The Galah Session

The Birdsville Races

Birdsville Roadhouse - Friday, August 10, 2012

Birdsville Races 2011. Kelly Theobald

Beneath the coolabahs on the banks of the Diamantina, long grass whispers in the gusty August winds. A trail of cars bumps over the dimpled earth, an eruption of dust behind them as they search for the perfect campsite.

They pick the flattest patch of ground with a nice amount of shade, a campfire pit already dug. They have uninterrupted views of the Diamantina River winding through the scrub and plenty of space to spread out their caravans and awnings and chairs.

They settle in, knowing that this will be their home for three weeks or more. They’re staying until the Birdsville Races – fulfilling a lifelong dream to witness Australia’s greatest outback race meet.

These days, an estimated 8000 people are drawn to the tiny, remote town of Birdsville for its annual race meet. Held on the first Friday and Saturday of September each year (this year it’s Friday 31st August and Saturday 1st September), ‘the races’ are a culmination of an historic legacy and the dedication of hard-working locals.

The first Birdsville Races were held on the 20th-23rd of September in 1882 and were attended by nearly 150 station owners, stockmen and workers in the area. According to The Queenslander on November 18 of that year, “the weather was delightful, the entrances for the various events good, and the finishes in most of the races close and exciting. Nearly 200 pounds was raised by public subscription, which speaks well for the prosperous condition of the district”.

Following the inaugural race meet, a race club called the ‘Border Jockey Club’ was formed with an initial 42 members and the date set for the following year’s races, to be held in July 1883.

Until 1889, there were separate race meets for grass-fed and grain-fed horses. However, on June 1st, 1889, the Brisbane Courier reported: “in consequence of the continued drought in the Birdsville neighbourhood, the race meeting which was fixed for the 5th and 6th instant has been abandoned.” It was eventually rescheduled for September 17th and 18th of that year and jockeys competed for £260 prize money. But, with a scarcity of grass-fed horses in condition that year, those races were cancelled and the two race-meets were combined from then on.

By the 1890s, the races were an annual event but no set date had been fixed. In 1892, they were held on December 31st and January 1st and the South Australian Register reported on 21st January 1892 that weather was “excessively hot” and “several cases of sunstroke occurred during the meeting, one, that of a young girl, proving fatal.”

Weighing in at the Birdsville Races, 1920.

Despite that, races were still being held in summer in the mid 1920s. One of the first Birdsville-based AIM nursing sisters, Sister Grace Francis, wrote in her diary entry of 6th January 1925, that: “we went out [to the races] and took a picnic basket. It was too hot to be enjoyable.” During this time, there were also specific races for ladies and children.

However, Sister Francis also wrote about the dances and balls that had become popular races events. That year, she reported that the fancy dress ball was “rather a failure”.  “The man who plays the accordion had to be taken to the hotel for a drink between each dance,” she wrote.

Birdsville racetrack, 1926

By the mid 20th Century, Birdsville’s population had dwindled to its lowest ever – only 15 people according to a report in the Courier Mail on September 14, 1944.  The Birdsville Race Track was moved from the western side of the town, to avoid the frequent floods, to its present position on a clay pan about three kilometres southeast from the township. Of the 1948 Birdsville Races, Adelaide newspaper The Mail reported that 100 spectators came from up to 500 miles away for the event and drank 300 gallons of beer over the two days of racing.

The 1953 races attracted about 150 spectators, of which only one in five were white females, according to the Charleville Times on August 13, 1953. There was only one registered bookmaker present who seemed to give the few ladies in attendance the best odds – one woman was given 10-1 for an early winner.  Thereafter, the blokes asked the women to place their bets for them. The Birdsville Amateur Race Club, as the Birdsville Race Club was then known, gave 75 per cent of the profits from the event to the Australian Inland Mission while retaining the rest for club finances.

