Country Clubs Gearing Up For Championships Duties

By Ray Hickson

It’s the chance for emerging horses from across New South Wales to perform on the big stage at Royal Randwick.

For race clubs to galvanise their communities and put on a show. It’s for racegoers to dress up, suit up or put on their best country wares for a memorable day at the track.

This is the Newhaven Park Country Championships, a series exclusively for the grass roots participants of the sport, and in 2022 eight clubs are preparing to host their biggest day of racing for the year.

It’s already proven a launching pad for country horses into the big leagues, producing the likes of Group 1 winners Voodoo Lad and Clearly Innocent, the 2018 champion Victorem has been successful at Group 2 level and last year’s winner Art Cadeau became the first to complete the big country double when he claimed the $1.3m The Kosciuszko.

Since its inception in 2015, the $150,000 regional feature races have already been staged at Albury, Bathurst, Coffs Harbour, Coonamble, Dubbo, Goulburn, Grafton, Moruya, Mudgee, Port Macquarie, Scone, Tamworth, Taree, Wagga Wagga and Wellington.

The $50,000 Wild Card will move from Muswellbrook to Scone for the first time in 2022 and after two false starts Nowra is set to join the growing list of host clubs.

Northern Rivers (Coffs Harbour, Saturday 12 February)

Coffs Harbour Racing Club chief executive Tim Saladine said hosting the Country Championships for the first time in 2021, after a washout the year before forced the race to be transferred to Grafton, was huge for the club and is looking forward to a bigger and better event.

Baileys returns after winning the 2021 Newhaven Park Northern Rivers Country Championships.

It’s easy to forget the Northern Rivers has produced two winners of Final in Free Standing (2017) and Gracie Belle (2020), both horses finishing second in their regional event before going one better at Royal Randwick.

The $150,000 Newhaven Park Northern Rivers Country Championship was won in 2021 by local galloper Baileys and Saladine said it's a huge buzz for any club selected to stage the event.

“A tremendous opportunity to showcase The Coffs Coast region, whilst offering $370,000 in prize money, the Newhaven Park Country Championships concept is widely acknowledged as the pinnacle of country racing in NSW,’’ Saladine said.

“The Club is delighted to have been chosen by Racing NSW to be the Northern Rivers Racing Association’s host venue in 2022.”

South East (Nowra, Sunday 13 February)

It’s hoped the phrase ‘third time lucky’ rings true for the Shoalhaven City Turf Club in 2022 as Nowra has been set to run the South East feature for the past two years only to be foiled by significant rain.

After the disappointment of the last two years, Shoalhaven City Turf Club chief executive Paul Weekes said the club is rapt to have another chance to showcase the region.

The area is home to 2021 champion Art Cadeau, trained at Shoalhaven by Terry Robinson, and the region also produced 2019 winner Noble Boy who was trained at Queanbeyan by Todd Blowes.

“This will now be the first time that a heat of the Country Championships series will be held at Nowra and, in terms of prizemoney, it will be the biggest race meeting ever held with total prizemoney for the day of $370,000,’’ Weekes said.

“This event will be heavily promoted both locally and throughout the regions and there will be some exciting on-course activities and promotions for all patrons to enjoy.

“The Country Championships concept is widely acknowledged as the pinnacle of country racing in NSW and the Club is grateful to have been chosen again by Racing NSW to be the South East Racing Association’s host venue in 2022.”

Southern District (Wagga Wagga, Saturday 19 February)

While yet to claim bragging rights with a Final win, the often under-rated Southern District has figured in the finish in two of the past three years with Another One, trained at Wagga by Gary Colvin, runner-up in 2021 and Bennelong Dancer, who reached the final three times, taking third in 2019 for Albury trainer Donna Scott.

Another One wins the 2021 Newhaven Park Southern District Country Champisnship. (Pic: Kylie Shaw)

Murrumbidgee Turf Club chief executive Jason Ferrario said the hosting rights for the Newhaven Park Southern District Country Championship is sought after every year and for good reason.

“This is an event the entire community embraces, with a multitude of activities catering for patrons of all ages,’’ he said.

“Highlights will again include free kids entertainment, a charity luncheon with guest speakers and a DJ precinct for 18-35 year olds.

“The Country Championships is a great promotion, offering the region another opportunity to host a feature race meeting. And it means local trainers, jockeys and horses gain exposure on the national racing stage and have the opportunity to chase prizemoney of over $380,000.”

Mid North Coast (Taree, Sunday 20 February)

Taree is no stranger to the Newhaven Park Country Championships but Manning Valley Race Club executive officer Helen Sinclair said the club is hoping for a bit more luck in 2022 than when they were scheduled to host last year’s event.

