Racing again in the Miners Rest Cup!

16 January 2024 Written by Danny Russell

When the King Island Race Club was under threat of closure, a team effort by some well-known faces in the industry rallied to ensure the doors stayed open, with trainers from Ballarat joining forces to ensure that racing thrives on the island. The inception of the Miners Rest Cup in 2023 proved to be more than a marketing success; it yielded substantial benefits for the racing community and local charities. As we anticipate the 2024 edition on January 20, let's reflect on its origins.

The King Island racetrack lies dormant during the winter. 

Gulls soar overhead, scanning the empty grounds. The lush, sea-sprayed grass is damp and the earth is soft underfoot. 

The days are short and cold. Like nearby Tasmania, the icy wind can blow hard off the Bass Strait, whistling up the coast hills and through the empty grandstand. 

Beanie-wearing golfers fly in from the mainland in their rustling rain jackets to brave the elements on the nearby Ocean Dunes Golf Course. 

Winter on King Island is for football. And waiting. 

Trainers know to bide their time. They set their alarm clocks for spring. 

When the AFL begins its finals series in the cut-throat month of September, it is the signal for the King Island trainers to bring their horses in – summer is coming. 

That is the way it has been for more than 130 years, and that is the way it was always expected to be. Until August 2022. 

It was during the club’s annual general meeting that president Audrey Hamer feared they would not emerge from their winter hibernation. 

Two thoroughbred trainers and a standardbred trainer had retired and the future looked bleak – the island did not have enough horses or horse people. The sport was dying. 

Hamer knew that if they stopped racing for one season, they would “never start again”. 

It was against this backdrop that she wrote two messages that would ultimately change racing on the island forever. 

The first note was posted on Facebook – a desperate plea for support. 

Not long after a white knight emerged. Curious Pakenham trainer and skilled horseman Chris Diplock agreed to help. He would arrive on King Island in November, via ship from the mainland, with five much-needed horses and the willingness to train three more. 

Hamer’s second message was a Hail Mary. She sent a text to King Island vet John Cleland, knowing he had a link to Ballarat trainer Henry Dwyer. It was hoped Dwyer would lend them some of his ground staff and maybe a couple of his horses. 

But what happened next was nothing short of remarkable. 

The creative and inventive Henry Dwyer had raced Let It Rip Reggie on King Island with local legend Jim Taylor in the 2021/22 season, which was interrupted by COVID-19. He knew the people and he knew the lay of the land. 

The Ballarat Six with Bruce McAvaney. (El Kratzmann)

So when he was asked for help, he agreed to send a stable member south for a working holiday. But he also garnered support, and soon he and five fellow Ballarat training outfits had sourced six cheap horses from an online auction to race the King Island 2022/2023 season. Their next step was genius. The Ballarat Six, in conjunction with King Island Racing Club, created the Miners Rest Cup – a special race for their six budget buys to be held on the second-last meeting of the season. Their horses were to be prepared by local trainers – who were paid $50 a day – and the winner would take the bragging rights. 

They had saved the season and the picturesque race course, carved from the rolling sand dunes near the township of Currie, was back from the brink of extinction.

“If they didn’t come on board, as well as Chris Diplock, racing would not have gone ahead,” Hamer said. 

The Miners Rest Cup was not in the same stratosphere as the Golden Mile or The Everest, but this newly minted race was a marketer’s dream – it spoke to the heart of the Aussie spirit. It was about mateship and having a go. 

The impact was immediate and widespread. 

Firstly, the crisis was averted – King Island Racing had enough horses to conduct their summer season. 

Secondly, the subsequent publicity was unprecedented – everyone wanted to hear about how the Ballarat Six had saved a precious pocket of grassroots racing. 

“Ultimately, what we did was good for last season and it will be good each year we do it,” Dwyer said. 

“But it is not really going to help – except for us having a good weekend away. It really needs a couple of trainers to go down there each year to fill that void, like Chris Diplock did. He was the one who actually saved the carnival. 

“I think it would be terrific for a young trainer who has worked as a foreman and is going to get their trainer’s licence. They could go down there for eight weeks with a few cheap horses and bang them around.” 

Dwyer believes King Island “needs an expression of interest process” for importing a couple of summer trainers each year and, ideally, Tasracing would subsidise their costs. 

Jim Taylor has been involved in racing on the island for 60 years, has trained for more than 20 and is the winner of a dozen King Island Cups. He, too, is close to retirement. He said training on the tiny island of 1700 people has never been about money. 

“It’s a hobby over here,” he said. “It’s a love job. We are all the same. 

“Last year, the fellas from Ballarat, they paid us $50 a day to train their horses. Most of the trainers here on the island, that’s the first time they have ever been paid.” 

Taylor said training on the island is unique. Horses thrive in the conditions but they have to work them in a lunging ring because they rarely have access to track riders. 

He said there is a worrying shortage of trainers, but finding owners is never a problem. “I could go around, make a couple of phone calls, speak to half a dozen people and have a syndicate,” Taylor said. 

“But they do it on the understanding they are not going to make any money out of it. “It’s more about the community – having a place where people meet.” 

Although a miracle was delivered, there will continue to be challenges ahead. The equation for maintaining King Island racing is simple enough: they stage seven race days across December and January, and each meeting hosts five thoroughbred races and two pacing events – all run on the same grass track.

The 1600m track is tight and testing – 13m at its widest point – so field sizes are capped at eight for the gallops and 10 for the trots. This means they need between 30 and 40 gallopers to sustain a season and up to 20 pacers. 

In 2022 the shortage of harness horses was solved by local trainers Peter Jakowenko and Paul Williams agreeing to take on more pacers. But sourcing thoroughbreds comes with complications. 

Under the rules of racing, horses on King Island are only allowed to win $12,500 in first-place prizemoney (earnings for second and third placings do not count). 

With each race on the island worth about $2000 to the winner, a good horse breaks through this cap in two or three years. They are then retired or shipped across to Tasmania to continue competing in a higher grade. 

“It doesn’t give you much room,” Hamer said. “We really need to buy and bring in maidens.” Maintaining the track rests on the head of volunteers. The Lions Club staffs the gates, volunteers man the bars, while an island caterer is brought in to help feed the festive race day crowds. 

But Tasracing also plays a vital role. The governing body flies in stewards, jockeys, two extra barrier attendants (who are also qualified to drive the pacers), an extra clerk of the course, a race caller, a photographer and bookmaker Howie Culph.  Without them, the meetings would fall apart. 

The creation of the Miners Rest Cup was not only a great selling point, it provided a windfall for the community. It helped raise $24,000 in prizemoney and sponsorship – cash that was divided equally among seven not-for-profit organisations on the island such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the SES. 

But raising money is not the only reason the racing industry should fight to preserve racing on King Island, said Dwyer. He sees the sport through a wider lens. 

“If we get rid of these little country meetings and limit people’s interest, it all just unravels. That is the starting point for it all,” he said.

In November 2023, the Island was buzzing as six horses arrived for the upcoming race on January 20, 2024. The horses, purchased on Inglis Digital, arrived via the Spirit of Tasmania, with the priciest at $5500. The horses have been partially subsidised by Tasracing, while King Island is also welcoming Forbes-based trainer Bill Hayes, who had six gallopers and two pacers on the boat, for the season. Each horse will be distributed to a local trainer to be prepared on their behalf.