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Club Spotlight: Mareeba

By Jordan Gerrans

Mareeba-Turf-Club-facebook-02.jpgAs a racetrack steeped in history, the Mareeba Turf Club believe their brightest days are still ahead of them.

Apart of the far north country racing association in Queensland, Group 1 winning trainer John O’Shea cut his teeth at Mareeba while the bush track produced one of the feel good stories of 2020 – Country Cup Challenge winner Paniagua.

It has been many a year since respected Sydney-based horseman O’Shea prepared a horse on the Atherton Tablelands track.

In the years since, the club has certainly had its ups and downs, losing a handful of race meetings over the last five years for a range of issues, including the poor state of the track, among other concerns.

They hosted a hugely successful non-TAB program on Boxing Day, which had a line of punters to get into the track well after the first run jumped, and they will race another five event card this Saturday.

Mareeba have picked up the rare February date for them from fellow FNQ club Innisfail, who are closed now for redevelopments to their racing surface.

Popular Mareeba trainer Alex Malliff has recently taken on the top job as Mareeba Turf Club president, after being on the committee previously, and reflected on the journey the club has been on over the last few years.

Malliff credits the club’s committee, focusing on Rhonda Stevens’ efforts, to get the facility in the condition to regularly race.

“I would not say we were in dire straits four years ago, but we were not looking great at that time,” Malliff said.

“The work that the volunteer community has done has been nothing short of sensational since then.

“I really have to credit Rhonda Stevens for much of that and her husband John – they work tirelessly for our club.

“They put in the hours and are terrific.”

Mareeba-Turf-Club-facebook-11.jpgStevens, who has worked at the Bendigo Bank over the years, serves as Mareeba’s secretary and treasurer and makes sure everything is perfect for the upcoming race days.

Like former head Godolphin trainer O’Shea, fellow trainers Lawrie Mayfield-Smith and his brother Brian Mayfield-Smith started their journey in the racing game in the north of Queensland.

Lawrie, who still trains out of Eagle Farm, this week recalled his brother winning the Mareeba Cup in the 1970s with Global Bid.

“He was not a bad horse,” Lawrie said.

“Winning that race, I do not think Brian had even had 10 runners as a trainer when he won that race.”


That was the start of an outstanding career for Brian - inducted into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame back in 2015 - following a career that yielded multiple Group 1 winners.

While the Mayfield-Smiths were not Mareeba-based in those days, they kept their horses at Cairns’ Cannon Park, they were regular visitors to Mareeba.

“Mareeba was always a dry joint in those days, they did not have a lot of water,” Lawrie said.


“It was one of the dryer and dusty tracks in Far North Queensland in those days.”

These days, president Malliff believes the racing surface at Mareeba has never been better.

“The track is in really good order, this rain we have had over the last month or so has been great for us,” Malliff said.

“It has really topped it off, it looks terrific and I cannot wait to race this Saturday.”

The Mareeba brought up O’Shea is considered amongst the elite trainers in the Sydney racing ranks with 28 Group 1 wins next to his name.

O’Shea’s father Bernie was a bookmaker in his younger days, which sparked John’s interest in the industry.

On his own website, O’Shea declares he started his career in racing by mucking out boxes for the local trainers as a 13-year-old in Mareeba, finding his love for horses.

"I started living and breathing horses," O'Shea said earlier in his career.

 "I always looked after them well.

“I worked in one of the service stations for my old man (a petrol distributor) and I spent all my money buying feed for the horses."

While O’Shea dabbled in a future in journalism or playing rugby league at a higher level, he eventually went back to the horses, where he remains now training a team of horses out of Randwick.

Race-4-Paniagua-DSC-7243-jpg.JPGThe bright lights and prestigious racing of Royal Randwick is a long way from the bush track of Mareeba, but O’Shea made his way there.

And, so did Paniagua (right).

Not to Randwick, but the gun gelding went from Mareeba to Doomben within a few months, winning the Country Cup on the big stage.

Malliff trained Paniagua from a non-TAB maiden to a Cairns Cup and then onto a metropolitan winner inside a year.

What Paniagua achieved in 2020 is what every country trainer, jockey, and owner around Queensland dream of doing.

After a couple more runs in the south-east of the state, four-year-old gelding Paniagua is back in Mareeba and will be targeted towards a big north Queensland Cup campaign again this year.

Malliff reckons Paniagua is the best horse to ever come out of Mareeba, but he may be a little biased.

This Saturday at Mareeba, all five of the races on the program are sponsored by the trainers, who base their horses at the track.

Race-4-Paniagua-T1DX9291-jpg.JPGThe club’s president thinks the local trainers sponsoring every race shows the improvement they have made over the last few years.

“That is nice, from my perspective as president, it shows they are getting behind the committee,” Malliff said.

“We are moving in one direction now, which we did not have happen at times in the past.

“I feel like everyone is starting to work together.

“It is very hard to run a race club if trainers and the committee are not seeing eye to eye.”

On top of Saturday, Mareeba has two more race days locked in before the end of the current season.