MAGIC MILLIONS is a terrific concept and a tremendous draw-card but the racing and punting public have had a gutful of the political and media circus that it creates on an annual basis.

Gerry and Singo can be relied on every January to provide ‘three ring entertainment’ to rival the great Barnum and Bailey but like the little boy who cried ‘wolf,’ the pleas for help are falling on deaf ears.

The annual threat to move the Millions to another venue unless they get a bucketful of cash from the Queensland Government or the racing industry to improve the Gold Coast facilities and boost prizemoney is no longer taken seriously.

It has reached such joke proportions that even ‘mug’ punters are now taking bets and running sweeps on what day of the week the annual cry will go out – this year it was a day earlier than expected – and where they will threaten to move to next.

One wag even suggested that the marketing magician from Queensland Racing might see the opportunity to pump up support for Cushion Tracks and make a complete mockery of the Millions by rolling the dice for Toowoomba.

Like ‘chooks waiting to be fed’ – that famous catch-phrase of the old ‘goat rider’ Joh Bjelke – the media hang on the every word uttered by Magic Millions owners Gerry Harvey and John Singleton. It’s ‘suck up and survive time’ at the zoo.

First they were going to move it to Sydney – we’ve all seen how successful the Wyong Millions are. The biggest highlight of that day is the arrival of the ‘Singo’ chopper when the Sky cameras dutifully zoom on the in-field to see which blonde the ‘old bull’ has on his arm this year.

Then there was the threat to take it to Brisbane – a nice political ploy in the racing political climate back then – when some city officials would have carried coals to burn their counterparts on the Gold Coast.

There was no mileage in pulling that old chestnut out this year after the newly-merged Brisbane Racing Club announced that it wasn’t interested in ‘pinching’ the big event from the Gold Coast. That would hardly be a smart move with a takeover – sorry merger – in mind down the track.

Surprise, surprise – yet another venue emerged from left field that was interested in hosting the Millions. This time it was Melbourne – more to the point the Victorian Government. They’ve pinched just about every event in Australia that isn’t tied down.

The timing was perfect. It coincided with the MM bosses sitting down for a friendly chat with the Queensland Government and its Events Corporation.  But things have changed from when the official labeled the ‘poisoned dwarf’ was wined and dined by MM and in the eyes of the industry handed over a truck-load of financial support to Magic Millions that most felt should have gone directly to the Gold Coast Turf Club.

Not that the Millions bosses were happy with that handout – in fact they felt it was a pittance compared to what should have been delivered in return for an event that their survey suggests is worth a cool $50 million – at least – in economic impact to the state of Queensland.

Many would question that figure – especially when the Magic Millions carnival coincides with the most popular holiday period on Australia’s hottest tourist strip when there are already visitors in their tens of thousands. How do you sort the wheat from the chaff? You don’t!

Having learnt by its mistake in pouring millions into a motor race on the Gold Coast that has hardly proved a roaring success, the Government isn’t about to follow that lead in these tough financial times.

Under fire over the sale of State assets – even from within its own major supporter base, the union movement – the Bligh Government isn’t about to write a cheque for millions to a company already making plenty and run by two of the country’s richest men.

With insufficient funds to properly maintain hospitals, roads and schools, the Government has to tread warily when it comes to racing. Gone are the ‘Hinze days’ when a ‘gutful of booze would buy a club a brand new grandstand.’

What the Queensland Government is prepared to do at this stage is provide an $80 million funding package to the industry but there are strings attached. It will be spread over four years and has to be used to re-develop facilities for the three codes.

With the help of my trusty abacus that basically amounts to four-fifths of nothing when you start carving the cake. But those close to the action insist it will enable an improvement of facilities at the Gold Coast Turf Club to satisfy the needs of Millions day.

Treasurer Andrew Fraser said the funding package would be sourced from the redirection of half of the revenue gained from wagering taxes. “We have identified the need to redevelop the industry’s ageing infrastructure to usher in a new era of racing – something the industry cannot achieve on its own.

“It is the Government’s desire to see a major redevelopment of the Gold Coast Turf Club, home of the Magic Millions Carnival, undertaken as soon as possible. It is an important event to the Gold Coast and Queensland, and needs a world class facility in order for the event to grow.”

Racing Minister Peter Lawlor, a former Director of the GCTC, echoed his Treasurer’s comments. “This is a big win for the (racing industry) and particularly the Gold Coast. The Government will stump up the money to improve the facilities, which will then allow the Magic Millions owners to reach for the sky, and see the event reach its potential on the international stage.”

Unless a major proportion of the funding is directed to the Gold Coast this is ‘pie in the sky’ stuff. Mind you we are only talking about $80 million over four years to the three codes with the harness and greyhounds desperately in need of their share of the spoils.

One might argue that those involved have their priorities terribly wrong. We see Gerry standing outside his own sales complex and complaining about the quality of the facilities. What do MM want – someone else to pay for them to have a state-of-the-art amphitheatre in which to sell their horses?

It’s not the facilities for the public or the members that need improving at the Gold Coast Turf Club – it’s the track itself. A major upgrade is needed or the field size has to be reduced. There is far too much interference – as evidenced in the Two-Year-Old Classic last Saturday.

The inside section of the track was not up to standard for the Millions card – largely because of the stupid decision to run three race meetings there in the space of nine days. It was a much more successful format when the Wednesday was the only major lead-up meeting.

One could also argue that the only time the complex is asked to accommodate a similar crowd to Millions is Melbourne Cup day when a majority of race-goers are drunk and unruly and could better be accommodated by being herded into tents in the in-field or away from those who actually want to enjoy the racing.

The ‘fire-side’ chat between Magic Millions and the Government obviously achieved something with Harvey and Singleton both playing down the prospects of a move to Victoria but adding there was always a need to discuss and consider any business proposal.

