Greg Mitchell agreed to take on the Counties Racing Club general manager role for three months in 2003 and this Friday he leaves the position for the last time, exactly 20 years after beginning the job.
“I had a look on my calendar the other day and I saw that I began on March 31, 2003, so it will be 20 years to the day when I leave,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell had been on the club’s committee since 1996 and his ascension to general manager was somewhat by accident.
“I’d been on the committee and the general manager position was vacant, and the club president and treasurer approached me and asked if I wanted to do it for three months,” he said.
“I said yeah, I’m doing a bit of work for a building mate of mine and helping with Patumahoe Rugby Club, but I can fit that in.
“Three months became six months, and then after a year I was offered the job.”
During that time, Mitchell has overseen a huge amount of change at Counties Racing Club and Pukekohe Park.
When he took on the job, Takanini was still the main training centre for the Auckland region, motor racing was leased out, and any thoughts of merging with the Auckland Racing Club was a long way from anybody’s mind.
It’s a very different picture now – and it was a steep learning curve for Mitchell.
“There was a race meeting really quickly after I started, but with some good support from the guys there we made it through that alright,” he said.
“Soon after we bought the motor racing licence back off the tenant, so for a while I ran both of those.
“Then not long after that, Takanini was closing so we became the main Auckland training track, so upgrading training facilities was a big project. Fortunately we had a lot of space and tracks so that worked out well.
“We also had a major job fixing up the stormwater pipes, but we got that done too.”
Pukekohe Park has a large section of land, it’s about 73 hectares, so it’s been more than just the racing tracks that have required maintenance.
One particular area adjacent to the course has become a vital centre for the town of Pukekohe.
“We also purchased a block next door called the Wrightson Block, and went into a partnership with a developer to work on it,” Mitchell said.
“Now that’s a major shopping centre with a Harvey Norman, Mitre 10, Briscoes, and others. Eventually we sold that and did alright out of it.”
Counties Racing Club has also worked on changing the council zoning of some of its 73 hectares, so it can potentially make more profitable use of it all in the future.
In recent years has come a change equally as big: the amalgamation with Auckland Racing Club to form Auckland Thoroughbred Racing. This pooling of resources has enabled the construction of a Strathayr track at Ellerslie racecourse and greater prizemoney for racing in Auckland.
Though the majority of racing will now be centred on Ellerslie, Pukekohe will continue to stage some racedays.
“For the amalgamation, I worked a lot with Mark Chitty and Doug Alderslade and Paul Wilcox, and it’s going very well,” Mitchell said.
“Pukekohe will still race the industry days, and the intention is to keep the Counties Cup at Pukekohe, and otherwise focus on the training centre.”
Among the more immediate changes has been a huge increase in racedays at Pukekohe while Ellerslie is being reconstructed, but the track has held up well with the increased workload.
Mitchell said the decision to retire came after a holiday with his wife Pat to Rarotonga.
“We were sitting on the beach and Pat asked me ‘‘are you ever going to leave that place, or are you going to die at Pukekohe Park?
“I’m 70 now, and with the amalgamation work well under way, I thought it’s a good time for someone new to come in.”
Mitchell will be farewelled at a function on Thursday evening, when a number of former committee members will join him. After that, it will be time to do some jobs around the house, and to take a holiday to the Barossa Valley in South Australia.
“We were booked for a 12-day trip in May 2020, so you can guess what happened there. We’re really looking forward to that,” he said.