Owing to coronavirus, the annual Birdsville Races (due to be held the first weekend in September) will not take place in 2020. Here NICHOLAS GODFREY relives a memorable visit to this remote racing venue in the middle of the Australian Outback
If, as gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson suggested, the Kentucky Derby really is “decadent and depraved”, then Birdsville must be close to unspeakable.
Established in 1882, the Birdsville Races are staged in a tiny Outback township towards the dead centre of the country, at the western extremity of Queensland where that vast state almost becomes South Australia.
For 363 days of the year, the population of this hot, dusty, unwelcoming place numbers about 140, significantly fewer during the summer months, which are hotter, dustier and even less welcoming.
On the first weekend in September, however, more than 8,000 descend on this remote outpost of humanity for two days of horse racing at a rudimentary track that is little more than a set of running rails planted around a patch of the Simpson Desert next to a couple of tin shacks.
None of the 12 events is longer than a metric mile, and only two of them reach that 1,600m mark, including the highlight, the famous Birdsville Cup, a handicap on the second day first contested in 1882 and now worth A$25,000 (£10,400).
A visit to Birdsville – a near-scared pilgrimage
Yet this ostensibly nondescript meeting has assumed mythical status in the nation’s culture, where a visit to Birdsville, at least 1,000 miles from any coastal city, is regarded as a near-sacred pilgrimage, an Australian trip to Mecca.
Although there are dozens of Outback meetings, Birdsville rose to national prominence in 1978 when prime minister Malcolm Fraser paid a visit. Such notoriety has virtually nothing to do with the horse racing. Birdsville is famous – or infamous – for monstrous doses of mayhem. Imagine the Oktoberfest held in the Wild West and you might be getting the idea.
Unless you’re flying in a chartered 12-seater, it takes a bit of an effort to get to Birdsville, 850 miles west of Brisbane or 370 miles southeast of Alice Springs. If, like me, you favour the McCafferty’s Greyhound Special from the Brisbane Transit Centre, that means at least 24 hours on the road.
Soon that road is virtually single-track, and the landscape bleak, scrubby bits of bush on a red rocky surface. Breakfast comes at Quilpie, lunch at Windorah, and, an uncomfortable 140 miles away from our destination, a call of nature at woebegone Betoota, a ghost town where a dilapidated hotel stands forlorn in front of car wrecks, legacy of failed attempts to traverse such a vast, unforgiving plain.
The hotel has been closed since last year when Ziggy, Betoota’s sole resident, popped his clogs; we stop to use a rattletrap toilet, where it wouldn’t pay to look under the floorboards.
After only a slight delay when a suicidal kangaroo bounces off the door shattering a pane of glass, we arrive on Thursday night at dusk, ready to hole up at our campsite, opposite the caravan park. Nearly everyone must do this because the handful of rooms at the Birdsville Hotel, one of the most famous pubs in the country, are commandeered by staff and race officials.
A quick sortie around town in the morning reveals a few ramshackle houses, a bakery, two petrol stations, a police station, airstrip, flying doctor station, café, cricket pitch, small museum and community centre, the raceclub’s base of operations this weekend.
Get your Birdsville t-shirts from Dirty Pierre
These permanent attractions are joined by a fish-and-chip van, pancake vendors, t-shirt stalls and the like, among them a tiny charity stand operated by a pony-tailed character who looks a dead ringer for a Hell’s Angel with a name to match.
This is the comedian Dirty Pierre, a disgusting reprobate raising money for a nearby children’s hospital in Mount Isa (that’s nearby as in 350 miles away) by penning felt-tipped insults on souvenir t-shirts.
“Heat, dust and flies but the beer’s worth it,” reads this year’s official slogan. Any female visitor is told to “Party till your nipples tingle!” “Get a dog up ya!” he advises me. I have no idea what he means, but it is doubtless unspeakably vile.
Not before time, racing beckons, so I walk the three miles out of town, via billabong and coolibar tree, to the place where someone has stuck rails and a winning post in an expanse of desert and called it a racecourse.
Facilities are scarce. The main enclosure is little more than a frame with a roof, an open-sided barn that houses the bookmakers and a few television screens showing races from elsewhere, never Birdsville itself.
Racegoers bring their own deckchairs to secure a slightly sheltered spot, though it provides scant respite from the heat and dust. A corrugated iron shed houses both weighing room and stewards’ room behind three small rows of temporary seating.
No need for starting prices
This is back-to-basics racing, with runners and riders scrawled on a blackboard before each race, ditto results afterwards. There is no tote betting, and no need for starting prices since there is no off-course betting either.
The small betting ring on course is heaving all day; in the first, an appalling maiden sprint over just 800 metres, I take 5-2 about the second favourite.
He has an odds-on shot to contend with, though quite why this gelding, Sirgates, is such a short price is hard to fathom after even a cursory glance at form in the racecard, which shows that he has been running over at least three furlongs further recently.
My selection, Little Lynx, beats the favourite comfortably – but finishes second to an outsider. I cannot offer a race description on this or anything else, as the only way to tell the contest has started after the red light flashes on the gate is by the duststorm moving around the track, and the commentary stepping up a notch. The last furlong or so is visible enough if you get a pitch on the rails.
