Wearing a flagrantly feminine hot-pink shirt and slick block-heeled boots, Amanda Elliott holds in her palm a slightly grim trophy that is the embodiment of a traditional boys’ club.
“This is Carbine’s hoof,” the first female chair of the Victoria Racing Club says. “Carbine won the 1890 Melbourne Cup carrying the biggest weight ever. It was a long-held tradition that the keys to the drinks cabinet were kept in Carbine’s hoof and retrieved by the most junior board member with great ceremony at the end of every meeting.”
These days the key is kept in a drawer and the hoof has become a museum piece, as the venerable racing club gallops toward the future with a much more equitable approach to all things, including the dispensing of drinks.
Until as recently as 1982, women weren’t allowed to be members of the VRC or even to set foot inside the betting ring, much less sit on the board of directors.
Amanda recalls how her mother – wife of long-standing committee man and VRC vice-chairman Ian Bayles – had to “wave goodbye to him on the other side of the white line” that segregated non-members, including women, until it was abolished at the urging of then-premier John Cain.
Today the VRC board is made up of 50 per cent women, while the club’s female membership is nudging 40 per cent.
We are pleased to announce that Amanda Elliott has been elected as the 21st Chairman of the Victoria Racing Club. The appointment of Amanda marks the first time a female has taken on the role as Chairman in the VRC’s rich and vibrant 153-year history. In her new role as VRC Chairman, Amanda will be supported by new Vice Chairman, John O’Rourke and Honorary Treasurer, Neil Wilson.
For her part, Amanda – who became the VRC’s second female committee member in 2002 and its first female executive office holder in 2011 – is delighted to be the first female incumbent of the office of chairman, having been installed by unanimous vote in February.
“Some women might feel the need to be a chairwoman or a chairperson, but I don’t feel the need to change the title. I completely respect the office,” she says.
Her late father, Amanda says, would have been incredibly proud of her achievement; particularly how she recently challenged Racing Victoria’s controversial changes to weight penalties in this year’s Caulfield and Melbourne Cups.
“One of the main reasons Australians embrace the Melbourne Cup as their own is because of its true handicap nature,” she says. “The fact that the battler can knock off the best horse in the race through just the levelling of the weights … it is an important part of Australians’ identity – they love a level playing field.”
Racing and horses have always featured in Amanda’s life.
She grew up on a property with its own racecourse on the banks of the Goulburn River at Tahbilk, near Seymour. Chatsworth Park had been previously owned by two key 19th-century racing industry players, James Redfearn and former VRC chairman L. K. S . Mackinnon, who lent his name to one of Australia’s premier group one races.
“The 1891 Melbourne Cup winner, Malvolio, is buried there under a magnificent pepper tree. The 1893 winner Tarcoola was bred there. The place resonated with Melbourne Cup history,” Amanda says.
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It was at the Melbourne Cup that she famously met former Liberal Party president and business tycoon John Elliott. Although their relationship has not stayed the distance, the 1985 Cup remains one of Amanda’s favourite memories.
“The beauty about 1985 is not just that I met my second husband, but it was a really big moment for the VRC. It was the first-ever sponsorship of the Melbourne Cup, it was the first million-dollar race.”
The continued growth of the Spring Racing Carnival with the Cup as its centrepiece has been enviable. “In 2016, the benefit of the four days of the Melbourne Cup carnival to Victoria was $427 million, and the reach it has overseas is remarkable,” Amanda says.
“It has become a bucket-list week, not just an event, for people around the world and global brands want to be part of it.”
For example, Pernod Ricard, the owner of G.H. Mumm champagne, is going halves with the VRC in the cost of fitting out the champagne bar in the new $128 million Club Stand.
The 2018 unveiling of the state-of-the-art stand, designed by architects Bates Smart, will be part of a “page-turning year” in VRC history when a new Cup sponsor replaces Emirates, Amanda says. “It is not just about the Club Stand, it will be about prizemoney, it will be about racing and it will be about some wonderful announcements around global alliances we can’t talk about yet.”
Her vision for Flemington is quite staggering and includes two racetracks with 40 race meetings a year (instead of the current 24), with a landscaped community sport and leisure space at its centre.
The Australian Racing Museum will also be installed here in its “natural home”, where Melbourne racing began just five years after white settlement.
“People who walk around on tiptoes don’t leave footprints. Not that I am in the business of leaving footprints, but Flemington is,” she says.
Not that Amanda will necessarily be around to see it, having committed at this stage to only two years in the chair. “In the old days, people would be carried out in a pine box, that will not be me.”