Due to rains lashing the Mid North Coast area, the region’s feature race had to be run at Scone but it was a local victory as Taree trainer Bob Milligan’s mare Charmmebaby swept to an easy victory before finishing third in the Final at Royal Randwick.

Sinclair said there’s always a sense of excitement about the $150,000 race coming to Taree and hopes the local area once again embraces it.

“Hosting the Country Championships offers country clubs the opportunity to participate in a large media campaign and to give the local community a chance to witness a high calibre of horses,’’ Sinclair said.

“The prizemoney on offer filters down to the surrounding businesses and has a positive economic impact.”

Central District (Mudgee, Sunday 27 February)

It’s a sporting extravaganza in Mudgee on the last weekend in February culminating with the Newhaven Park Central Districts Country Championship.

Kath Bell-Pitomac celebrates her win on Old Harbour in the 2021 Newhaven park Central Districts Country Championship. (Pic: Janian McMillan)

The town is abuzz with the St George-Illawarra Dragons and South Sydney Rabbitohs doing battle for the Charity Shield on Saturday before attention turns to the races, a meeting attended by players from both clubs in recent years.

Mudgee Race Club President Elect Tony Brown said while there is plenty to do in the town over the weekend the club is keen to build on the meeting’s success in the past four years.

“The Country Championships provide multiple benefits to our racing network, including our ability to support NSW Racing’s ongoing regional initiatives,” Brown said.

“We love showcasing the Mudgee Race Club and our region when we host the Country Championships and welcome racing devotees, many of whom attend all of the Championship meetings, fashion on the field entrants, fans and people from near and far who just love to experience country racing at its finest, and we can’t wait to do it again in February.”

Hunter & North West (Tamworth, Sunday 6 March)

The first two winners of the Newhaven Park Country Championships Final hailed from the Hunter & North West region and Tamworth Jockey Club general manager Michael Buckley believes 2022 could see a third victor.

Regularly regarded as the strongest of the seven regional $150,000 features, Buckley expects this year to be no exception.

“Punters should be warned that there are some very talented horses coming out of Tamworth, Scone, Muswellbrook and surrounding areas,’’ he said.

“It would mean a lot for our industry participants to finish in the first-two at Tamworth and I’m sure our horses from the area will acquit themselves well and have plenty of support in the final.

“We are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to showcase our track, and some of the best and most promising horses of the Hunter & North-West region and, for that matter, country NSW.”

Western District (Coonamble, Sunday 13 March)

There’s little doubt that the Newhaven Park Country Championships is contributing to trainers in the west of New South Wales increasing the quality of their horses and ensuring the continued growth of the sport for the region.

Connections of 2021 Newhaven Park Western District Country Championships winner Activation. (Pic: Janian McMillan).

Coonamble Jockey Club president Ken Waterford said, as the club prepares to stage the Western District feature for the third time, more locals are being involved in syndications, hosting the feature race has led to increased interest in sponsorship for their race meetings around the year.

“More people than ever before have been coming to the races to be part of the excitement and entertainment. To be a participant with a horse in the Country Championships is a real drawcard,’’ he said.

“The extensive media coverage, the quality of the horses, the atmosphere, the quality of the grounds and the greatly improved race track surface have all created tremendous interest in the community.

“The flow on effect of more visitors to town, accommodation bookings, increased service station turn over and ‘Buy from the Bush’ craft sales has been significant.”

Wild Card (Scone, Sunday 20 March)

It’s the last chance to book a place in the $500,000 Newhaven Park Country Championship Final and this time around Scone will conduct the Wild Card which has until now been held at Muswellbrook.

Scone Race Club chief executive Steve Keene said the Newhaven Park Wild Card Country Championship will be more than just a race day.

He said whether it is the Wild Card or one of the regional Championships the series allows country owners to dream of winning on the big stage, brings communities together to enjoy the exhilaration of horse racing, gives trainers confidence to further invest in the sport they love and, importantly, gives a race club a time to shine and be in the spotlight.

“Trainers and owners earmark these races 12 months in advance which speaks volumes for the series,’’ Keene said.

“We cannot wait to hold one of the great race days on the calendar for the trainers, owners and the community.”

Of course it all leads to the $500,000 Newhaven Park Country Championships Final, run over 1400m, at Royal Randwick on Day 1 of The Star Championships (April 2) where 16 horses will compete to add their name to an honour roll that reads – Artlee, Clearly Innocent, Free Standing, Victorem, Noble Boy, Gracie Belle and Art Cadeau.