Topics:  garry armstrong, horse racing, rockhampton jockey club

New jockey club CEO under heat as horse trainers fall

Gary Armstrong had his first day on the job as the new Secretary at Callaghan Park race track. Photo: Chris Ison / The Morning Bulletin
Gary Armstrong had his first day on the job as the new Secretary at Callaghan Park race track. Photo: Chris Ison / The Morning Bulletin Chris Ison

ALTHOUGH he wouldn't admit to it, Garry Armstrong must have put on a brave face at his first few days in the office as the Rockhampton Jockey Club's new CEO at Callaghan Park racecourse last week.

While Garry and other Rockhamptonites sweltered in near 40 degrees heat - not to mention the humidity, his former base of Echuca, Victoria, was enjoying mild temperatures around half that mark.

"It's not too bad, at least there's a bit of a breeze," Garry remarked before becoming more realistic and saying, "I suppose before too long I'll be complaining about the heat just like the locals".

However, for Armstrong, 48, the heat is probably the least of his worries.

At a time when Rockhampton racing is under threat of losing race dates through the inadequacy of not being able to service full TAB cards, unwittingly, Armstrong has found himself in the hot seat of Queensland provincial racing.

Morale among trainers is at a record low; horse numbers in training are down almost 100; prizemoney has been stagnant for seven years and to quote the local trainer's association president Jim Rundle, "racehorse owners are becoming a dying breed".

Worse still it is through no fault of the RJC with blame clearly at the heels of policies of the ruling body, with buck-passing from both the former and present Racing Queensland Limited.

Fresh from five years as CEO of the Echuca Racing Club and at the helm when it was judged Victoria's best country race club, Armstrong said he was looking for new challenges.

Ironically he could not have come at a more challenging time for the Rockhampton racing industry.

Garry, in common with so many administrators, not only in racing but in sport in general, likes to talk up the positives.

"The media tends to focus on the half-empty side instead of the half-full side. Things are never that bad as overall racing is pretty vibrant. I prefer the positive look on the whole industry, " he said.

It's an honourable attribute which is even more effective with the alliance of recognition and subsequent action motivated by constructive media criticism.

The reality is, however, that Armstrong has taken on a challenging post in a city proud not only of its racing heritage dating back to 1868 but also of its threatened status as a major player in the national provincial racing network.

So what motivated Armstrong to move north from a town of about 12,000 and a race club with 17 meetings annually to a city with 62,000 people and 45 race meetings?

Naturally, the answer lies in the figures just quoted.

"Before taking on Echuca role as CEO I had been on the committee there and before that was secretary with the Tatura Race Club.

"I made a conscious decision some years ago to become involved in the racing industry.

"I saw this position with the RJC as a bigger challenge with a bigger club," he answered.

As well, Garry and wife Jacinta's three daughters Chelsea, 24, Ellie, 22, and Abbie, 19, have now established their own lives thereby giving their parents free rein.

Through his input with events and marketing, Garry said Echuca's patronage on Melbourne Cup Day went from 1000 to 7000 patrons.

Speaking of Melbourne Cup Day, Armstrong, who trainers are delighted to know is a true-blue racing man, has fond memories of Tuesday, November 9, 2006.

"I part-owned the grey horse Theresnothinglycra which won the All Greys Handicap that day at Flemington. It was unbelievable. I've raced horses in syndicates for 20 years and that winning feeling is extraordinary," Mr Armstrong said.

Already Garry has made a favourable impression among trainers at Callaghan Park track work sessions by his attendance and sharing a coffee and sandwich with them.

A former proprietor of a bait and tackle business in Echuca, a fishing haven on the banks of the Murray and Campaspe Rivers, Garry's other challenge down the track will be to land some barramundi.

A former profession ruck and centre-half forward when playing Aussie Rules for Swan Hill in a pre-racing life, no doubt his interest in that code will be rekindled by the Capricornia competition.

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