barrier to another Cup Day success

  • Mindarie-Halidon Cup meeting to be held on September 16
Mindarie-Halidon Racing Club president Frank Griffiths says big fields and strong attendances have helped make the club's once-a-year meeting successful

The date of Frank Griffiths’ hip replacement is no accident.

Frank goes under the knife in October, a few weeks after the Mindarie-Halidon Racing Club’s 2018 cup meeting.

Club president for the past “16 or 17 years”, Frank doubles as track manager – a sensible arrangement, given he lives just 5km from Halidon, which has an official population of 18.

At 77, Frank is looking for someone to take on the track manager role from next year, but for the moment is focused on ensuring the September 16 event is a worthy follow-up to successive bumper meetings in 2016 and 2017.

“Yeah, last year was a good one,” he said, “and so was the year before, when we celebrated our centenary.  
“But we’ve been successful for a long time. People come back every year from miles away, and we even get people who bring caravans and camp here in their favourite spots two or three days before the meeting.”

The club stages just one meeting per year, but by any benchmark the 2017 version was a winner, with over 1500 people descending on the tiny Mallee town, about 50 minutes’ drive from Loxton.

The healthy attendance alone had several positive spin-offs; notably in on-course activities, such as the increasingly buoyant Fashions on the Field initiative, brisk bar and catering trade, and busy bookmaker and TAB activity.

As a bonus, the club had enough nominations to run nine races, two more than usual.

“Another three more horses on track and they would’ve had to stand under a tree,” Frank says, only half-joking.

Deflecting – as a reflex – any credit for the club’s longevity and ongoing success, Frank instead pinpoints a Thoroughbred Racing SA (TRSA) decision to program Mindarie-Halidon’s annual meeting on a Sunday as pivotal.

“It’s actually been a great move,” he said. “The meeting’s been a big success ever since that happened, and while I’m not good on dates, I think our first Sunday meeting was actually our first TAB meeting as well.”

Club secretary Krystina Durdin’s myriad race-day duties restrict her ability to absorb most of the on-course activities, but she has a pretty good handle on the not-so-secret ingredients behind Mindarie-Halidon’s continued success.

“Look, there’s not much of a town at Halidon,” she says matter-of-factly. 
“But I think people respect the fact the committee can stage this sort of event every year. 
“And the great thing about Mindarie-Halidon is you can come dressed up in race wear or in shorts and a T-shirt. It doesn’t really matter – everyone fits in. 
“People call it the Melbourne Cup of the Mallee and it’s actually a bit like that, because we get people to the races who don’t normally go – and they’ll turn up in groups. 
“So, we get birthday parties, buck’s parties, hen’s shows, hotel social clubs, or even footy trips calling through on their way home.”

‘Exuberant’ might be the best word to describe Mindarie-Halidon Cup Day’s Fashions on the Field.

Varying levels of grace and poise were paraded on the catwalk last year, but almost all participants made a concerted effort; from women – of a wide age range – clearly au fait with race-wear tradition, to socially lubricated men egged on by their mates, to children lovingly and thoughtfully dressed by their race-going parents.

By his own admission, Frank is only a recent convert to the appeal and importance of on-course activities, particularly fashions on the field, but now acknowledges that racing needs to offer something for everyone.

“Yeah, I wasn’t always a big fan of stuff like that, it’s taken me a while,” he says. 
“But you only have to look at how well the fashion parade was supported last year to see what it brings to the day. We had hundreds of people there for it, and the ladies especially put in a big effort, I thought. 
“Plus the prizes on offer now are pretty good.”

For 2017 Fashions on the Field winner Morgan Pfitzner, of Renmark, last year’s Mindarie-Halidon Cup meeting netted her a cool $1000 – not bad, given it was her first-ever race meeting.

Krystina identified a Thorough-bred Racing SA (TRSA) funding boost for the Fashions on the Field events statewide as a turning point.

“Now that the TRSA has stepped in and upped the prizes, people are getting more serious about it, but they’re still having fun,” she says. 
“We’ve got more serious about judging it too.”

Veteran Murray Bridge trainer John Hickmott has been ‘serious’ about Mindarie-Halidon for the past quarter of a century, making the relatively short journey through Karoonda with a float most years.

Until last year, one of SA country racing’s Holy Grails – the Mindarie-Halidon Cup – had eluded him, but that changed when gun apprentice Raquel Clark piloted Danouli to victory in the $20,000 feature.

“It was very satisfying to finally win it,” Hickmott said. 
“It’s a great set-up at Mindarie-Halidon and I look forward to going there every year, because it’s what country racing is all about.   
“They had a bloke singing a bit of country music there, and locals cooking hamburgers and working behind the bar.  
“It shows me that country racing in this state is really alive. It’s good fun at Mindarie and we’ll be there again this year for sure.”

Another welcome ‘first’ at last year’s meeting was the on-course presence of the team.

Just a month earlier, a new multi-million dollar media rights agreement between TRSA and began, allowing SA racing to be screened on free-to-air TV, pay-to-view platforms and multi digital platforms.

It also meant the presenters travelled to little old Mindarie-Halidon and gave the meeting a splash of on-air pizzazz.

“Geez they do it well,” Frank says.  
“The mounting yard comments, the interviews with the winning trainers after each race, and the way it’s all put together is impressive. It really adds to the coverage and exposure of our humble meeting.”

Despite the prospect of even more good fortune ahead in September, the club has faced plenty of testing times over the years, and more loom on the horizon.

Krystina remembers starkly the challenges associated with staging the 2007 meeting – her first as secretary – when horse flu threatened the industry’s future Australia-wide. Quarantine measures on track meant trainers, jockeys and strappers needed their own catering, and the public was prevented from going anywhere near the horses.

Frank recalls somewhat more fondly the year jockey Clare Lindop effectively dismissed the opinion of a couple of high-profile male jockeys, who packed up and went home after declaring the rain-affected Mindarie-Halidon track unsuitable for racing.

“Clare walked it, said, ‘This track is all right’, and away we went,” Frank says.  
“The weather cleared and it worked out to be a perfect day. Later that day the racecaller said, ‘I hope those two jockeys are enjoying the drive back to Adelaide, because the sun’s out here at Mindarie-Halidon and we’re having a great time’.”

Like many volunteer-run groups, the Mindarie-Halidon Racing Club needs more helpers, and both Frank and Krystina would love to see an increase in the number of active committee members.

But for now, they are counting down the days to the 2018 meeting.

As usual, the week leading up to the meeting will be particularly hectic for Frank, while his cup day duties will start around 6am, when he files his once-a-year track report for “the Sky Channel mob”.

“It’s a lot of work for a pretty small group of people,” Frank says. 
“But we get great support from TRSA and our sponsors, many of whom we’ve had for years and years now.  
“And the main thing is people seem to keep coming back, so we must be doing something right, eh?”

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No barrier to another Cup Day success

Frank goes under the knife in October, a few weeks after the Mindarie-Halidon Racing Club’s 2018 cup meeting.

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