• Friday, 24 Feb, 2023,
  • by Gerard Guthrie

Eddie’s field of dreams

Eddie Caruana has seen it all in more than two decades as Chair of the Melbourne Greyhound Racing Association (MGRA).

A line from baseball movie Field Of Dreams – “build it and they will come” – is an apt description of Caruana’s tenure.

Under the universally respected 75-year-old administrator’s guidance, The Meadows has grown into a world-class venue, home to an incredible 10 Group 1 races, as well as The Phoenix, now the world’s richest greyhound event, growing to $1.65 million total prizemoney in just its second year in 2022.

“I think the most satisfying thing from my point, because I love the greyhounds so much, is how far we’ve come as a sport.”

Caruana came onto the MGRA Board at a tumultuous time, following the club’s exit from Olympic Park into an uncertain future.

Since stepping into the Chairman’s role in 2001, Caruana has steered The Meadows’ ascent into an iconic and innovative greyhound racing venue, home to the ‘Unmissable’ 2023 Australian Cup Carnival, which comes to an epic conclusion on Saturday night.

Having recently made the decision to step down as Chair, passing the baton to veterinarian Dr. Barbara Backhoy, Eddie reflected proudly on his history-making term at the helm of the MGRA and The Meadows.

Q: We’ll start at the beginning Eddie. Can you take us back to when you first got involved with the MGRA?

A: I got on the board in 1995 – Margaret (Long, MGRA General Manager) had been trying to get me on for a few years before that – and then in 1996 we had to leave Olympic Park after 33 years. It was a pretty traumatic time for us because we were uncertain where our future lay. We didn’t own anything; at Olympic Park we were just tenants and we had plenty of lease to go, so we were trying to get compensation, but nobody would listen to us. Eventually, Tom Reynolds, who was then Racing Minister, came to the fore and I’ve always been very grateful for what he did for us. After looking at 65 different sites, we settled here, where we are now, and we opened our doors in February 1999. We just had the bare essentials structure-wise to start operating, and that was it! But we were in a fortunate situation because we had a share in the business of the gaming venue at Sandown, so long-term we knew we were going to be okay.

Q: The Meadows has certainly come a long way since those early days.

A: Since we’ve been here, every year or two we’ve done renovations or extensions and we’ve got to the stage where everything is in place now. In the near future, we hope to start developing the extra land we’ve got. Because it was a tip site, we couldn’t do anything with it for the first 25 years, but that’s now finished, so we’re working through what we can and can’t do with environmental groups.

Q: I understand a straight track is one of the options the club is considering.

A: Yes, we’re looking at a straight track. We’ve already got a slipping track, but our plan is to build a straight track, ala Healesville, Capalaba, and Richmond. We also want to put in some working gallops for the owners and trainers, because most of our local owners and trainers live in suburbia and they haven’t got the facilities to train their dogs that people who are on land do, so we want to help them out. Eventually, we also hope to have a veterinary clinic on the premises. Our new Chairperson, Barbara (Backhoy), is a vet – she has her own practice at Langwarrin – so she’ll be a great asset in guiding us through that process.

Q: You’ve mentioned Barbara Backhoy has replaced you as Chair of the MGRA. Was it a hard decision to step away or you felt the time was right?

A: I’ve been chairman since 2001. Next month it would be 22 years, so I’ve had my time. I thought it was the right time to give it away. We’ve been looking to get young people involved and Barbara is a perfect example of that. We’ve also got Troy Iwanyk and Mark Dooley on the board, so I think we’re pretty well-placed for the future. But I’ll be staying on the committee for a little while.

Q: You’ve done a fantastic job and the club has achieved so much during your time with the MGRA Eddie. What’s given you the most satisfaction?

A: I think the most satisfying thing from my point, because I love the greyhounds so much, is how far we’ve come as a sport. We look back on what happened in 2016 with the live baiting, we were shellshocked and nearly lost our sport, but I think it was a godsend because we’re doing things very differently now and our sport has come out with a much better outcome. We’re more animal welfare-minded and we try to find forever homes for all our dogs, which I think we’re doing successfully, and that’s very satisfying.

It’s also been extremely satisfying to see the club that I’m involved with prosper. I love Group 1 racing and we’re the only club in Australia and I think probably the world that runs 10 Group 1 races and that doesn’t include The Phoenix, so we’re very proud of that. We have five Group 1 races in three weeks during the Australian Cup Carnival, which is amazing!

Q: You’ve also got the richest race in the world here at The Meadows now, with the introduction of The Phoenix two years ago.

A: We’re very proud of that too. I was a bit apprehensive when we were first putting The Phoenix together. We took the plunge and went up to $1 million first prize in the second year, but it’s worked out fine and the future of the race is secure.

Q: After a very difficult time during the COVID pandemic, it must be great seeing crowds like you had at The Phoenix back on track.

A: It was a tough time but it helped us as well. With people not being able to go out, we were blessed that racing had the privilege to keep going, albeit without crowds. People were sitting at home, bored to hell like I was. My punting quadrupled in no time at all, and so did everybody else’s, and what that did was expose our sport to a lot more people, especially younger people. Since we’ve had crowds back on track, I’ve noticed the number of young people has really grown, which is a great thing for the sport.

Q: What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in the last 20 years?

A: We used to only race at night and there was always that gap with no racing between when the horse racing finished at 4.30-5pm until 7pm, and in 1996 was the first of the twilight meetings. In no time at all our market share went from 9.25 per cent to 15 per cent, and now it’s 24 or 25 per cent. So that’s been the biggest change and with that comes more money, so we can look after our participants better and fund the adoption program better and everything snowballs from there.

Q: What about the most memorable night or race?

A: The atmosphere for the first Phoenix in 2021 was great, and then to transfer that to last year, with Wow She’s Fast winning back-to-back Phoenixes and Sportsbet had about 400 people as guests on the decks and the atmosphere they generated after the race was sensational and it was something I’ll never forget. Everyone was jumping up and down and throwing drinks in the air. It was fantastic.

Q: I know you don’t mind a bet Eddie, so can we finish off with a tip for the Australian Cup on Saturday night?

A: I’ve actually backed the Adelaide dog, Victa Damian. I was very impressed with him last Saturday night. With Wow She’s Fast, Amron Boy and Kelsey Bale missing out, I think it gives one of the interstaters, Victa Damian and Mortified, the chance to win the race. That’s the way I see it. Baby Jaycee went very well last week too, but she’s going to have to nail the start.

Gerard GuthrieGerard Guthrie

Gerard Guthrie

One of Australia’s leading greyhound racing journalists since 2000 with the Greyhound Recorder and now with Greyhound Racing Victoria. Part-owner 2013 Group 1 Paws Of Thunder winner Sheikha. (The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of GRV)

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