Where it all began
A sketch of the old Botanic Park Site – Drawn by the late Alan Stonemen During the late 1920’s the specific form of Greyhound Racing known as “Speed Coursing” was rapidly gaining in popularity. This new type of racing meant that each event contested, consisted of a field of up to 8 runners, replacing the previous format Known as “Plumpton Coursing” where two greyhounds contested against each other.
During those very early times there were several small tracks around the outskirts of Warrnambool where greyhounds competed. One of the best noted was a 300 yard grass straight track at Bushfield, approximately 4 miles (8kms) out of Warrnambool. This club raced on a Saturday afternoon before good crowds, a bus ran out to the meeting, and the local pub was close by.
Around 1931 another track sprung up at the rear of the Christian Brothers College, on the outskirts of Warrnambool. This course had as an advantage, a semi-circular type track, although it was on the smaller side. The popularity of greyhound racing during this period saw yet another track opened at Wangoom, a small town just out of Warrnambool. This track was under the management of the Warrnambool Plumpton Club and made steady progress as support from local breeders and trainers was very strong.
Popularity of the sport continued, and when allowances were made of the progress being achieved by out of town venues, then naturally the next step would be to have a much better equipped venue within the township. This was achieved in 1936 when a new track was opened on some very low ground on the corner of Botanic and Queens Roads, just below the Botanic Gardens. The initial course was a single grass track of some 300 yards. The club staged a gala opening to show off its new track which was known as ‘Whiteway” and created huge interest that was highlighted in the local press by saying, “There were only a few others of the kind in the State to adapt to the radiance of power driven illumination” – referring to racing under lights.
On opening night the press also stated, “Supporters were brought to the track in buses from all areas of the Western District and many noted officials from Melbourne also attended”. Gala tents and food stalls catered for the crowds of 1200 people, dignitaries made glowing speeches, the local brass band entertained and the 10 race program, including two hurdle races were all keenly supported. A further clipping showed, “The patrons were greatly appreciative of Mr. Harry Duggan’s amplifying apparatus”. To think that all this could have been obtained in those days for the admission fee of Two Shillings (20 cents) for Gentlemen and One Shilling (10 cents) for Ladies.
New track design
In 1937 the club created yet another innovation by constructing a circular type track of 388 yards. The new circuit was shaped as a horseshoe, with a good run home to the finish from where it linked up with the straight track, which of course remained operational. Unlike the tracks of today, Whiteway had its catching pen right at the very end of the straight, which caused great excitement once the runners had finished their race, thus adding true meaning to a deadend effect!
Throughout the next 10 – 15 years, the sport in general adapted to reasonably steady progress. In fact, during these times there were two clubs actually racing at Whiteway. The Speed Coursing Club and the Plumpton Racing Club, one raced on Friday nights and the other during Saturday afternoons.
During the 1939-45 war years, the enforced security restrictions greatly affected racing to the extent that all night racing was banned and Saturday afternoons became the norm. In time there were periods when racing was cancelled completely, mainly due to petrol restrictions as well as other war time cuts. In all there was some slight relief after the war in 1945 when night racing was again permitted. However, times were still hard and numbers were not back into racing as previously experienced before the war. As the club struggled, worse was yet to come!
1946 Flood disaster
In 1946 the district experienced one of the worst wet weather periods ever recorded and the ensuing floods which followed were awesome. Because the Whiteway track was situated in a natural hollow, plus the fact that a local creek ran right through its grounds, the area was to prove most vulnerable.
The creek in question passed under the actual racing track in two places. In each case the bridges carrying the tracks were not very high above the normal level of the water. The huge floods which followed the 1946 deluge turned the track area into a lake. The water level in fact covered all the buildings and caused great damage to plant and equipment.
This surely was a cruel blow to the struggling club, yet after many repairs and great restoration, mostly handled by volunteers, the track was once again opened in 1947.
Facing the challenge
Public support for the industry had waned considerably and in the 1950’s it became harder for clubs to rekindle interest in Greyhound Racing compared to the other codes. Consequently, the actual size of greyhound fields at Warrnambool fell to an all time low. A perfect example of this decline shows clearly at Saturday afternoon meetings where only 20 nominations were received.
Those nominated were often down in standard and raced in just four events and on most events a consolation race would be run as the final event to keep up the number of races up. This added race was put on for dogs that had already competed at the meeting without winning and so were eligible to compete again.
During these extremely tough times the Speed Coursing Club regrouped and decided to stage special fund raising efforts. They called on local businesses and personalities for financial support, including the raising of debentures. Even gimmicks such as ‘foot running’ events that were run during greyhound meetings were tried in the hope of swelling attendances.
From its inception Whiteway was forced not only to battle for existence, but also into the necessity of always conforming with the times. The lighting system, so important to the opening of the track, was again completely upgraded in 1950.
Goals in sight
During 1977 the club reverted to racing on Thursday nights, and it was around then that the grounds became known as ‘Botanic Park’. Even with its name change the track still retained its natural habits, one in particular proving most upsetting – the presence of fog. Due to its low lying position, also the close proximity to the coast, the track was always capable of servicing up the sudden ‘peasoupers’.
Even the lighter versions of fog were headaches to track officials such as the unfortunate lure-driver, the stewards and of course the judge. The latter often being called on for personal talents as the fogs had the habit of rendering the photo-finish camera useless. In 1979 the last of the straight races was staged and circle racing became the preferred way of racing with distances over 388 metres and 457 metres.
Over its many years the raceway patrons were never really pampered. Most of the on-course facilities were of a serviceable standard without being anyway spectacular. In particular with this theme was the kennelling block. Here the actual dog boxes were only just to size, each box having a wooden door with a small mesh covered opening at the top which controlled the inmate’s temperature.
