Championships come full circle for local legend
THE weather gods have created a homecoming of sorts for one of Grafton's favourite sons of the racetrack.
Before Alan Ryan passed away on February 10, the racehorse trainer was preparing Rioli for a tilt at the 2020 Country Championships NRRA Qualifier at Coffs Harbour.
Heavy rain in the ensuing days forced Racing NSW stewards to relocate the $150,000 race to Grafton; the same track where Ryan ensured the event got off to a fairytale start in 2015 when he won the inaugural Northern Rivers qualifier with $21 hope Redwolf.
"In some way it seems appropriate because Ally won the first ever Northern Rivers heat here with Redwolf," CRJC CEO Michael Beattie told The Daily Examiner on Tuesday.
The humble trainer's win for South Grafton connections Terry and Fay Kelly made for one of the most memorable racing stories to come out of Grafton in recent times, and was a fitting start for a race designed to give country trainers better opportunities at racing for major prizemoney in the city.
The Country Championships have since cemented their place at the top of country racing and, by luck, on Thursday Grafton will have hosted all six editions to date, despite efforts by Racing NSW to switch the Northern Rivers Regional Qualifier to a new venue in 2020.
Coffs Harbour Racing Club was scheduled to host the first of eight heats across the state last Saturday, before it was postponed to Tuesday due to significant rainfall in the region.
Due to further rain the track, which was already sitting at a Heavy 10, was deemed unsafe by Racing NSW stewards and the Coffs meeting was abandoned, with the qualifier instead transferred to Thursday's meeting at Clarence River Jockey Club.
"It will be good to have the race back in Grafton, but it is a pity for Coffs Harbour because they had done a wonderful job preparing for and promoting the race," Mr Beattie said.
The field size for the relocated race will now be reduced from 16 to 14 runners.
While Rioli didn't make the cut for a start in the qualifier, the gelding now in Shane Everson's stable will contest race six, the Remembering Ally Ryan CG&E Class 1 Handicap over 1420 metres at 4.20pm.
What was initially shaping up to be a run-of-the-mill eight-race midweek TAB meeting at Grafton will instead become the venue's biggest race day outside of the July Racing Carnival. A bumper field of 136 acceptances will contest 10 races across the revamped twilight meeting, highlighted by the $150,000 qualifier in race eight at 5.30pm.
Coinciding with Seniors Week, entry is free for seniors.
"Due to the changes, we have scheduled five races after 4pm in the hope people can finish work and still come out and witness the championships, which is to be run at 5.30pm," Mr Beattie said.
In another salute to Ryan, jockeys will wear Ryan's racing silks, including John Grisedale aboard Lose The Snip in the $150,000 NRRA Country Championships Qualifier.
"In a gesture to make Thursday's race about Ally Ryan, a horse in each race wherever possible will wear Ally's colours of pale blue with a white cap," Mr Beattie said.
"Racing in particular but Australia in general has this habit of making people better than they are when they die. But in Ally's case he was a pretty good bloke to start with."
A service will be held in Ryan's honour at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Skinner St, South Grafton, commencing at 2pm tomorrow (Friday February 22).
A remembrance function will be held afterwards at the Grafton Racecourse.
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NRRA QUALIFIER PAST WINNERS
2015: 1st Redwolf - Alan Ryan (Grafton), 2nd Kareem's Edge - Paul Smith (Coffs Harbour)
2016: 1st Profiler - Stephen Lee (Ballina); 2nd Ultimate Dreamer - Jim Jarvis (Coffs Harbour)
2018: 1st Snitz - Matthew Dunn (Murwillumbah); 2nd Ferniehirst - Paul Smith (Coffs Harbour)
2019: 1st La Scopa - Matthew Dunn (Murwillumbah); 2nd Queen of Kingston - Daniel Bowen (Lismore)
Coffs Harbour wasn't the only location to miss out on hosting a heat for the first time, with the South East Regional Qualifier on Sunday moved from Nowra to Moruya.
Feb 16*: Moruya (South East)
Feb 20* *: Grafton (Northern Rivers)
Feb 22: Albury (Southern Districts)
Feb 23: Taree (Mid North Coast)
Mar 1: Mudgee (Central Districts)
Mar 8: Tamworth (Hunter North West)
Mar 15: Coonamble (Western)
Mar 22: Muswellbrook (Wild Card)
Apr 4: Royal Randwick (Final)
* Moved from Nowra
** Postponed from Feb 15 and moved from Coffs Harbour