IF it hadn't been such a cool day forcing me to wear a cardigan that didn't quite suit my outfit, it would have been perfect. The sky was cloudy, but with glimpses of blue, and we were less than 10 metres from the rails.
There was a flash of colour from the jockeys' silks as their horses raced past in a thunder of hooves. No activity was more strenuous than strolling to the bookies to place a bet before returning to my picnic rug, glass of champagne and the company of friends.
That's what a day at the country races is all about.
Melbourne's love affair with racing has been well documented and long acknowledged — we even have a day off for a horse race — but over the past few years the popularity of a day at the races has exploded, particularly during the Spring Racing Carnival.
But the atmosphere has changed at the metropolitan meets. Racegoers aren't necessarily there to see one horse take home millions in the race that stops a nation. It's about the fashion, marquees, hook-ups and celebrity spotting.
Meanwhile, country racing is increasing in popularity — tracks are being upgraded, fashion competitions attract high-profile names and the horses run a decent race.
Racing expert John Rothfield — aka Dr Turf — says country racing is experiencing a resurgence, particularly at this time of year. "It's been promoted really well, the facilities are really, it's great for families and, instead of running their big cup days on a Tuesday or Wednesday, they're now on a Sunday."
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Rothfield says he has "always loved" country racing and, while often the quality of the horses may not be up to the standard seen at Flemington, it's the atmosphere that attracts people. "There's a real sense of community — and they have a vested interest to keep the race vibrant."
He says the benefits for business are great because of the influx of visitors. "In Avoca, there are just 400 people who live in the town but they attract about 8000 people to the Avoca Cup."
Cranbourne Turf Club chief executive and chamber of commerce member Neil Bainbridge agrees. "There's no question that it's outstanding for the town — racing in Cranbourne brings $100 million to the local economy and about 1200 jobs."
The Cranbourne training complex is the largest thoroughbred training centre in the southern hemisphere with 105 trainers based at the site and 753 stable hands.
Bainbridge said country races benefited surrounding businesses. "When you get about 10,000 people to an event, a percentage will stay overnight in the town, they'll buy petrol from our stations and stock up on supplies at the shops."
Charlotte Littlefoot is a regular around the tracks — country and metropolitan — and organised the Myer Fashions on the Field at the Cranbourne Cup several weeks ago.
She says the country races are considered more "accessible" for a number of reasons. "There's every age group, there is more space and it's not as packed as one of the big metropolitan meets."
In the fashion department, Littlefoot says designer labels, unique student designers and vintage Chanel won't necessarily take out top prize. And the ages of entrants ranged from 18 to late 60s. "You do get some serial entrants in country racing, but at Cranbourne this year a local girl took out second place, so that evened it out a little."
Littlefoot says the runner-up wore a vintage skirt and a simple black top — "it was just the way she put it together".
The seasoned racegoer says country fashion entrants often "create" part of their outfit with their own hands. "The lady who won made her hat — she bought it from an op shop, painted it and created a whole new style."
Littlefoot, who helps trains her horses as her day job, says the obvious difference between country and metropolitan meets is the horses. John Rothfield says the quality of the races depends on the size of the venue.
The Geelong Cup — a group 3 race — had some big names competing last week due, Rothfield says, to the venue and the fact it was just two weeks out from the Melbourne Cup.
Other country race meets offer something completely different. Melbourne Cup day in the Yarra Valley will be celebrated with harness racing. Peter Goudie, 71, is a "retired" trainer — who still trains horses — and has lived in the Yarra Valley for more than 25 years.
He'll have "three or four" horses competing at the Yarra Valley racecourse next week and says there has been up to 15,000 spectators at Cup Day in previous years. "It's become more of a social event," Goudie says. "The horses are a bonus."
A Yarra Valley local, Goudie says the day attracts plenty of interest from the area — "you'll bump into neighbours, maybe even a whole street" — but also gets plenty of visitors from Melbourne.
"The weather definitely dictates how many visitors we get. A lot of people make the decision the day before."
He believes country races have a different atmosphere to the metropolitan racing days, like Derby, Melbourne Cup or Oaks days. "We're more relaxed, it's family-oriented and people feel happy to bring along their kids or grandkids," he says.
On Melbourne Cup Day, there will be a designated family zone along the straight, children's entertainment and free entry for children accompanied by an adult. "They definitely cater for kids — dad can take the kids to the kids' zone and mum can relax."
John Rothfield says country races are also a natural magnet for Christmas parties and corporate events. "They're a great idea because it's during the day, so people don't get too stupid and it's something different."
As for the future, Rothfield is certain a day at the country races will become a regular for many racegoers. "It's the country, so it's relaxed. And it's moving in the right direction — it's really strong and really vibrant."
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