THEY haven't raced at Charlton in four months - and the gap between meetings run in front of a crowd has been even longer.
But don't expect to hear any gripes and grumbles emanating from the Charlton Harness Racing Club.
The progressive central Victorian club has reasons more than most to bemoan the absence of on-track action during the COVID-19 pandemic, an off-shoot of Harness Racing Victoria's decision to run with a regional racing model since early-April.
Following the return to racing late last year after an 18-month hiatus and the opening of the town's new $4.2m state-of-the-art community hub, this was going to be Charlton's big year.
Things haven't exactly gone to plan.
First, the official opening of the new facility and accompanying race meeting was pushed back a few days due to extreme heat.
Next, the club's biggest annual meeting, Charlton Pacing Cup day, had to be staged without a crowd, after a ban on patrons was implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The club's annual Dja Dja Wurrung meeting, also run without crowds on March 29, was held just days before Victoria moved to a regional racing model, with the next eight-weeks of race meetings for the Central region, incorporating Charlton, being hosted at Lords Raceway in Bendigo.
Given the unpredictable times we are living in, the club is still unsure when it will next host a race meeting.
While there would be a tendency from many to lament their bad luck, that's just not how they do things at Charlton Harness Racing Club, under its energetic and forward-thinking president Joey Thompson.
As the old saying goes, 'If you fall off the horse, you get back on.'
And that's exactly what the club is doing, by planning for a brighter future.
"It's hurting not being able to use that facility, but you have got to be a realist, that's just how it is," Thompson said.
"That's the whole industry, that's the whole nation, not just racing.
"But we will just roll with the punches and we will launch into it as soon as they let us go.
"You can't make something happen, this (coronavirus) is something bigger than us ... a fair bit bigger.
"But our enthusiasm hasn't waned."
Thompson points to the new community complex, which is shared by Charlton's football, netball, hockey, tennis, cricket, golf and fishing clubs, as well as the Agricultural and Pastoral Society, and overall redevelopment of trotting facilities at Charlton Park, as a major generator of that enthusiasm.
A particular source of pride for the president, and he believes for all Charltonians, is the nearly $1.5m contributed to the $4.2 million development by the community ($500,000 from the Charlton Community Bank and $950,000 from individual donors).
Lavish praise also goes to the Charlton 2020 Committee, capably led by John Harley, whose 13-years of patience, persistence, passion and productivity, transformed the facility from a dream into reality.
Just as critical to the positive vibes flowing from Charlton has been the injection of new personnel.
Twelve months ago, Greg Norman, a South Australian with more than 500 winners to his name, arrived from across the border, joining the likes of established trainers Thompson, John Tormey, Mark Boyle, Leon Fanning and Frank McGrath.
The ranks were further boosted roughly four weeks ago by the addition of the young and eager Michael Gadsden and Denbeigh Wade, who have made the move north from Ararat.
"Greg and Mick are both very enthusiastic and I think that has worn off on a few of the guys already here," Thompson said.
"Some new blood in the town has been good for everyone."
Pivotal to Charlton's ability to lure new trainers is its training complex, built on Dja Dja Wurrung native land, and located about a six-minute drive from the main racetrack.
The centre houses a small number of individual stabling complexes, with the capacity for expansion, and is located next door to the town's long-standing 820m training track (open 365 days a year), and a newer mile and a half straight track, which is earmarked for further development.
Newcomer Gadsden described the facilities, in particular the 820m track, as 'a great selling point' to prospective new trainers like himself and influential in his decision to move.
"I came and had a look with Joe (Thompson) when he took us around. It's similar to the dimensions of the track we were working on at Ararat," he said.
"The whole changeover went pretty easy, but as far as the facilities go, they are top-notch.
"For people like us who are still just starting out, you couldn't justify spending the money to do this with the team we've got.
"At least this way we can get in and have a crack without that financial burden."
Some new blood in the town has been good for everyone.Joey Thompson
Thompson makes no secret of his desire to keep building trainer numbers, with the club exploring the possibility of a scholarship to lure a young trainer-driver.
