WARRNAMBOOL Racing Club chairman Des Roberts used his biggest stage to launch a passionate defence of Premier Denis Napthine after a controversial lead-up to the May Racing Carnival.
In front of thousands of racegoers, Roberts turned the Grand Annual Steeplechase presentations into a political stage, dismissing intense media interest in Dr Napthine’s links with the racing industry and his support of bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse, who was denied a plumb spot on the rails during the three-day event.
He drew strong applause when he told the crowd Dr Napthine was “the best racing minister this state has ever, ever had in my time”.
“You know he loves it. I can’t stand academics and Greens and goodness knows what who want to get involved, but they’ve got no passion for the job. Racing is a passion. You’ve got to love it and you’ve got to want to be involved and with Denis Napthine you’ve got all those qualities,” Roberts said.
He said the carnival’s profile had never been bigger thanks to Gai Waterhouse’s maiden appearance last year and her long-awaited debut this week as a jumps trainer.
Roberts admitted the political storm over Dr Napthine had drawn more media attention, but stressed it was the people of Warrnambool themselves who made the carnival what it was.
“We’ve got 150 years of history and you can’t make history,” he said.
“The people of Warrnambool are fantastic. We had 30 races this year and 27 of them were sponsored by Warrnambool business houses. That just shows the town realises they reap some rewards.
“There’s up to $30 or $40 million injected into the community’s economy, but in return they give us about $350,000 in sponsorship. It’s a two-way street and it’s been working so well for a number of years.
“I’m pretty confident Gai will be back next year and she may well and truly have a runner in the Grand Annual. That’s probably a dream.
“We probably had the dream come true with Bobby Charley winning the Grand Annual as the ambassador for the year and you’ll never manufacture that again. That was just sensational.”
He described the three-day carnival as “absolutely perfect”. “We’ve had seven jumping races for the carnival and we’ve had no mishaps whatsoever, just one horse where the jockey fell off at the last. Isn’t that fantastic,” Roberts said.
“You always worry but I’ve given up worrying. The so-called demonstrators aren’t really worrying me at all and we’re so lucky we have such a strong racing minister in Denis Napthine.
“He’s been so adamant that he was going to persevere with jumps racing and he got right behind the Warrnambool Racing Club and jumps racing in general, so I think the demonstrators have lost a bit of punch.”
In a dramatic finale to the carnival, Ballarat trainer Darren Weir was mobbed in the mounting yard after he trained Akzar to victory in the $200,000 Warrnambool Cup. The victory secured Weir a new Mercedes-Benz worth more than $41,000 as a trainer’s bonus. He finished the three-day event with seven winners from 34 starters. No trainer has ever won seven races at the carnival in its history.
Weir, who joked that he walked to the course, will have to find room in his garage for the Benz, alongside his existing BMW.
“I’ve been close a few times,” he said.
“It’s not what we come down here for but it’s a really nice bonus. It’s terrific to come down here and be able to win it. They (Callaghan Motors) get a lot of coverage out of it so it’s great.”
More than 14,000 people witnessed the main day’s action, slightly down on last year’s 14,600.
Wednesday’s attendance of 6500 was on par with 2013, while crowd numbers of 5000 on Tuesday were down by about 1000 due to heavy morning rain.