However, when open, the dogs could see most of the activity going on outside and became excited. Because the kennels were quite close to the track the racing noises were also disruptive. Perhaps the worst feature was because of their outdoor positioning those kennels were greatly exposed to the vast fluctuations of the weather.
The stewards often took these conditions into consideration. While their duties at times placed them under some duress, they always managed situations with the old common sense approach. There were no favourites or preferences and most notably handlers and track officials alike rarely voiced strong or persistent objections.
The supportive general public was, without doubt, not troubled by any lack of lavish amenities for as family groups or individuals they regularly attended and always appeared contented. Naturally one of the most popular areas which always seemed well patronised was the small snack bar, manned by volunteers who churned out vast quantities of light meals, etc. Also very popular was the bar area, if not for a convercial ale or two, then certainly as a place where vivid experiences could be exchanged, sometimes in glowing terms.
The big decision
In 1973 the club was able to make the necessary payments which allowed it to become the ‘freehold owner’ of the land on which it raced. It can be seen that Botanic Park, ex Whiteway was a most servicable track. It stood up to the most extremes of the elements, improvised and innovated when required.
During its time it saw and produced some of the finest greyhounds ever to race, and became the proving ground for some of the State’s most reputable trainers. Above all, the old track became the foundation of one of Australia’s most prestigious greyhound racing clubs.
In 1976 the committee of the time was faced with a dilemma where it was necessary to commit vast expenditure to upgrade facilities that were desperately in need of repair.
In the committee’s wisdom and after much discussion and consultation it was decided to move and build a totally new track at the Warrnambool Showgrounds site.
The track staged its final meeting at the Botanic Road site in 1978 farewelled by a very large crowd.
Acknowledgement: Special thanks to the late Alan Stoneman who compiled the early history of the club.
The dawning of a new era
July 27, 1978 saw the dawning of a new era of greyhound racing in Warrnambool when the lights of the new $290,000 track were turned on for the first time at the Showgrounds site. Racing commenced in early September with a huge crowd in attendance to see the new facilities and greyhound racing under spectacular lighting.
The new move was confidently hailed by the committee as an exciting new chapter in the clubs long history and with record crowds attending at early meetings it seemed as though this prediction was right on the mark. However, within a few months things turned completely around, bookmakers were finding the battle far too tough as the more fancied runners were winning the majority of races on the spacious track.
Subsequently very little odds were being offered by bookmakers and punters began to dwindle which had a drastic effect of the clubs finances leading to a 25% cut in stakemoney. The club struggled for the next couple of years with attendances continuing to fall and owners and trainers opting to race their greyhounds at other venues due to the low stakemoney being offered. This resulted in the club struggling to frame a ten event program and regularly ran races with less than eight runners and for a short period went to racing every fortnight rather than weekly.
In September 1982 the club saw a changing of the guard with a new president, vice-president and part time secretary voted in on the 12 man committee. The task of revitilising the club commenced and the land on which the old Botanic Park track was situated which the club still owned was sold, staff were cut to an all time low and replaced with volunteers from the local branch of the GOTBA and ladies Committee. The club took over the running of the publican’s booth and continued staging Bingo on Thursday afternoons. A legitimate sponsorship drive commenced in an endeavour to lift the profile of the club and greyhound racing and to secure outside funding. Ambitious facelifts were commenced at the track with painting programmes and ground improvements commenced, video replays of races were first introduced, the secretary’s office and publican’s booth were moved into the betting ring to be closer to patrons and the front of the betting ring was enclosed to provide additional comfort for the public. Every move the club made was designed at winning patrons back to greyhound racing.
Saturday afternoon racing was given a lengthy trial but did not prove as popular as expected so racing reverted back to Thursday nights. Footballers gifts and the annual seaside carnival were introduced and while both successful, did not provide the ongoing weekly attraction the club was searching for.
Jumping to success
It was then decided to introduce a new innovation of hurdle racing. Hurdles were obtained from the Horsham Club who no longer used them and work was commenced to prepare the Warrnambool track for hurdle racing. The committee new that if hurdle racing was to be successful they had to have jumpers trained locally so a recruitment drive was conducted to lease hurdle greyhounds and place them with local trainers. This proved a winning combination and hurdle racing certainly provided the attraction for patrons who flocked to see events staged every fortnight at the track.
In May 1983 the club increased stakemoney by 22% and by 11% again in July. The increases took the club from one of the lowest to the highest stake paying non TAB club in country Victoria. Now that the club was reaping the rewards of its hard work the next step was to secure a full off-course TAB meeting.
After many deputations to the Greyhound Racing Control Board and the Racing Minister the club was granted its first TAB meetings which were staged on April 25th and 30th, 1985.
The success of these meetings ensured that the club would hold future TAB events and in 1989 the club was granted full TAB status and converted to Wednesday night racing.
A classic initiative
In 1991 the club took on one of its most ambitious strategies when it announced that it would be staging the first of the now famous Warrnambool Classic events, offering a winners purse of $50,000. The success of this event is now history and regarded as the premier aged greyhound event in Australia. The club is now promoting nominations for its 23rd staging of the event to be held in May 2013.
The late 90’s saw the club develop even further with a new function centre development being constructed and numerous upgrades to patron facilities, track upgrades and a new kennel block which was completed in January 2002.
The Warrnambool Greyhound Racing Club has certainly come a long way and is now regarded as one of the most successful greyhound racing clubs in Australia, an acknowledgement to all who have contributed over the years.