By JESSICA NAGEL:
All across New South Wales there is trouble in the fields.
In the words of Texan troubadour, Nanci Griffith, “the bankers are swarming like locusts and the farmers are in dust as deep as snow.”
Faced with economic ruin, many have fallen victim to the black dog.
Mental illness is now crippling communities, from Bingara, to Boggabri to the back of Bourke.
However, in the midst of this metaphorical winter, one community has found a beautiful summer.
And they have found it in the most surprising place – the racetrack.
The Mudgee racetrack is like an oasis in desert.
Rimmed by the jagged peaks of the Wollemi range, it is the heart of a municipality, on the frontline of the drought.
While many rural racetracks have long since slipped back into a state of nature, the Mudgee meet is flourishing.
From far and wide they come to have a flutter, a tipple and forget about their troubles for a while.
Horse racing was one of the earliest forms of entertainment for the district’s pioneer settlers, with the first race meeting being held in 1842.
Having developed its own unique characteristics, with a vast lawned area, permanent marquees and an extensive bar, the Mudgee Racecourse quickly became known as one of the premier destinations for horse racing in country New South Wales.
Even when Mother Nature has conspired against the region, locals still drift through the hallowed gates in their hundreds.
It is a phenomenon that has not escaped the gaze of the Racetrack’s President, Max Walker.
“It is not easy to describe racing in Mudgee. It has outstanding crowds at all of its race meetings, even when times were tough for many farmers during the drought.”
All of this activity down at the track has been a boom for the local economy. Indeed, racing generates over 257 million dollars for regional communities like Mudgee ever year.
As race day approaches, the anticipation is palpable.
From the balcony of the Waratah Hotel, to the sandstone steps of the city’s cathedral, everyone is talking about where they are going to place their bets and what colour tie to choose.
In such an environment even the State of Origin falls victim to race chatter.
Goree Park equine expert, Vikki Cannon, has often been a witness to this excitement.
“In the week leading up to the Goree Cup, the whole of Mudgee is buzzing. The hairdressers and beauticians are booked weeks in advance and clothing stores order more stock.”
Ms. Cannon believes it is the fun, friendly, family atmosphere that draws people back time and time again.
Max Walker couldn’t agree more.
“Everyone just wants to get involved, so that’s really what is holding it together and it’s the reason why people go to these races because they feel a part of it.”
It is this sense of community that distinguishes Mudgee from larger races on the east coast.
With 100,000 flooding into Flemington every November an individual can easily get lost in the crowd.
The focus on high-end fashion, celebrity and flaunting your money removes many ordinary individuals from the picture.
This is a far cry from the wide streets and dusty shopfronts of Mudgee.
Racing in this part of the world is a form of communion, where everyone gathers to share in the good news.
Vikki Canon pinpoints the ongoing success of Mudgee racing to individuals such as Max and Colleen Walker.
“I’ve been a member of the club for 30 years on and off and until Max and Colleen Walker took over the club it was dying.”
It is under their guidance that the place has gone ahead in leaps and bounds with the turnover increasing from 70,000 thousand to 1.1 million dollars in the past 5 years.
Even “foreigners” from the other side of the divide are starting to congregate on the town, abandoning all that water for the one sweet promenade of the Mudgee racetrack.
Those that left for the bright lights of Sydney are coming back in their droves to join in the revelry, such as prominent trainer Guy Walters and jockey Kathy O’Hara.
The Gooree Cup, which was held on May fourth this year, attracted crowds that have never been seen before in Mudgee, resulting in an outstanding overall profit of 40,000 thousand dollars.
Each year the Mudgee Racecourse committee donates about 25,000 thousand dollars out of their sponsorship money to charities such as Pioneer House, disabled children, the ambulance service and more recently to drought relief organisations.
Mr. Walker has lived in Mudgee all his life and doesn’t think he has ever seen it this dry.
“These farmers, many of them I am great friends with. If I can do a little bit to help them, then I am more than happy to donate money and lend a hand.”
The effects of the most recent drought have been extremely upsetting in the region with some farmers involuntarily selling their cattle for as little as 17 dollars a beast.
One man in Gulgong was forced to make the tragic decision to shoot his starving cattle rather than watch them slowly die. In this pure emotional and depressed state, he then turned the gun on himself.
This is no isolated incident.
New figures from the ABC have revealed that prolonged drought and increased social isolation are responsible for 34 in every 100,000 male farmers committing suicide, a significant increase on 24 in every 100,000 a decade ago.
There is an increased amount of social isolation in many regional areas within Australia, with larger properties, more workload and longer distances to travel to see friends.
These farmers have no one to ‘off load’ their thoughts to and are therefore convincing themselves there is no real hope for a future.
Rural Financial Counsellor, Liz Brown, believes it is “extremely important for primary producers to remain in touch with their community, particularly when times are difficult,” in order to avoid further tragedy.
For local farmers like John Mackan race day is an ideal time to come together to share a laugh with mates and regain a sense of optimism about the future.
“Sometimes you need something to look forward to and it’s nice to have an excuse to get dressed up, close the gate to the property and catch up with some mates over a beer or two.”
For Mr. Mackan rural race meetings are more than just a day where you punt and gamble your money away on the TAB. It is about so much more – the spice of life some would say.
While the Melbourne Cup may stop the nation for several minutes, rural race meetings can stop towns for days, weeks even.
They help to bolster ailing local economies, but most of all they provide racegoers with a sense of meaning and purpose in an otherwise atomistic world.
Farmers rely on days like these to enable them to get through the tough times.
So long as Mudgee has the track, the future burns bright.
As Nanci Griffith said, “There’s still a lotta love in these troubled fields.”