NJC boss hopes for support in building Cessnock pre-training centre

NEWCASTLE Jockey Club chief Matt Benson hopes a suggestion to turn Cessnock Racecourse into a regional pre-training centre will become a reality when Racing NSW’s strategic plan is released in August.

Newcastle Jockey Club CEO Matt Benson. Pictured: Jonathan Carroll

Newcastle Jockey Club CEO Matt Benson. Pictured: Jonathan Carroll

The NJC owns the Cessnock course and believes it is an ideal site, given its location between key tracks and its availability of land, for redevelopment into a pre-training hub. 

Cessnock, which features a turf track and sand training course, hosts 10 meetings this financial year and is the base for 15-20 trainers.

Benson said the NJC floated the idea of Cessnock becoming a pre-training centre last year at the same time Racing NSW was using industry forums to identify key issues and priorities for the next three to five years.

“That suggestion was put into the mixer and early indications are that it’s got some traction,” Benson said.

“But we don’t know how that is going to play out until the strategic plan is released in August.

“The upshot is it’s a reasonably positive sign that it appears Racing NSW are going to explore the concept, but we know nothing more than it’s on the radar.”

Benson believed the potential redevelopment would take Cessnock from “an under-utilised racing facility to something that could be a key industry facility in a large town with a great racing history at the bottom of the Hunter Valley”.

“The position is perfect, the local support would be great and the facility is made for it,” he said.

“There’s some real synergies there, it’s just if it bubbles up high enough on the list of priorities, and we hope it does.

“Pre-training is a major focus for the whole industry. It’s the industry within the industry that often doesn’t get talked about.

“It’s the lifeblood for a lot of smaller trainers who are very happy to have their three or five in work but want to have another 10 or 12 in pre-training. And obviously the big stables don’t want a lot of these horses turning up at their racing facilities until they are ready to roll.

“We just felt that there was a huge win-win potential there. We think it would be great for Cessnock and really good for the industry.”

He believed an development of a pre-training centre “would have to start from scratch” at Cessnock, where facilities were “basic”. 

“Cessnock is a wonderful blank canvas, a big space and there’s a huge amount of options and flexibility,” he said.

“It’s how big or small whoever wants to make it.”

As for Newcastle Racecourse, the NJC hoped for help in the strategic plan in improving and increasing its stables.

“Further to the considerable amount of work that has already been done, we would be very excited to see Newcastle on the radar for further developments in the stabling area,” Benson said.

Benson, meanwhile, revealed the club proposed to increase the prizemoney by $25,000 for the group 3 Newcastle Cup (2300m) in September to $200,000 and December’s Max Lees Classic (900m) for two-year-olds to $75,000.

“The Cup is our flagship event and we think it’s very important that it remains competitive with the other cups, not only in our area but with key cups interstate,” Benson said.

“The Max Lees Classic is a race of huge potential. It’s not aligned with Magic Millions or Inglis, so a horse can win a $75,000 race in the first week of December and that is crucial prizemoney to get into the Wyong Magic Millions or Inglis Nursery or go onto the Magic Millions.”

He said the club was in the market for a sponsor for both races. The Max Lees Classic was held for the first time last year when won by the David Atkins-trained Jonker.