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A visit to New South Wales racing’s headquarters at Royal Randwick in 1977 was enough to “spear” a then 15-year-old GREG PURCELL into making the industry a career choice.

And he’s done just about everything since.

Wyong Race Club’s new General Manager took on the role earlier this month as a dyed in the wool racing man with bucket loads of experience in so many facets.

He holds a Masters degree in Business Administration from one of Australia’s most prestigious Universities, worked in stables mucking out boxes, has been a punter, bookmaker, owner, breeder and administrator – and was very successful at all of them. Well almost all.

“I’ve raced enough horses over the years to know owners should be knighted,” Purcell said.

“But I did have some luck, including winning a Rowley Mile at Hawkesbury with Fimasa in 1988 and a Grand National Hurdle at Warrnambool with Banna Strand in 2013.

“As for breeding winning racehorses, I can say I’ve been remarkably unsuccessful.”

Sydney-born Purcell recalls making his racetrack debut with school mates at Randwick on Anzac Day 1977.

“I had $10 in my pocket and had my first ever bet of $5 on a grey horse trained by the legendary Tommy Smith called Spear, ridden by Malcolm Johnston,” he said.

“He was beaten a lip by Casper, ridden by 3kg claiming apprentice Chris Weston.

“We used to go to the Saturday races every weekend after that, and eventually formed a Punters’ Club with my two best friends.

“My parents allowed me to draw the money I had out of the bank, thinking losing it all would get racing out of my system.”

There was never any chance of that happening. Purcell became a professional gambler, eventually switching to the other side and becoming a bookmaker when he turned 21.

“The first ever edition of the NSW Bookmakers Co-Op magazine profiled me,” Purcell said. “At that stage, they hadn’t run out of bookmakers to profile.

“My first race meeting as a bookmaker was at a non-TAB fixture at Bombala on the South Coast. I won on the first three races, and thought how long had this been going on.”

Reality struck though in the last two races when he lost on both, and drove home to complete an eight-hour return trip with a “not so huge” profit of $17.

Purcell fielded principally on South Coast meetings at Kembla Grange and Nowra, quickly being promoted to the coveted rails ring at TAB meetings at Kembla, where he was the leading bookmaker for eight years.

He spent 10 or 11 years calling the odds before moving into racing’s administrative side.

“I worked at my last meeting as a bookmaker at Nowra on the Saturday, and at 8 am on the Monday sat between John Rouse (CEO) and John Shreck (stewards’ chairman) at a senior management meeting at the Australian Jockey Club where I started there as Provincial & Country Racing manager,” he said.

Subsequently, following the establishment of the Australian Turf Club (ATC) as the principal body, he became the inaugural CEO of the NSW Country Racing Council.

“Basically, the new Country Racing Council undertook a restructure of country racing,” he explained.

“Where there were regularly three Saturday meetings in each country association, we reduced the number to two, removing 110 race meetings which lost money before overheads, enabling us to significantly increase prizemoney at all our remaining events.

“Some of the meetings were moved and gained midweek TAB coverage.

“We sold the decisions pretty well and had the support of the associations and most country clubs.

“When the TAB was privatised the following year, we were then able to provide further country prizemoney increases across a sustainable structure of meetings.”

Purcell in 2000 became CEO of Racingcorp, which handled the contractual arrangements of the three codes (racing, pacing and greyhounds) with the then TAB Limited.

After five years in that position, he set up his own business Equinox Consulting, providing strategic planning, business guidance and project management to the racing and wagering industry.

Purcell’s vast experience in the industry saw New Zealand come calling, and he headed across the “ditch” in early 2011 to head up NZ Thoroughbred Racing Inc (the Kiwi equivalent of RacingNSW).

“New Zealand racing had lost a total of $8.5m in the previous three years, and to be fair I started there at the right time as things could hardly have got worse,” Purcell said.

“Over my seven-year tenure, we were able to substantially improve returns to participants, whilst fully funding prizemoney from operational earnings, with NZTR returning profits in six of those seven years.

“It was a great privilege to be the chief executive of New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing. My time in New Zealand was both challenging and enjoyable.”

Believing he had done as much as he could there, he returned home in 2017 and renewed his consultancy work.

Well settled on the Central Coast at Point Frederick (near Gosford), he recently noticed Wyong was advertising for a General Manager following Robin Taylor’s decision to move back into an admin role in golf.

“In terms of consultancy, I guess I was sick of being the mercenary,” Purcell said.

“Whilst I worked hard to drive a project on someone else’s behalf, you don’t get the chance to see it through to the end.

“The Wyong position I saw as being able to get back into a role where I could not only drive projects, but deliver on their outcomes.

“I’m 61 and couldn’t be more excited to have this opportunity.

“I want Wyong to be the best community engaged race club in the country. In the end, racing is pretty simple, it just comes down to horses and people. Look after both of them well and we will all prosper.

“I’m committed to giving Wyong Race Club seven or eight of my very best years. I’m going to give it a big crack.”

. HOOFNOTE: Toward the end of our interview, Purcell received a glowing email from major sponsor Iris Foundation after last Sunday’s opening meeting of the two-day Cup carnival, not only thanking him for providing them along with associate sponsors and guests with a behind the scenes tour of racing, and giving an assurance of continuing support next year.

*Words John Curtis, August 30, 2023 - Pics Steve Hart Photographics*

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