‘….A SPORTING FANATIC ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE…….’

When the lights are dimmed, the last race has been run, and the crowd has dispersed at the Norm Minns Oval on Saturday night, no-one will be more relieved than Graeme Taylor.

The esteemed, storied Wangaratta Carnival; the pride and joy of the town since it’s official birth in 1919, will have been nursed over the line for its long-awaited Centenary staging.

Just as a gnarled veteran stumbles on the last leg of a marathon distance run, the Carnival has survived seemingly mortal wounds which would have put paid to lesser rivals, has risen from the deck, shaken the dust from its ‘silks’, and battled on.

With the reminder of countless former glories coursing through its veins, and the tape within sight, it has, like a true ‘pro’, gathered its equilibrium and dashed to the finish line……..to the acclaim of all concerned……….

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Graeme Taylor’s a local, born and bred. He can re-count the deeds of ‘Patto’, Toleman, Oliver, De Coite, Pate, O’Toole, Dunbar, Waddell, Foster …….and the locals: Clarke, Woods, Grealy, O’Keeffe, Pasquali, Harding, Vincent, Boulton, Petts, Guerin, and countless others.

He can remember clambering to gain a vantage spot, and pushing his way through crowds, which sometimes numbered close to 10,000 on the Monday night of Australia Day week-end. As excitement peaked for the staging of the plum cycling and athletic Finals, he couldn’t help feeling, with a sense of pride, that few other events on the sporting calendar could generate this atmosphere.

As an all-round sporting fanatic he felt drawn to ensure that the Carnival should prosper; and that he might be able to play his part.

That’s how he came to be involved with the Athletic Club in 1973……..

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In his childhood dreams Graeme was Bob Rose, Les Gregory and Sid Patterson all rolled into one.

He visualised having the football on a string, threading bullet-like passes onto the chests of leading team-mates …….Dodging and weaving, and executing feats of brilliance with the dexterity of a ballet-dancer…….And imagining the roar of the crowd rising to a crescendo, as he stormed past a pack of riders in the race for the line…….

In reality, he was destined to be, like most of us, a battler, who was to make his substantial contribution to sport from the other side of the fence……..

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He was a wee tacker when he was caught up in the razzmatazz surrounding Bobby Rose’s arrival in Wangaratta.

He was one of the 20-plus mascots – all wearing the No.1 Brown and Gold guernsey – who used to lead the Rovers onto the ground. He’d sit inside the boundary fence at each game, enthralled, as the Hawks’ will o’ the wisp winger Les ‘Nipper’ Gregory ( his favourite player ), who could turn on a three-penny bit, weaved his magic.

When he was old enough for Junior League footy he stripped with Tigers, and was lucky enough to participate in their 1968 flag, thanks to the presence of a handful of future stars – Steve Norman, Geoff Schwind and Richie Allen.

He recalls playing alongside the Lipshut boys – Philip and Geoff. “They were the sons of the local doctor, Keith, and really talented players. ” I’m not sure how much footy they went on to play, but I know they made their mark in prominent careers as country solicitors,” Graeme says.

“The other memory I have of my Junior League days was our coach, Bob Rowlands. Our eyes were always fixed on ‘Bluey’ when he was delivering his address…….He was a hot-gospellor in the fashion of Barassi and Alan Killigrew……….

Graeme thought of heading out to the Ovens and King League: “But I wasn’t much chop as a player, so I took up umpiring for four years or so, and did a bit of coaching in the Midget League.”

“My full forward was tiny Darren Petersen – who was the Gary Ablett of Midget footy. He came to me one day and said: ‘I can’t play anymore…..I’ve lost my footy boots.’”

“That was disastrous news for the kids. They knew we wouldn’t win if he wasn’t in the side. I then performed my greatest coaching feat. I said: ‘Don’t worry, I guarantee I’ll round up a pair for you……….”

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Cycling has always entranced him.

“I can just sit and watch bike-racing for hours on end……..When we lived in Ryan Avenue I’d jump on the bike and tear down Perry Street…….with the old man following me with a stop-watch.”

“Again, when it came to competing, my enthusiasm far outweighed my ability……..”

“But I’ve been a regular at the Tour Down Under, the Bendigo Madisons, a few Sun Tours and several Austral Wheel Races.”

He was also imbued with a passion for horse-racing at a young age: “I felt no qualms about wagging School whenever the Wangaratta Cup Meeting came around,” he says.”I had to be there.”

He wrote a Racing column in the Chronicle for many years, and originally became involved in horse ownership roughly thirty years ago, with shares in a handy galloper called Arctic Crown. He was also involved in a couple with a good mate, Pat Heffernan.

The buzz of racing has taken Graeme to every State, and both islands of New Zealand; to 10 Darwin Cups, and to outlying places such as Kalgoorlie’s Boulder course.

“It’s a great social thing. For instance, I originally headed over to the Warrnambool Autumn Carnival with Barry and Jeff Clarke and the late Les Brown. There’s now a contingent of 20-odd Wang fellahs who enjoy the experience . It’ll be my 50th Warrnambool trip this year.”

