Legal action likely over Wyong Race Club evictions

Wyong Race Club

Legal action against Wyong Race Club has commenced amid claims that it has breached obligations under the Trust, over Wyong Showground land.

The showground had been used jointly by community groups for more than 100 years. Spokesman for community advocacy enterprise, Albert Warner Pty Ltd, Mark Hoddinott, said that over recent years, the Wyong Race Club Board evicted community groups such as Wyong Poultry Club, Wyong Rescue Squad, Wyong Lions Club and Wyong Pigeon Club, and closed the gates to all other community groups and activities.

They were given notice to leave when Wyong Race Club announced a $6M expansion early in 2019. Albert Warner appointed lawyers at that time, and in December issued a Letter of Demand on Wyong Race Club Inc. with a deadline to respond by the end of January. Copies of the letter were sent to NSW Racing and the NSW Attorney General.

Hoddinott, said the Letter of Demand, “requests the Race Club to respond to our allegations that they have acted improperly, and failing response to that, we will start full legal proceedings”. He said the showground site is, and always has been, community land, with many users and uses, including Wyong Race Club. “It should be allowed to continue that way and the land should be separated and held by an independent sole purpose Trustee company,” he said.

“Wyong Race Club has been both selfish and opportunistic over the past five years, to the detriment of the broader community, by preferring its horse racing activities over its Trustee obligations.

“We see this behaviour by Wyong Race Club as theft by osmosis, perhaps unintentionally. “However, their silence is eroding the benefit of the doubt.” Hoddinott said: “The primary objective is to restore what existed previously and that the real estate be used for multiple community uses for the broader community, as originally intended. “The Race Club shouldn’t be entitled to use that large parcel of land to the exclusion of all others,” he said.

“Failing that, we will be seeking recompense for the huge investments that the community groups had contributed over the years.” Chairman of the Wyong Race Club Board, John Waghorn, said Albert Warner Pty Ltd had been asked to provide evidence for the number of assertions they had made.

“These are issues that they raised 12 to 18 months ago and we have discussed this with our solicitors,” he said. “We are in an extremely strong position and until they provide further evidence to support their claims, we will not engage in discussion with them.

“What we have done is legally right – we have done nothing wrong,” he said. In the very early 1900s, much of the land in the Wyong area was owned by Albert Warner and much of the economic activity of the region centred on agriculture. Recreational activity was then, as it is today, dominated by sporting interests and community functions and gatherings.

Wyong Agricultural Society became, through the care and custody of reputable town citizens, as Trustees, the leading body for most community programs, including sports, annual Shows, agricultural pursuits, travelling Circuses and general community events.

Land from Albert Warner passed to the trustees of Wyong Agricultural Society specifically for these community uses, with the land known as Wyong Showgrounds. Thoroughbred horse racing became a major user of the site, as did harness and greyhound racing. Wyong Poultry Club was also in residence from the beginning, along with other sporting groups and community not for profit organisations.

The showground site was the hub of social activity for Wyong on both a regular and casual basis, and this continued uninterrupted for more than 100 years, where goodwill and community spirit were the prime objectives of the Showground Trustees, many of whom are now recognised as the leading town citizens of their time. In 1989, Wyong Agricultural Society became incorporated (meaning it became a company with its own legal status), so the individual trustees that had previously held the land for general community use were no longer required to do so.

From then, the land was held directly by Wyong Agricultural Society Incorporated. Hoddinott said that “interestingly, and for reasons not entirely clear nor sound from a trust perspective, the then Wyong Race Club decided to merge its activities within those of the Wyong Agricultural Society Inc. and in turn, but not until sometime later, remove the Wyong Agricultural Society name from the company and replace it with its own, Wyong Race Club Ltd.

“This was somewhat of an odd and unnecessary thing to do and resulted in a body that had two principal and conflicted roles,” he said. “One, as an operator of a horse racing enterprise and, secondly, as a Trustee over a large parcel of land which the whole of the community had an interest in. “Notwithstanding this change, the directors of the newly incorporated body continued to operate the showground site as a shared community facility, as had been the case since the early 1900s.”

Hoddinott said that in 2014, as a result of some alleged improper management policies and practices, the Board of the Incorporated, twohat body, then operating under the name of Wyong Race Club Inc., was removed and replaced by an Administrator. “Why such a dramatic step was needed to fix the breach is a topic for another discussion,” he said. “A year later, a new Board was appointed, most of whom had no connection to the history of the showground site, nor any personal interest in anything other than horse racing.

“This change happened under the direct view of NSW Racing. “From this time onwards, the Wyong Race Club Board has systematically evicted all other permanent tenants from the showground site, contrary to assurances of tenure from past directors. “This was contrary to a century of tradition and all for the sole and singular purpose of promoting and expanding horse racing activity.

“Many of the groups mentioned above had hundreds of thousands of community dollars invested in property assets on the showground site, all of which has been lost. “These same groups have now had to incur rent expenses previously granted at peppercorn prices on the showground site by the Trustees.

“Some have had to sell off assets because they had nowhere to store them anymore and their activities have been dramatically curtailed due to their eviction by the “new” Board of Wyong Race Club.” Hoddinott said that to add to the pain, that same Board in 2015 sold a parcel of community showground land to the Roads and Maritime Service for $750,000 and pocketed the proceeds exclusively for horse racing activities.

“For over a year now, we have been attempting to engage with Wyong Race Club to have a discussion about these issues,” he said. “We thought perhaps they hadn’t realised the history of the land nor the Trust relationship that exists over it. “We also support horse racing for Wyong as an important industry and in no way are we seeking to harm that.

“We have, however, been met with a wall of silence from the Wyong Race Club Board and its legal advisors, not even the courtesy of an acknowledgement of our correspondence. “What does that say about their attitude or care for the wider community interests or their Trustee obligations over the land? “The land is not even recorded in their official statutory records.

“Wyong Race Club Board is, in our view, operating in total conflict by preferring their interests in horse racing over their duties as Trustees to the land in general, land from Albert Warner for broad community use. “It is also not lost on us that the claims in 2014 of conflicts of interests by the then Board is the very behaviour of the current Board.”

Hoddinott said experienced Trust lawyers were appointed early in 2019 to take this matter forward for the community and a number of community organisations and individuals have funded the considerable costs to date.

Source: Media release, Jan 13 Interview, Jan 16, Mark Hoddinott, Albert Warner Pty Ltd Interview, Jan 21 John Waghorn, Board Chairman, Wyong Race Club Reporter: Sue Murray