Shane McNally reports on the outcome of a bitter fight at Oakbank in South Australia that has cast further doubt on the future of steeplechase racing in the country
Jump racing in Australia has received another blow with the news that there will be no more cards planned in South Australia – one of only two states where jumping has continued after years of protests from a powerful animal rights lobby.
After months of action in the Supreme Court, violent infighting between people who once worked for the same cause and even anonymous death threats, jump racing finally seems to have come to an end in Oakbank, the birthplace of the Great Eastern Steeplechase, once one of the most popular chases drawing crowds of 70,000.
Despite a recent resurgence in Victoria, with the annual three-day Warrnambool Carnival in May drawing record crowds, Australia’s once-hopping proud community is now a shadow of its former self. Indeed, there are just 66 jumping races scheduled for next season – a significant drop from a few decades ago, and a fraction of Europe’s jumping heartland.
South Australian racing authorities acted in October 2021 to stop scheduling jumps races, a move that was supposed to immediately end nearly 150 years of tradition – but the SA jumps lobby was not collapsing without a fight, especially during jump runs. was experiencing a renaissance across the border in Victoria.
Now, however, it looks like a tough fight has been lost.
Victoria is now the only state in Australia to hold obstacle courses. New South Wales held its last steeplechase in 1941 and legally banned the exercise in 1997, while Tasmania shocked the industry by calling an immediate and unexpected halt to jump racing at the beginning of 2007.
While the jump races still scheduled in Victoria include such traditional features as the annual A$350,000 ($244,000) Grand Steeplechase in Warrnambool as well as the Grand National Hurdle and Steeplechase, the overall figures paint a picture of a industry desperately trying to cling to old glories.
The numbers have fallen further since 2019, when official figures showed just 93 steeplechase races contested by 257 individual horses across Australia. In comparison, the UK held 3,719 steeplechases that year with 8,743 horses and Ireland held 1,424 races for a total of 5,025 horses.
South Australia’s recent result further threatens these dwindling numbers. The battle began when the Oakbank Racing Club recognized the drop in crowds and interest following five- and six-horse steeplechase and steeplechase racing, and agreed to the change. The decision was already out of the club’s hands, but all hell broke loose anyway.
The jumps lobby argued that the club had turned its back on a great tradition and the riders still involved in that part of the industry; the club argued that it was not their decision, that fighting him was an exercise in futility, and that Oakbank was best served by going ahead with an entirely flat schedule. Until the recent ruling, Oakbank’s roughly 18-race Easter Carnival included two hurdles and two obstacle courses.
The parties therefore spent eight months in court before finally agreeing that the best option was to vacate all positions on the Oakbank Racing Club committee and ask the members to decide.
Then, on a freezing winter night at the Adelaide Hills course on Friday June 10, a special general meeting was held to hear the outcome of the members’ vote – an overwhelming approval from the committee and a rejection of what amounted to a mistrust. movement. In other words, the end of SA skips the race.
The numbers gave the Oakbank committee, which effectively had its hands tied by the governing body, very little hope of making the case for a continuation. The eight members who stood for re-election were elected. President Arabella Branson continues in her role, while Chris Dittmar, James Jordan, Barney Gask, John Lewis, Stephen Charlton, Andrew Watson and Trent Shortland will be joined on the committee by Gary Collis as the only new member. Nine positions became vacant, but one former member chose not to stand again.
After reading the results of the vote overseen by independent audit firm William Buck, meeting chairman Tim Anderson QC was in the process of winding down the proceedings when members of the jumps lobby asked to be heard. Anderson reluctantly agreed to hear jumps lobby leader Frances Nelson QC, former chairwoman of Racing SA, question the validity of the vote.
Nelson, who led the challenge with former Oakbank chairman John Glatz, who also spoke in protest, criticized the election process and said the meeting had “aborted”.
She said: “Can the auditor or the new committee explain why some members, including life members, did not receive any ballots? This assembly failed, the members did not have the right to exercise their democratic right to vote and this will not be the end.
After his re-election, Branson said the vote was a victory for the future of the club. “It gave us the go-ahead that we are heading in the right direction. Let’s continue to run a successful, viable and modern running club.
Branson said the committee’s fight for survival over an issue not of its making was frustrating, saying the cost of legal action was “extremely detrimental” to the club’s finances.
“It has also been very distressing for the committee members, who are just trying to do goodfirst thing by the club without being subjected to the vitriol that some have experienced,” she said.
“We’ve had legal advisers involved since October last year and on top of that we’ve had well-known audit expenses. The other side agreed that leaving the voting process to the auditors would be the most transparent and fair method. The procedure was clearly set out in the settlement documents negotiated by our attorneys and their attorneys and any criticism of wrongdoing is completely false.
“I found the reaction from people who should know better to be incredibly disappointing and quite insulting to the highly professional and reputable auditing firm that organized the poll.”
Adding to the controversy, Warrnambool Racing Club controversially threw its support behind SA jumps racing by emailing its own members encouraging them to join the Oakbank club and help elect a pro-jumps committee – including a promise that membership would be renewed for another year. if a pro-jumps committee was elected. This was strongly criticized by the governing bodies of SA and Victoria.
Racing Victoria said it was “completely inappropriate” for a Victorian racing club to lobby members trying to influence the outcome of a South Australian racing club’s board election, while that Racing SA described the action as “inadmissible”.
The Battle of Oakbank has divided racing people in South Africa and beyond and played into the hands of the anti-racing lobby led by the Coalition to Protect Racehorses, whose website is called horseracingkills. com.
Ultimately seeking to end all horse racing, the Coalition was still in Oakbank this year, even though there was no steeplechase. This time they were calling for an end to the use of language ties as an allegedly unnecessary and cruel practice.
Now, although the argument has raged in racing circles over Oakbank’s own role in the demise of jump racing, it appears they have suffered another casualty.
• Visit the Oakbank page on the CountryRacingSA website
What They Think – Chris Waller: The higher we raise the bar for Winx, the higher it’s gone
Jay Hovdey’s favorite racehorses – Exbourne: ‘I could be hopelessly beaten with 50 yards to go and he would win by a neck’ – Gary Stevens
See the latest TRC World Rankings for Horses / Jockeys / Trainers / Bulls