“I think the biggest thrill I’ve had, personally, was when a horse that Barry Clarke and I owned, called King of Dudes, won the Grand National in 2015.”

A fascination for Jumps Racing led Graeme to get to make the acquaintance of Warrnambool trainer Aaron Purcell.

“We’ve had about 20 horses with Aaron, I suppose – mainly from England, France and Germany. It’s been a fantastic run; we must have had 30-odd winners, and 18 have been on Metropolitan tracks….. Our last winner was on Boxing Day…. Takumi, in the last race at Caulfield.”

“Some of those involved in the syndicates we’ve had include Shane Flynn, Bernie McBain, Andy Hamilton, Wendy and Pete Lester, and Rovers footballers Shane Gaston and Luke Peters. Our most recent purchase was an import called Fiji, which is yet to race in Australia .”

Graeme admits that Golf was probably the sport that he adapted to most easily. He took it up in his late teens and has been a regular at Corowa, Howlong, Yarrawonga and Wangaratta over the years, reducing his handicap to single figures. He still plays whenever the opportunity permits………”

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But recently, his principal focus has been on ensuring that the Centenary Carnival runs without a hitch.

47 years have elapsed since he joined the Athletic Club and discovered that his forte’ was Sports Administration.

“Ken Jasper once told me that, in the good old days, there was a waiting list of people seeking to be drafted onto the 20-person Carnival Committee . Ken was nominated by Keith Bradbury OBE, a fellow state National Party politician, who was President at the time. Distinguished local Accountant Frank Ballantine, his off-sider, had been Secretary for 14 years.”

Long-serving officials have been the hallmark of the Club. The inaugural President, Arthur Callander, held office for 26 years. For a good deal of that period ( 21 years ) his Secretary was Matt O’Donohue, a former League footballer who was enticed to the town and stayed.

So solidity has been the name of the game.

When Graeme became involved, he spent countless hours assisting the late, great Norm Minns.

“Norm really taught me all about Ground preparation,” he says. “We were always down there, changing the sprays at all hours of the night, and rolling the Gift track. He was my biggest influence – or inspiration – if you put it that way.”

Graeme was employed as a Draftsman with the old Shire of Oxley ( he was there for 22 years, until it was absorbed by the Wangaratta Rural City), and proved to be the right man for the job when the decision was made to seal the Bike Track.

He did all the design work, drafted the plans, specifications and Contracts with Wilkinson & Brock.

“The total cost of the project was $40,000. We had a interest-free loan from the City Council, but really, the Club was financially sound at that time, because were were attracting crowds of around 20,000 for the three days of the Carnival.”

“Wangaratta’s was the only major dirt track left in Australia. We could see that the only way for the future was to get it sealed. It stood the test of time.”

The pre-cursor to the sealing of the bike track provided one of Graeme’s most vivid memories. It came a year earlier, in the Wheelrace Final when five riders were involved in a spectacular crash. The referee blew the whistle and declared a ‘No-Race. He ordered a re-run without the fallen riders.

Three of them protested. A bitter dispute followed, before they were re-instated and the Wheelrace, was taken out by Lavington’s Greg Featonby almost an hour later …………

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Highlights such as this got Graeme thinking……. “There have been 1,001 incidents over the years, which have involved many of Australia’s sporting greats. Surely it’s worth documenting this rich tapestry of events before they get lost in the passages of time.”

Thus, they have provided the fodder for the excellent booklet, which he’s almost completed : ‘A History of the Wangaratta Sports Carnival – 1919 to 2021’.

It’s been a labour of love, he says, particularly when his research brought up memories such as 1974, when the lights went out in the final lap of the Aces scratch race.

“Bob Whetters, one of the fallen riders, recovered to win the Wheelrace on the Monday night, but not before nine of the 16 riders had been fined for collusive riding.”

“And even though it was before my time, the 1954 Gift Final was one of the most exciting . Chiltern’s Des Shelley dead-heated with Olympic Gold-Medallist, the Jamaican Herb McKenley. Herb was all for splitting the prize-money, but Des opted for a re-run, which he won. And, incidentally, he took out the Wodonga Gift the following week, just pipping McKenley on the line.

“It was always fantastic when a local boy got up in the Gift, or Wheelrace Final. The crowd loved it.”

“Of course, many of Australia’s greatest Wood-Choppers have been attracted to the Carnival, and proved great crowd-pleasers. The Tug-o-War events also provided plenty of highlights back in their heyday.”

It has been an exercise in nostalgia for Graeme, who has decided to bow out at the completion of this Carnival.

He still works part-time with the Murrindindee Shire ( he’s been there since he was with the North East Catchment Authority). And besides, there’s plenty to do in his role as Secretary of the Wangaratta Rovers Football Club.

But at the moment he’s putting the finishing touches to the Carnival booklet, which is expected to be available in early- February.

It’s well worth the read……..

2 thoughts on “‘….A SPORTING FANATIC ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE…….’

  1. Rodney Green

    Great read, as a past winner always interested in what’s happening with the Wang gift carnival. Takes a lot of moving parts to keep an event like this going. Well done Greame and to all involved.

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