"We're always on the lookout for more - we're keen to make it a bit of a hub," he said.
"We've had a few inquiries from a couple of other trainers, just feeling us out.
"It's a brilliant facility, I think anyone who sees it thinks it's a good facility.
"We want to develop that for both our club and the community. It benefits the community having more people here."
Despite the absence of race-day action, the club is continuing to actively engage the local community and wider harness racing industry.
A recent 'lucky lockdown' tipping competition attracted nearly 180 entrants, an increase of about 120 on the inaugural one.
Among the biggest spins-off from the competition, according to Thompson, was that it introduced the club to a whole new audience of 'non-trotting people', many who continue to take an interest in the fortunes of their local club and trainers.
"To grow our membership base is still a priority for us ... even though we are at 600 now," he said.
"But the bigger aim to involve that membership base at a club and industry level, potentially through some ownership, and perhaps a club horse.
"It doesn't all have to be about business, there's plenty of fun to be had in racing."
With a quickfire win under the belt, Charlton's newest trainer Michael Gadsden feels the decision to switch base has already been vindicated.
The 28-year-old was sincere in his suggestion that the move had gone 'better than expected'.
"It doesn't feel like we've just shifted, it feels like we have been here for a month already," Gadsden said.
"Everyone has been very welcoming.
"This really is an ideal base for us. Before we went back into regional racing, it looked like we were going to be able to head to Mildura each week with a couple that needed that.
"We've got a team of 11 here at the minute, four of them who are metro horses, which is great to be able to get your name out there.
"We syndicated a yearling out a couple of months ago and we got a fair bit of interest in her.
"The momentum is there to justify the move, so hopefully we can keep it going."
The whole changeover went pretty easy, but as far as the facilities go, they are top-notch.Michael Gadsden
Gadsden nominated a figure of between 15 to 20 as the ideal number of horses for what the young training combo was trying to achieve.
"We want to try and keep quality over quantity and give every horse the best chance we can," he said.
"If we can keep that nice quality team ticking over, we'll be very happy."
Norman making hay while the sun shines
Reflecting back on the past 12 months, trainer Greg Norman is adamant he pulled the right rein in moving to Charlton.
The former South Australian trainer knows a thing or two about successful moves - he's made three of them back and forth across the border during his time in the industry.
Norman, who has racked up more than 500 winners during his 35-year career, says the past 12 months since his move to central Victoria have been some of the most enjoyable.
"The club looks after us really well and we've had a little bit of success," Norman said.
"The boys I work for (AB and T Cormack Racing) are very keen and happy, so they are going to keep persevering.
"We've done pretty well, won some nice races and the training set-up is to my liking."
While Charlton has not hosted a race meeting since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Norman praised the club for its efforts to keep harness racing fresh in people's minds and to introduce the sport to new audiences.
"Joey (Thompson) and the committee put a lot of time and effort into it and they are good for the game," Norman said.
"That tipping contest and stuff like that, it involves people ... and they're especially getting non-trotting people involved.
"When you go to town here, people come up to you and ask when are your horses running, or they will tell you that they backed one of them.
"These aren't people who used to follow the trots, but they do now. It's great for the game."
No longer the new boy on the Charlton training block since the arrival four weeks ago of Michael Gadsden and partner Denbeigh Wade, Norman was as thrilled as anyone to see the couple get their first winner from their new base at Bendigo last Saturday.
He maintains a win for any local trainer was a win for them all.
"It's a very tight-knit community here, everyone gets on well and everyone shares the workload," said Norman, whose 15 winners this season include three with the highly-promising mare Fiftyshadesofhay.
"Everyone has their day working on maintaining the (training) track, so we all just work in well together.
"I think they are putting a scholarship together to try and lure another trainer here. I'd recommend anyone to make the move here."
When you go to town here, people come up to you and ask when are your horses running, or they will tell you that they backed one of them.Greg Norman
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