By GREG WHITE
THE first sign this wasn't going to be just any old race day was the sight of flags at half mast around Coffs Harbour racecourse.
With yesterday's twilight TAB meeting the first held since the death of young jockey Daniel Baker at Grafton last weekend, the participants went about their business in the same professional manner that regulations and industry standards demand.
Chairman Alan Johnson moved about greeting guests and CEO Russ Atkinson quietly cruised the grounds making last-minute checks that all was in readiness for the business side of the day.
But missing was the customary banter between jockeys and trainers around the mounting yard and the noise and bustle that makes the newly-christened Merv Mercer Auditorium such an exciting place to be when the races are on.
In fact, it was Mercer and his wife who'd spent the week making the black arm bands for the riders, should they wish, to wear.
Bookmaker David Bird, setting up his stand, accurately described the sombre feeling in a handful of words.
"They say trouble comes in threes but we may have exceeded that number this year," he said grimly.
"We've had horse flu, the passing of many regular faces... and now we've lost that young fella (Baker) and it's the saddest thing.
"Still, life goes on and you make the best of it."
At 2.00pm, acting chief steward Craig Pringle invited the jockeys, who'd arrived on course early, into the inner sanctum of the administration building.
Normally, the place where these brave little men gather is the rowdiest corner of the track as they kid each other, crack jokes and brag about their exploits.
This time there were only quiet words from Catholic priest Fr Paul McDonald as he blessed them in their work and prayed for their fallen comrade.
With heads bowed, many shed brief tears before filing out in silence to prepare for the day's work ahead.
Six of them had rides in the first race and there was still a job to do.
As the field in the Coffs Fisherman's Co-Op Handicap jumped away at 2.45pm, things appeared as back to normal as possible ... given the special and unusual circumstances.