The winner is trained by George Dawson, a Birdsville regular who has won the Cup itself on several occasions. Of his three runners on the first day, two win and the other goes down in a photo.
After racing, a wander back into town is punctuated by a detour down to the banks of the Diamantina River, where most of the horses are stationed. A mile from the racetrack, a number of trainers make this their home for the weekend, each setting up a temporary base, tent or caravan like the rest of us.
‘The horses don’t like it much …’
I chat to trainer Craig Smith, third in the state premiership in numerical terms last season. Based in the town of Roma, about 700 miles towards Brisbane, the stocky Queenslander tells me that it costs around A$1,600 (£665) to bring a team of six horses to Birdsville, with feed, staff and their own generator.
“I came a couple of years ago and we had a few winners, and the owners were on at me to come again so here we are,” he says. “It’s a bit different, isn’t it? The horses don’t like it much but at least it’s a level playing field for everybody.”
He gestures to his Birdsville team. “All of mine have had their chances at the big tracks and failed,” says Smith, who has no winners on the Friday but suspects that his chestnut gelding Murdsa, third in a 1,000m event, might win the last tomorrow over 1,200.
It is a with a feeling of deep trepidation that I return to the Birdsville Hotel, where the raucous main bar now resembles the OK Corral after the gunfight. Neither this nor the external beer ‘garden’ are places for the faint-hearted, peopled as they are by everybody within a thousand miles capable of holding a glass, as well as the odd addled specimen from even further off.
I find myself chatting with a 24-year-old Brisbane builder named Brad. “What did you think of the racing?” I ask him, innocently.
“Racing?” he replies. “You must be the only bloke who’s come here for that.”
Time to move on to the evening’s special entertainment in the community centre, titled ‘Acoustic Heaven’ and wrong on both counts. The electric band playing country music to square-dancing septuagenarians is no-one’s idea of paradise. Named Haybaler or Shitshovel or something, they reappear the following night at the same venue for the Birdsville Ball.
On the way back to camp, my photographer reflects on events so far. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about the flies and the dust,” she unkindly offers.
Eat dirt – not flies
We awake to a dustbowl accompanied by swarms of flies. On the way to the racecourse the twin plagues battle for supremacy. Cop a mouthful, and it is a relief when your teeth grind on something gritty; not pleasant, but better than the meaty alternative.
Scrutinising the racecard, I am aware of a strange sense of having been here before: around 50 per cent of today’s runners are backing up, to use the vernacular, after running on the Friday card. It makes sense, as the programme is virtually identical: Sirgates, tried over 1,200m this time, gets a bit closer but still finishes only second.
The tin shack that passes for a bar is doing a roaring trade on its ‘buy 11 for ten’ promotion, and midway through the afternoon an unholy alliance develops in the betting ring between 15 men clad in orange boilersuits and hard hats for ‘Mitchy’s Bucks Bash’ and another smaller gathering in orange suits emblazoned with the question “Where’s Wally?”
I am thoroughly drunk, surrounded by dangerous, threatening types who might be more drunk, and haven’t even studied the form for the big race that forms the focal point of the entire enterprise.
I fight my way to a pitch to back George Dawson’s representative Mapua. I am pretty sure he finishes, but as I can barely see the race and he is out of the frame, I cannot tell you where.
This year’s Birdsville Cup is won by the favourite, a six-year-old gelding named Monee Lane. According to a local expert, the winner would be a good handicapper at better-quality Brisbane tracks. “These open handicaps out here do take some winning,” he alleges.
Round off your trip – have a fight
Winning trainer Jeff Dixon, from Oakey, is not the sort of fellow you would want to meet in an arm-wrestling contest. He looks like golfing whale John Daly, a huge figure alongside winning rider Chris Maund at the post-race presentations.
After five losers, the predicted victory of Murdsa in the last spreads a little happiness ahead of the journey back into town for a visit to Birdsville’s final attraction. This is Fred Brophy’s boxing troupe, the last of its kind in Australia, banned in Victoria and New South Wales but still a regular visitor to places like Birdsville. Its very existence seems an anachronism, an echo from freakshows gone by.
Sixty-year-old front man Brophy, silver-grey hair greased back 1950s style, is a carney huckster extraordinaire. At his Victorian-era booth he stirs up a 500-strong crowd, exhorting local toughs to take on members of his team who flank him in gold dressing gowns and rejoice in stage names like The Cowboy (“All the ladies love him”) and White Lightning.
Brophy has particular sport with a tall Dutchman who climbs the ladder to fight White Lightning. Leaning forwards conspiratorially, he asks him: “What did you say? I’m not sure that’s a good idea, you know, calling him a poof. He might not like it.”
Following this Saturday night cabaret – not dangerous really, only one nose broken – and a final night under canvas, the journey back to Brisbane proves relatively uneventful. Although the kangaroos appear to have learned their lesson and keep their distance, various problems with fan belts and air conditioning manage to extend the trip to 26 hours.
Five days after it started, my fatigue-inducing odyssey to Birdsville is over. “It wasn’t as good as usual,” says one of my bus companions. “It was a bit quiet, too many police – I might not come next year.”
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