Mona Henry, an AIM nursing sister stationed in Birdsville in the early 1950s recalls a famous, hilarious incident of favouritism by a certain race judge. Butcher, a local aboriginal man, was the judge for the aborigine’s race in 1955. “As the starter’s gun boomed on the far side of the course, his eyes sought his relative, Culpa, mounted on the favourite, Postman,” she wrote.

But, Postman was trailing the field with Chafcutter many lengths ahead, winning the race by a mile. “It needed only the judge’s decision to name the winner and, as every race-goer knows, the judges decision is final.”

“Butcher announced the winner: Postman. Fights broke out as Culpa received the prize – and Butcher, with more discretion than valour, mounted the ‘winning’ horse and fled the scene.”

Racing at Birdsville in 1975. 

Throughout the 20th century, the races grew in prominence, with more and more people attending the event each year. In the late-70s, author F. Gage McGinn noted in her book, Birdsville, that more than 60 aircraft parked on the Birdsville air strip during race meetings.

In the early 80s, fourth generation boxing tent showman Fred Brophy began attending the races, bringing with him his troupe of boxers, becoming one of the races’ best and most iconic attractions. His tent stands opposite the Birdsville Hotel and each evening of the races, crowds gather around his beating drum, seeing who will be brave enough to challenge the experienced boxers in his troupe.

Fred Brophy's challengers. Kelly Theobald

By the 1990s, increasing outback tourism and a marketing push by hardworking locals helped the races gain public attention and capture the imaginations of thousands of people – and not just outback people. Gradually, the Birdsville Races became the ‘Melbourne Cup of the Outback’. In the early 90s the races, now held annually on the first weekend of September, were attracting crowds of 2-3000 people from all over the country.

Then, the family atmosphere reigned – there were ‘sideshow alley’ carnival games, a rodeo or mechanical bull demonstrations and an afternoon disco at the Birdsville Hotel for the children. The traditional outback ball and dance were still being held on race evenings, which balanced out the boozy party atmosphere of more modern races.

Races crowd, 2001. Robin Smith

Birdsville Roadhouse owners Bronwynne and Peter Barnes remember when the general store was open from 8am – 1pm, when it closed so that staff could attend the races, and then opened for an hour in the evening. Back then, crowds only gathered in the town for the weekend – unlike today when people arrive as early as three weeks in advance to secure their camping spot.

By the turn of the millennium, the races were a well-established and well-known outback event that attracted roughly 8000 spectators. Now, the town is better equipped to deal with the influx of people and locals are practiced at preparing for the event.

Thousands of visitors. Kelly Theobald

These days, the Birdsville Roadhouse is open from 8am-6pm every day during race week (and the rest of the year, for that matter). Live entertainment is provided by the Birdsville Hotel and Birdsville Race Club and the best horses from all over the county compete for the $30,000 prize money. All proceeds from the races are given to the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Birdsville Clinic is open 24 hours for medical support.

In 2007, the spread of equine flu meant that, for only the second time in Birdsville Races history, the races were cancelled. Instead, an ‘equine fun day’ was developed with friendly races and games being held on Adelaide Street, outside the Birdsville Hotel. It’s a tradition that continues today on the Thursday of race week.

2011 'Equine Cup' competitors. Kelly Theobald

The 2010 Birdsville Races were the wettest in history. Races on the Friday were soggy and muddy but the Saturday events were washed out completely. Brief road closures meant that 7000 attendees were stranded in town for a few days until the weather cleared and roads dried out.

Although the Birdsville Races are now undoubtedly one of the outback’s biggest events, some things never change. The Birdsville cup is still a one-mile or 1600m race, as it always has been, and horses still run anti-clockwise, as in southern states, instead of clockwise as in the rest of Queensland.

Birdsville is beginning to gear up for yet another year of racing and the banks of the Diamantina are already dotted with campers waiting patiently for the festivities to begin. When they do, there’ll be a few bucket list items covered with a big black cross.

Birdsville Races, 1920. State Library of South Australia

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