Fires were raging close by, but nothing was going to stop the Sapphire Coast Turf Club's annual Bega Cup meeting getting underway in a region torn apart and isolated by fire.
One Melbourne trainer, who almost calls the Far South Coast home, Richard Laming, even sent his horses on a 1000km trek from Cranbourne in Victoria to Bega, NSW, just to make the two-day carnival.
As the Princes Highway remains closed south of the NSW border, Laming had to send the eight horses from his Cranbourne stables to be floated up past Wagga Wagga to Canberra, then down to Bega through Brown Mountain, that was under threat of closure at any moment from the Postmans Trail and Big Jack Mountain fires. The Monaro Highway was also under fire threat.
But a chance to lift spirits was not going to be missed without a fight. Club secretary-manager Rob Tweedie said officials monitored conditions by the hour. One of the Bega Shire councillors was also on the Club's board and was able to get up-to-date fire information as the time moved closer for the races.
"It was 40 odd degrees at Bega but here at the track (at Kulnura) it was relatively cooler at 33 degrees on Saturday," Rob Tweedie said. About 300 people attended the Saturday TAB meeting and 400 turned up for the Bega Cup TAB meeting on Sunday, when the weather was a lot cooler.
Star Melbourne jockey Michael Walker also made the journey to help boost spirits in the South Coast, taking the flight from Melbourne with Laming.
He was rewarded for his efforts by winning the $50,000 Bega Sprint for Laming with Easy Beast. Laming had to settle for second in the $80,000 Bega Cheese Bega Cup race with Herecomesmybaby. They had a few other seconds during the carnival. The Cup was won by Monegal.
Laming said Walker, who has been out due to suspension and a holiday, wanted to give something back to fire-affected areas by his visit and help him "get his eye back in" before the big autumn races.
"I find Bega Cup is a good meeting to support and I was willing to send my horses on a good trek to get there," he said. "I have many owners from the area so I was keen to be part of it. There were some close calls with fires during the 14 hour trek but we got there. It was very fortunate all was okay. Michael and I wanted to be there to support the area. I encouraged him to come along with me."
Rob Tweedie said he was constantly monitoring conditions as severe fire weather threatened the Far South Coast on Friday and Saturday.
Bega mayor Kristy McBain said it was important the coast was able to hold major events in the wake of the devastating fires. "The Sapphire Coast Turf Club has built up quite a following and it was great to see so many people there to support the Cup." There was consideration to cancelling the meeting, mainly due to smoke and the ability of South Coast trainers to get horses to the meeting, but the club was confident about proceeding despite reduced field sizes.
In an extra fillip, Australian Turf Club chairman Matthew McGrath handed over $60,000 to support the Far South Coast fire recovery. Mr McGrath said $50,000 would go towards purchasing hay and $10,000 for rebuilding fences destroyed by the fires. Of this, $30,000 will be distributed by the Sapphire Coast Turf Club.