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HARNESS RACING CAN’T SURVIVE ON MEMORIES BUT THE CREEK MUST!

By JOHN LINGARD, Editor of LETSGOHORSERACING

WHAT a shame harness racing cannot survive on memories!

Night racing at Albion Park celebrates its 50th anniversary on Saturday evening and there are many who say that the flags should fly at half-mast to commemorate the demise of the sport in Queensland.

Surprisingly, LETSGOHORSERACING is not one of them. We are saddened by the current state of affairs but believe it would be fitting for the powers-that-be to use this historic event to end the uncertainty over the future of the ‘spiritual home’ of harness racing in this State.

What a significant role Albion Park would play if someone had the foresight to install a synthetic track for day and night racing which could have subsidized the retention of harness and greyhounds there as well.   

Nothing will change the fact that Albion Park (as a harness venue) will struggle to ever again draw the crowd of 14,000 who attended on that memorable night – September 7, 1968 – or the unbelievable ring of 60 bookmakers that fielded. But the Creek deserves to retain its place in racing history and folklore in this State.

Those fortunate enough to have been there and seen the Sam Zammit-trained and driven Curly Adios win the opening race beating Harleray on opening night will also recall the success later on the card of the first real star of night racing in Queensland in Stormy Water at the odds of 6-1 on.

Who will forget those amazing early Brisbane pacing carnivals contested by some of the biggest stars in harness racing – the likes of Hondo Grattan, Paleface Adios, Gammalite, Popular Alm and Queensland’s own home-grown legend, Wondai’s Mate – to name but a few?

Albion Park back then was the biggest drawcard in night-time entertainment in Brisbane – overtaking the fights at Festival Hall and long before the Broncos were even heard of. It was common-place for punters to flock from the afternoon gallops and join the thousands at the Albion Park trots (many making a detour for a steak and a few coldies off the wood at the Brekky Creek). It became a tradition. That was decades before Silks Seafood Restaurant become more popular in the 80s.

ALL GOOD THINGS COME TO AN END FOR ONE REASON OR ANOTHER

BUT sadly, all good things come to an end.

In his wisdom and love for harness racing the Minister for Everything Russ Hinze made the bold decision to close the famous sand gallops track at the Creek to make way for the speed pacing capital of Australia.

In 1982 Albion Park was purchased from the Brisbane Amateur Turf Club and redeveloped for future use by harness and eventually greyhound racing.

It started with a bang early in the 1983-84 season when the greatest superstar the sport had seen back then – Popular Alm – attracted a crowd claimed to be more than 20,000 to the newlook Albion Park when he won the Queensland Pacing Championship on the opening night in a track record time of 1:55.8.

The honor role for the Queensland Pacing Championship from Albion Park’s inaugural year of night racing included some headliners like Don’t Retreat, Paleface Adios, Rip Van Winkle, Koala King, Gammalite, Double Agent, Preux Chevalier and Wondai’s Mate. 

 ‘Poppy’ won six consecutive races at Albion Park, including the Australian Pacing Championship and also set a new Australia mile record of 1:54.5. On October 29, 1983, he became the shortest priced favorite in Australian harness racing history, winning at Albion Park at 100-1 on.

While the wheels gradually started to fall off the success story that was night harness racing – some still insist the sport never deserved the ‘red hots’ reputation it inherited. The crowds fell away and so did its popularity as a betting medium. These days it arguably runs last of the three codes, trailing even the greyhounds despite their ’live baiting’ woes of recent times.

The 14,000 and 20,000 strong crowds that flocked to Albion Park for those big opening nights in the 60’s and 80’s will never be replicated even if Albion Park survives for years to come with new facilities (albeit scaled down) that the sport and patrons deserve. The 60 bookies who once fielded became zero and will arguably remain so with the sport relying on TAB and telephone betting to the corporate bookies for turnover these days.

While everything else was going backwards it would be remiss not to admit that the quality of horses, trainers and drivers continued to rise. Blacks A Fake and Be Good Johnny kept the Queensland flag flying. It is also fair to say that since Russ Hinze, no individuals have done more for harness racing than millionaire businessman and harness benefactor, Kevin Seymour and his wife Kay. Their love affair with the sport has contributed greatly to its survival.    

Albion Park isn’t Robinson Crusoe when it comes to tracks facing demise. Queensland once boasted harness venues as well at Redcliffe, Gold Coast, Rocklea, Maryborough, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Gympie, Warwick, Dalby, Boonah, Mackay, Charters, Towers, Innisfail, Cairns, Ayr, Marburg and just across the border at Tweed Heads. Sadly only a handful has survived.

HOW LGHR INTRODUCED ‘THE BANTAM’ TO HARNESS RACING 

PERHAPS it is timely to let our readers in on a little secret. Had it not been for LGHR, current Albion Park Chairman David Fowler may never have been introduced to harness racing.

It was a normal day on the return trip from working at the Ipswich gallops that he asked what was happening that night and got invited along to a midweek meeting at the Creek that was to win ‘the Bantam’ over to the trots forever.

In a tribute piece that appeared in The Courier-Mail recently Fowler admitted his love affair with Albion Park when he wrote:

EVERY sport deserves a spiritual home. A place to aspire to. Where the best engage in competition, ultimately to win or lose.

Think Suncorp Stadium (rugby league), the Gabba (cricket) and Eagle Farm (thoroughbred racing).

Albion Park is harness racing’s spiritual home and has been since the lights were turned on for the sport in 1968.

Of course, that followed, and was in partnership with, a rich heritage of thoroughbred racing tracing back to the late 1800s.

It would be hard to think of a harness racing great — equine or human — who didn’t have an Albion Park feature race on their respective CVs.

