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Buchan and Gelantipy Racing Club

Buchan hot, show goes on

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Tiara Chic gets a hose down and (below) jockeys John Fitzgerald (left) and Kane Harris cool off as best they can with water.

Smoke was in the sky as horses rounded the last turn on a tough track. Pitched tents tied to the race trail were flayed in the heat and hard wind. As the state twisted and burned the only race day left running in Victoria was a hot affair.

Forty-plus temperatures scorned with sweat and self pity, sparringly blazed across great swathes of land, and forced Caulfield and Bendigo to shift Saturday's race meeting to today. But the 122nd Canni Creek Races, squat in the foothills of the lazy high country, ran still: the rider on a day fit only for the biggest - or heat-struck - lover of picnic races.

Even then it was a close call. Horses hosed down just to walk the length of the 1600-metre track, which has a golf course with black sand dunes, 12 kilometres outside of Buchan, East Gippsland. At midday it was 40 degrees in the shade, and building a mean peak beyond 43. Flushed jockeys pushed for the first race to the Saturday's last, rather than run that hot track again.

"It's hard, bloody hard" said red-faced winning jockey Kane Harris, winning the first of his full card of six rides. "We probably shouldn't be here". Racing Victoria officials checked horses for heat stroke after each race, and shifted the day's final races forward.

Talk of the state suffering its hottest conditions since Ash Wednesday spooked many punters, whose numbers were well down on last year's average of 1100. Hardy souls ate salad after the Lakes Entrance Lion's cancelled the barbeque, rather than risk the health of its elderly Buchaneers.

"It was a shit of a day," said Buchan and Gelantipy Race Club president Peter Sandy "But these races take a bit of a beating. Things go ahead, rain, hail or shine"

Dogs and Englishmen are said to love the midday sun. But they have nothing on the mad horses and bushmen who have kept alive the tradition of Victorian Picnic Racing. The Canni Creek Races have survived bushfires burning to within a kilometre of the course, and rains flooding the track where it dips at the end of the straight. Now it has prevailed against bureaucracy, too.

Racing Victoria had listed Buchan and Gelantipy - along with neighbouring picnic clubs Omeo and Tambo Valley - as among 11 clubs potentially "at risk" of losing all their meetings. Small clubs would have to meet minimum standards, such as having liquid assets of $50,000. They don't have the money - profits go to helping fund bush nurses and the Country Fire Authority.

But the ensuing uproar in the bush has forced Racing Victoria into a retreat. Chief executive Rob Hines told the "Sunday Age" that the state's picnic racing clubs were safe until 2015 at least. "We understand a lot more about country racing now and what it means to communities, and no picnic racing club will be closed," he said.

Don't underscore this stretch of country Victoria, which refuses to go quietly. "We'd hold dog races or bush races or anything it took, just for people to get together," Sandy said.

The toughest track in the state is not as hard as it looks. Even unshod horses dig into the ground, spitting up dirt and dust. At 3pm, with the heat and hot, dusty wind at their peak, there was the roar of a helicopter flown by crop duster and local councillor Ben Buckley, dropping lollies to children gathered along the dry home strait..

Sitting nearby atop his bag bay stock horse "Mate" was Ted King, making his 50th year as clerk of the course.

The 74-year-old reformed rodeo rider recalled the days when horses began each race with a walk-up start. One year he had to run down a wild horse before it crossed into the bush and was lost to the scrub surrounding the course.

There's strength yet, hidden within those bow legs and under that big black hat. "I don't mind the heat and I don't feel old," he said. buchanhot2"I just want to keep riding horses."

Before race four, members of the local Buchan Cavemen football club, and a few ring-ins, sprinted down the straight, as part of an annual tradition that proved stronger than the heat or stronger than good sense, at least.

Watching them was Tom Cook, 60, and his wife Lorraine, who arrived last Friday morning for their 25th race day. They pitched camp trackside under the shade of the local mealy stringy barks.

"We're the first to arrive and the last to leave," he said "I hate the heat and it's hard on the horses, but this is not that bad. We'll get through."