VETERAN horseman Grant Downey was at the forefront of one of the most turbulent times in Colac Turf Club history.
But the former club chairman says he has no regrets about his role in a proposed merger between the Colac and Geelong clubs, which divided a city passionate about horse racing.
Downey has cast his mind back to his 15-year tenure at the top of the club as club officials prepare celebrations for the 150th Colac Gold Cup this weekend.
He joined the club committee in 1961, having grown up in a racing-mad family.
He had risen to chairman by ‘68, but the club began to battle dwindling turnover soon after as on-course betting fell, and a merger was on the cards by 1980.
“There were great pressures on us to retain our stakes money. As a Group One club we were expected to compete with Ballarat, Geelong, Werribee,” Downey said.
“There was a proposal put up, I suppose I was the instigator of it, to amalgamate with Geelong Racing Club,” he said.
“It went to the members and the members knocked it back.
“The thought was the town was going to lose its identity, the racing club will lose its identity but they were fully protected under the constitution we proposed to the members.”
Under the planned merger, Colac would have retained weekend racing, while midweek races – “the profitable ones” – would be at Geelong.
The merger would keep both clubs financial and racing would remain at the Elliminyt track.
Colac lost its midweek meetings anyway.
But it retained its independence and, with the support of the Racecourses Licences Board and good management, has thrived.
“There was a lot of animosity – not just from the members, from the traders in the town who thought they were going to miss out on something,” Downey said.
“They would’ve missed out on something had Colac gone under. But as it’s turned out they’ve survived and survived very well,” he said.
Downey stepped down from the committee “with good grace” after the failed amalgamation and joined the RLB, on which he spent nine years.
He said the RLB supported Colac Turf Club as it worked to create its own future, notably with money to invest in racecourse facilities.
But his proudest achievement on the board came in the mid 1990s with the opening of the Cranbourne training centre, something he said was “tremendous” for racing.