But Racing Queensland, the state’s controlling body, want to consign that rich tapestry of history to the dustbin and move the sport out of the city.

This is wrong on so many fronts.

They earnestly believe the industry will be better off with two new tracks in either outlying suburbs of Brisbane or even southeast Queensland provincial centres.

Their vision is clear but their specifics are not. We are yet to know where these new horizons are located.

THESE days LGHR and David are poles apart in our thinking on most racing issues but on Albion Park we agree. There needs to be a place for that venue in the future of racing in Brisbane. Is it too late to convert it to a night gallops venue or a standby when other tracks are out of action because of rain? Considering the millions wasted on the Eagle Farm redevelopment many would argue it isn’t.

THE LGHR HALL OF FAMER'S FOR THE NIGHT RACING ERA

WE at LGHR might be living in the past, but if we had any influence in the elevation of identities to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame during the era of night racing at Albion Park, well here goes:

Our headline acts would be the late RUSS HINZE and KEVIN and KAY SEYMOUR. Big Russ put Queensland harness racing on the map not only in Australia but also internationally. The money he ploughed into the sport (especially facilities) might have upset the gallops fraternity and seemed somewhat absurd back then but his foresight reminds us of another perhaps ahead of his time with a concept called The Everest. ‘King Kev’ has his critics but has been first and foremost a benefactor to the code. He has also invested plenty as an administrator, owner, breeder and absolute lover of the game. There are a lot of others who played a pivotal role on the official side of the sport and one that deserves a special mention is former Test cricket great, the late Peter Burge, a Chairman of the Albion Park Club in its heyday. 

AS a trainer-driver we saw none better than ‘KT’ – KEVIN THOMAS – he was world class. The Dixon’s, the Rasmussen’s and the McMullen’s have contributed generations to the success story. Bill, who hailed from Charters Towers in NQ where he cut his teeth on the sport before moving to Townsville, then Brisbane, passed his vast knowledge onto son Grant. Dad Vic showed the Rasmussen girls the harness ropes from the time they could walk on a property near Woodstock west of Townsville. It was humble beginnings for a family that has become a household name. John McMullen was pioneering the American adventure in harness long before Lazarus was even dreamed off. His family has followed in his footsteps.

WONDAI’S MATE paved the way for some top class pacers to emerge from Queensland, like BLACKS A FAKE and BE GOOD JOHNNY (apologies to those not mentioned) but it was ‘The Mate’ and the Reinke family, the late trainer Merv and his driver son Darryl, who will always be folklore in harness racing in Queensland.

No mention of the good times in the sport would be complete without mentioning the contribution of SILKS RESTAURANT to the success of Albion Park when it was redeveloped in the 80s. There was no better seafood smorgasbord in town and some went there just for that rather than the racing.

A special mention as well to bookmakers like ANDY PIPPOS (who lined up week after week for years at the gallops and trots in Brisbane), LINDSAY GALLAGHER (an institution at Albion Park although LGHR upset him by once tongue-in-cheek suggesting he had a crystal ball and only laid those nailed to the ground) and VINCE ASPINALL (who soldiered on alone at the Creek in a more recent era when all of his colleagues had turned the lights out).

In the media no look back at night racing at Albion Park would be complete without mention of ROD HILL (more an institution some might say at Rocklea but he loved the Creek and played a significant role there as well), the late WAYNE WILSON (whose love affair with harness racing has been well documented) and PHIL PURSER (the author and website pioneer who never really got the credit he deserved for his long-time contribution on the once great website justracing).

As the now Publisher of LGHR, who covered the trots for 15 years in Brisbane before moving onto the gallops, I prefer to remember the good times – like when the new Brisbane Sun entered the newspaper marketplace and coverage of harness racing went through the roof. Frank Moore (Rupert’s de facto owner some said) even opened his pockets for a sponsorship deal at Albion Park, Unfortunately as Editors changed so did my fortunes. The one who insisted my coverage convert from ‘spin doctor’ to ‘keeping the bastards’ honest’ moved on (thanks Harto) and his successor (a blow-in from Adelaide) was wined and dined by those with influence which saw me replaced as trots writer. I preferred not to suck-up and survive but lost my appetite somewhat for the sport I had loved so much and fought so hard for after that. Sadly that passion has never returned.

One of my best memories of the good times covering harness was however watching my associate, Robert Craddock climb the sports journalistic ladder to the stage where today he is an absolute superstar. ‘Crash’ always had more writing ability in his little toe than I could wish to possess in my entire body. I just hope that The Courier-Mail asks him to write a feature on the last 50 years of Albion Park night harness racing for Saturday’s special event. In his style that readers have come to enjoy, it would no doubt be a terrific read even at a time when so much space has to be devoted to the more popular football finals.        

Back to the trots and ironically you probably didn’t know, but Queensland’s first harness race was run at Eagle Farm racecourse on August 11, 1888, by the Brisbane Driving Park Club. The way things are progressing at snail’s pace with that track’s problems, harness racing may well be relocated to the Farm before the grass grows well enough for the gallops to be run there again.

Just kidding, but in seriousness, here’s hoping something positive comes out of the 50th anniversary of night racing at Albion Park on Saturday.

When the first night meeting was held back in the late 60’s Joh had just become Premier. And in the 80’s Russ left us with the ‘legacy’ of the speed pacing capital when he was Racing Minister. It would be fitting for Anastasia to make a timely announcement on a positive future for Albion Park to coincide with Saturday night’s important anniversary.

Now before I write too many more nice things about people, places and events and give the Whinge a bad name, I’m off to Chemist Warehouse to get that re-fill of my ‘angry pills’! 

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