Merv’s a racing marvel
MERV Mercer clearly remembers the day Plantation Hotel publican Ted Russell asked him to bring a grader down to Coffs Harbour racecourse to do some earthworks.
The club had little money but Russell had a dream of reviving its fortunes, so Merv came on board gratis and 50 years later he's still putting in the hours.
"There was no racing at all when I came to town but Ted got a few meetings going," he recalled.
"One day there were four races and a couple of horses went around in three of them and the club finished the day with four pounds profit.
"After a while, Ted convinced me I should take over as president and I filled that role for seven years from 1970.
"From that first big Bananacoast Cup meeting in 1971 we were back in business and while there have been ups and downs since, I've loved every minute."
Merv admits he knew little about horses at first but boy oh boy, was he a fast learner.
"One day I counted them up and found I owned 87," he laughed.
One of those was Just A Steel, winner of the 1978 Group One AJC Australasian Champion Stakes, a race to replace the Derby when it was switched to the autumn.
The win saw 20-year-old apprentice Robert Thompson replace "Miracle Mal" Johnston, giving the man who went on to become the rider of more winners than any other Australian jockey his first at the premium level.
"Just A Steel also won the Sandown Guineas for us and we named the stable after him," Merv said.
Nowadays, Merv only has a handful of horses trained by Joanne Hardy and on race day is the dapper man in the mounting yard who makes a fuss over connections of the winners.
He'll be there again at this Tuesday's meeting, rain, hail or shine.
But when the horses are back in their stables, he's the one on the mower or wielding a paintbrush or sweating over a pick and shovel around the gardens.
As a conservative estimate, the sprightly octogenarian has put tens of thousands of man hours into the club he loves - still gratis - as was the case when Ted Russell made that first approach a half century ago.
"I've already done about 150 hours on the mower since New Year's Day and it will be at least 500 hours before the year is through.
"Also about 20 hours supervising the horse's swimming pool and anything else that needs doing about the place.
"Always something to do and while I'm still young I'll keep going."