Marie Connolly and Claire Henry look over the finish line at the Grafton Racecourse.
Marie Connolly and Claire Henry look over the finish line at the Grafton Racecourse. Adam Hourigan

Punters for 50 years

FOR more than 50 years, these racing mates have turned out together to meet up with other friends, study the horses and have a knowledgeable flutter on the field.

For Marie Connelly, the racing association goes back even longer.

At 84 years young, she can recall her first race meetings when, little more than a toddler, she watched horses raced by her uncle, Frank Bellamy going round at the old South Grafton racecourse.

It was through her uncle she later met her husband-to-be, registered bookmaker George Connelly.

On their marriage George transferred operations from the metropolitan area to a base in Grafton, becoming a bookmaking institution at gallops and greyhound meetings all over the North Coast.

Their children were at school in Grafton when Marie's friendship with another young St Mary's mum, Claire Henry, developed.

Claire first went to the races soon after landing her first paid job at age 14. Race meetings, dogs and horses, quickly became a passion.

When they married, her husband Pat was clerking for the Dougherty bookmaking interests and the two "betting ring widows" teamed up to enjoy their shared interest.

It was a friendship destined to stand all the tests of time.

"Because our men were registered people with the bookmaking, they couldn't join the Jockey Club, so at first we could only watch from the public stand but that didn't matter," said Claire.

"We spent most of our time down in the betting ring checking the odds or watching the horses and talking to people we knew.

"And in those days, we would know just about everyone on course."

When the Clarence River Jockey Club expanded its regulations to allow members (males only) to buy two ladies tickets, Marie and Claire "borrowed" them from male friends and were able to enjoy the full raceday facilities available to committee members.

"When we first started going together, there might only be two or three horses in each race," said Claire.

"The course announcer was Frank Gannon and Kath O'Mara the CRJC Secretary."

Claire has missed the running of only two Grafton Cup events since her first Grafton Cup meeting in 1948.

The first was because she was in hospital, giving birth tho their first child, a daughter.

The second missed meeting was years later when she was unable to get time off work as an operator at the Grafton TAB - Grafton and Melbourne Cup days were always the two biggest days of the year.

However, Marie has not missed a single Grafton Cup meeting since her first Grafton Cup meeting - she can't be sure of the year, but she knows she was just a toddler.

Her father Stephen Bellamy was a racing man and a CRJC member. He encouraged Marie as a young woman to own her own racehorses.

Best performed was a galloper called South River, which legendary jockey Skeeter Kelly rode to its only victory at one cup meeting on the Grafton track.

The friends are consistent but not huge punters, although both women have enjoyed their share of success in the betting ring, on the tote and for Claire, in the Fashion in the Field quests that are so much part of today's social racing scene.

In earlier years she followed major race meetings to centres such as Lismore, Casino and Coffs Harbour, enjoying numerous "honourable mentions" and special awards in the fashion stakes.

She hit another kind of jackpot in 1998, when a lucky program draw won her and husband Pat an all-expenses paid trip to Melbourne to see the running of that cup.

The $3000 prize package included theatre tickets, three race meetings and other functions, at one of which Claire got to hold the Melbourne Cup.

"The competition was run in the race books over some weeks and on the last day I nearly did not buy one," she said. "But I did and that was the winning one."

Marie's memories of race highlights include the year trainer Roy Hinton, a long-time friend, who took out the Ramornie-Grafton Cup double with Swiftly Anne and Ontonic, a hero to the crowds but a few short weeks later, was booed by disappointed fans when another of his charges started favourite and was beaten in a close finish.

"Racing people generally are good but I don't think they do each other too many favours once the racing starts," said Marie.

Afternoons at the gallops weren't the only racing interest shared by Marie and Claire; up until recent times they were regulars at greyhound meetings, especially the July greyhound carnival in Grafton.

Many of the meetings were held on freezing mid-winter nights with patrons clustered close to huge braziers kept burning around the betting ring.

The friends remember punters who stood too close to the glowing coals until the smell of a singed overcoat alerted them to the potential for a really "hot" bet.

Interest in the dogs has waned with the years. "I'm sorry I don't go to the greyhounds any more," said Marie.

"It's just that I don't know so many of the people involved these days."

The Clarence River Jockey Club acknowledged Marie's long-term family involvement with local racing in 2010, presenting her with club life membership, an honour bestowed on her father many years earlier.

She and Claire already have their July 2012 program mapped out and as always, it includes every meeting scheduled for the Grafton racecourse.

"We look forward to it every time," they agreed. "We like looking at the horses, we like dressing up, and we like the betting."

Both miss the vibrant atmosphere, the fluctuating odds and the excitement of the crowded bookmakers' ring of years gone by but by half an hour before the first race they'll be on course, checking the odds, comparing and sharing hot tips from the other track regulars like themselves.


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