A government planning option for Thoroughbred Park to be redeveloped without the racetrack put the skitters through Canberra’s horse racing community on the industry’s most significant day of the year.
The Melbourne Cup Day release of draft District Strategies and the draft Territory Plan included concept plans for the Inner North site with or without the racetrack, shocking the Canberra Racing Club, which has plans to redevelop part of the land to diversify its income and secure its future.
Club CEO Darren Pearce said the club knew nothing about the option despite talking with the government for some time about its plans, which will require a change to the Territory Plan.
“It felt akin to being a company in the middle of an AGM and getting a tap on the shoulder that a hostile takeover bid has been launched,” Mr Pearce said.
“It was a real shock to the system.”
The reaction sent the government into damage control, and the Canberra Liberals seized on the document alleging the government was plotting the demise of horse racing in the ACT.
“This is an utter disgrace and what we see here is clear proof that the ACT is genuinely staring down the barrel of being the only jurisdiction in Australia without horse racing,” Gaming spokesperson Mark Parton said.
But the government said the District Strategy option was not a plan to end horse racing.
“The racetrack will remain at the current site in Lyneham for as long as Canberra Racing Club wish to stay there,” the spokesperson said.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr also reassured the industry, saying the option would only be pursued if that’s what the club wanted to do, guaranteeing its future on the site.
“It’s up to Canberra Racing Club how much housing they want on the site,” Mr Barr said.
“If they want to move off-site, that’s allowed for as an option … but I imagine they will want to settle on that site and build around it.
“I hope they will bring the harness racing club into the precinct as well; that will free up space in Exhibition Park for a number of projects.
“All the district plan does is enable the fullest extent of the TPV [Territory Plan Variation] – that’s why there are two options.”
But Mr Pearce said that without context, notice or even offering an alternative site, the planning statement came as a shock.
“There are a lot of employees of the club, racing industry participants who had a sleepless night last night worrying about what it meant for them, their careers, and their businesses and their families,” he said.
Mr Pearce said it was really important for the Chief Minister to clarify the position.
He said the first option presented was a profound step forward for the club’s development plans and was aligned with its master plan.
But Mr Pearce stressed property development was not the club’s first calling.
“Our charter is not to become property developers at the expense of the racing industry in the community we serve,” he said.
“We’re a not-for-profit enterprise and the net proceeds of the master plan development will be reinvested for the betterment of racing, horse welfare and the community.”
Both Options A and B outlined a development path that included high-density housing close to light rail, community and retail facilities, parks and tree cover, but Option B included a green corridor through the current racetrack.
It did say the racecourse would be retained until an alternative site proves appropriate and viable.
A government spokesperson said they had been working with the club since February 2020 on a range of options for the future of the site.
“Canberra Racing Club had proposed a range of possibilities for the future of the site as a means of diversifying the club’s income, including the construction of housing on part of the site,” the spokesperson said.
“The ACT Government supports investigation of these options.
“The draft Inner North District Strategy released yesterday contains a range of ideas for the community to consider.”
Mr Pearce said the club had no plans to move from its current site.
“That’s what the master plan is all about,” he said. “Building a race course from scratch is not an inexpensive exercise.
“We will be pursuing vigorously Option A in the plan, which is great for the community.”
Mr Barr said the release of the planning document on Melbourne Cup day was coincidental.