Gai Waterhouse is a great fan of both gentlemen but got it right when she warned them that the only place in the world the Magic Millions concept would work was at the Gold Coast. Most agree they would take the Magic out of the Millions if they moved elsewhere – especially Melbourne.

As for the Government funding injection, which it insists will greatly benefit the GCTC well that has created another nice political bun-fight within the industry in Queensland. Officials of the club have complained that they are not being consulted by Queensland Racing.

QR chairman Bob Bentley insists that because this is industry money there is no need for consultation. There are those, including GCTC heavies, who believe that Bentley will attempt to use this to wrest control of the club from the directors and place it in the hands of a Trust.

Ray Stevens, the Shadow Racing Minister and a former Director of the GCTC, attacked QR which provoked an angry response from ‘Bob the Builder,’ who accused Stevens of being ‘asleep at the wheel.’

“It’s as if he has been woken up and thinks that he has a duty to criticize the Queensland Government, notwithstanding the Government has just confirmed a significant funding package for the racing industry including the Gold Coast Turf Club,” Bentley said.

“The proposal to develop the GCTC is to be a major development on the Gold Coast, redefining racing in the Opposition Premier’s own electorate – hardly politically motivated or dodgy.

“The wagering tax redirection is a result of 12 months consultation and numerous submissions to the Bligh Government for the racing industry for all codes and is not just for the GCTC. The submission will pass the toughest of markers on accountability.

“The tax relief is over four years and will gross up to approximately $80 million. There will be other industry funds added and a commercial credit facility will be established to undertake essential industry projects in all codes.

“The funds will be made available to a combined control body with no collar from the Bligh Government. The projects have been identified in an ‘Issues Paper’ and formed the basis of the submission,” Bentley said.

“There is nothing coming back to the Government except the recognition of the importance of the racing industry and the 40,000 Queenslanders who derive their income from this industry and the critical need for infrastructure upgrades to sustain this employment.

“Ray, are you getting the message? Lights on yet,” said Bentley, sounding more like the Racing Minister or at least uttering words that could easily have been written by a spin doctor for the Bligh Government.

“The statement by Stevens of $10 million being offered for the Bundall assets that he claims are worth $100 million along with his other ramblings, make no logical sense and are typical of Stevens’ lack of knowledge and understanding of this initiative.

“Stephens must be constantly domiciled in a dark room if he cannot understand that a major investment in the GCTC to deliver on a significant development will require a change in the asset structure.

“This is merely commercial reality, something that the racing industry will have to come to grips with. The days of grants to private members clubs are over,” said Bentley, obviously harking back to the crazy spending ‘Hinze era.’

Unfortunately, neither the original media release by Stevens nor the Bentley rebuttal copped much coverage in the media. Nothing like the ‘headline grabber’ when Harvey and Singleton talked up turning the Magic Millions Two-Year-Old Classic into the world’s richest race.

They want prizemoney for the current $2 million race boosted to $11 million. That would almost double what is offered for the Melbourne Cup and eclipse the $10.9 million paid by the Sheiks for the Dubai World Cup.

Being the businessmen they are, there is always a catch with Gerry and Singo and this was no different. They were only prepared to invest half and wanted the taxpayers of Queensland to foot the bill for the other $5.5 million.

“We have invested over $25 million in the past three years and over $100 million in the past 10 years, to take Magic Millions to the next level in terms of prestige and profile,” Harvey said. “However, our aim has always been to be able to justifiably call Magic Millions a world class event. We want Queensland to be home to the ultimate – the world’s richest horse race.”

What gets up the nose of most racing people – from those involved to simple observers and punters – is that Magic Millions is a restricted race. A horse has to be sold through the company sales to be eligible for the big money.

There are those who question the prizemoney claimed to be paid on Millions day. They rightfully argue that ‘acceptance fees’ should not be included in the total, just because they are refunded and called ‘prizemoney.’

There are also many who believe that Queensland Racing is promoting a ‘restriction of trade’ by not programming another ‘secondary’ race meeting for ‘metropolitan prizemoney’ in Brisbane on the day. They question: Why should the main meeting on the day be restricted to horses from one sale?

Racing Minister Lawlor was quick to dismiss any Government contribution toward the ‘world’s richest race.’ “We’re not going to be writing a cheque (to Magic Millions) for $5 million.”

What he should have done was used a ‘sales gimmick’ that Harvey Norman so successfully implements in its legion of stores: “If Magic Millions wants to run the race the Queensland Government will provide the $5.5 million – no deposit and no repayments – well not for five years anyhow and there will be conditions attached.”

Harvey has accused the Government of investing ‘peanuts in the Magic Millions and enjoying a free-ride on its success’ pointing to the economic impact benefits estimated to total $50 million a year to the State from the event.

On that topic I thought it was best to wind up this week on a lighter note. I had a phone call from an old friend – Butch – you might remember her from previous columns. She runs one of the biggest escort businesses in the country and one of her most successful operations is on the Gold Coast.

Butch tells me that while the turnover might have been down in the Magic Millions sales ring, the cash registers were ringing in her line of business for the duration of the race carnival.

“I don’t want to tell tales out of school but the majority of my clients were cashed-up sales buyers or racehorse owners and let me tell you some of them make Tiger Woods look like a choir boy.”

UNTIL NEXT WEEK THIS IS GODFREY SMITH SAYING GOOD HEALTH, GREAT PUNTING AND GOD BLESS and in a HOOFNOTE to last week’s column we received dozens of e-mails from ‘run of the mill’ punters in support of Racing Victoria Chief Steward Terry Bailey and the job he is doing, albeit in trying circumstances.



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