IT WASN'T the temperature, but more the sight of a couple of thousand people on the lawn at the Bendigo racecourse that warmed the cockles of Stuart Smith and his fellow Marong Racing Club committee member's hearts on Saturday.
The big crowd was a massive relief for the club, which hosts it's one meeting a year at the Bendigo Jockey Club each February.
It was also a boon for the region's eight Catholic schools, which are the biggest beneficiaries of the day from the funds raised.
The hard-working club literally had the rug pulled from underneath it on the eve of last year's race day, with the order that no spectators would be allowed on course made only 24-hours before gates were due to open on Saturday.
Smith, the club's president, admits the decision was 'pretty shattering'.
"We always have a cocktail party on the Thursday night. We held that and everyone was looking forward to the Saturday - we never saw it," he said.
"It was pulled at 12 o'clock on the Friday.
"We copped a bit of loss financially because of that with things already set up, but we've soldiered on."
Casting his eyes over the crowd 40-minutes ahead of the feature race - the $25,000 Marong Cup - Smith could not have been happier with the turnout.
"It's been two years since we've had this race day, so to look around and see so many people is just fantastic," he said.
"It's probably the greatest family day on the calendar out here at the races.
"The schools especially love it as we raise the money for them, so they missed it heaps.
"They still got a little dribble (of funding) last year, but this year they are going to get more."
On the track, the cup was won by the Symon Wilde-trained Warrnambool galloper French Moon, ridden by 2021 Bendigo Cup-winning jockey Harry Coffey.
It was a different result to the 'phantom race call' at Thursday night's cocktail party in which the topweight El Misk was victorious.
Smith said attendees were advised 'not to back it', and he preferred that they had their money on the actual winner.
For those who didn't, El Misk ended up third.
Smith praised the efforts of the racing club committee and the support of representatives from each of the schools.
He references with pride the club's tally of 13 life members and the race day's nearly total reliance on volunteers.
"The Bendigo Jockey Club does a lot more work for us now, which is beneficial to everyone as it is getting harder to get volunteers," he said.
"You only have to look at the state of the course to know what a great job the jockey club does.
"But it's basically all volunteers. There are paid jockey club staff in certain areas, but all the rest is purely volunteers."
More than $862,000 has been raised in the last 23 years, with a contribution of between $4000 and $6000 flowing to each school every year.
While lockdown and COVID restrictions meant last year's race day went ahead without a crowd, Smith is confident in the event's future
"I hope to still be here in 20 years' time - but not where I am now at the helm," he said.
"But I hope we are still running it for the schools.
"Time will tell, but as long as the parents, teachers, principals and volunteers are here helping, I don't see why not."
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.