Birdsville Races Countdown!

Races fever has hit Birdsville! There’s only one week until the racecourse gates fly open and Birdsville is already bustling with excited punters. Official events kick off on Wednesday, with food and market stalls setting up early in the week. This Saturday, just over 100 kilometres down the road, the Betoota Race Club is hosting their annual race meet, which is a great stopover event if you’re on your way to Birdsville.

Held in Australia’s smallest town, the Betoota Races attracts a smaller crowd than Birdsville, which means shorter queues at the bar, a chance to have a yarn with locals and the opportunity to bet on some of the same world-class race horses that run in Birdsville. It’s known as the ‘warm-up party’ for the Birdsville Races and, although it’s primarily a family event, live entertainment amuses the grownups until well into the night.

If you don’t mind a bit of driving, the Windorah International Yabbie Races are held on the main street of Windorah on Wednesday evening. Yabbies are auctioned off and raced while hundreds of travellers and locals alike watch on, enjoying the live music and plentiful food available, before they head to Birdsville.

The Birdsville Races are undoubtedly the main attraction on the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival calendar and this year we’re celebrating their 130th year. The Birdsville Race Club and Birdsville community work hard all year to provide exceptional on and off-track entertainment. The official race days are Friday August 31st and Saturday September 1st, but off-track events commence on Wednesday.

Over the weekend and early next week, Birdsville will slowly transform to accommodate the estimated 8000 people that flock here for the races. Food vans and market stalls will set up in the streets, Fred Brophy will erect his iconic boxing tent, the last of its kind in the world, and we’ll stock our shelves with food, souvenirs, camping gear and top up the fuel tanks. The RAAF Roulettes will also drop in to Birdsville, performing an aerobatic show that will the highlight event.

While the official race program is available from the Birdsville Race Club and information about pub entertainment can be obtained from the Birdsville Hotel, we quizzed our staff to see what they enjoyed most about the races and what their hot tips for a great races experience are.

Photo courtesy Birdsville Race Club

Bronwynne: I love the races when they’re over! No, even though it’s the most stressful week all year, I do love the Lions Club BBQ. They use local beef, they’re friendly, well priced and it’s supporting a good cause. My tip for a great experience is to be patient – we’re only a little town of 100 people and we try really hard to put on a great event for everyone that comes, so please be patient with us! It’ll make us a lot more relaxed, too. Oh, and check out our souvenir shed next door – we had great fun coming up with ideas for special races souvenirs!

Barnes’y: I love the atmosphere of race week. There are always plenty of characters around, everyone’s in a good mood and there’s excitement in the air. I also never miss the charity auction at Fred Brophy’s tent on the Saturday night. I buy something every year! My tip is to drive here in a high-clearance vehicle. If you don’t have one, borrow one because it’ll make your trip a lot safer and relaxing as you won’t have to worry so much about busting tyres or damaging your car with rocks.

Kathy: One really fun part of races is the Thursday afternoon ‘Equine Fun Day’ events outside the pub that were invented in 2007 when the races were cancelled due to equine flu. It’s good seeing everyone get involved in the funny games and races and it signifies the beginning of race weekend. I also love the following ‘mad’ Monday at the pub because it’s a chance for the staff to relax after their hardest week all year. My tip is for the ladies – don’t bother wearing heels. The dust at the racecourse and the rocky ground in Birdsville isn’t made for them.

Kelly: My favourite part of any race meet is fashions on the field. I love wearing a nice dress and hat and I don’t listen to Kathy – I bring out the heels anyway, although it’s not always the best choice. I also love having a flutter on the horses and trawling the stalls for quirky knickknacks. This year I’m definitely buying a ‘done me dough at the Birdsville Races’ t-shirt from the Roadhouse because I always loose all my money at the races, one way or another. My tip is to bring plenty of cash with you because the line at the ATM is always torturously long.

Sam: I like the duck shooting game! Oh, someone just said that doesn’t come anymore. Well, I like the pizza man – it means I don’t have to cook all week and there’s no better food than pizza anyway. Different food vans come every year so I really hope the pizza one come this year, otherwise I won’t know what to do! Last year I think I ate pizza every night he was here. My tip for the races is don’t eat the pizza or there’ll be none left for me! Really though, I recommend you pre-buy your ticket for Fred Brophy’s boxing show because that way you’ll get to go in first and score a good seat.

So who’s coming to the races? See you there!  

The Birdsville Races

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

Sam to the rescue – not once, but twice!

We love a good piece of bush poetry, especially when it’s about the Birdsville Roadhouse’s Sam Barnes! He’s more or less Birdsville born and bred and, although he’s a boilermaker by trade, he can often be found around our workshop putting his impressive mechanic skills to use.

He’s also a terrific driver so is often sent on vehicle recovery missions, rescuing stranded travellers who are grateful for his quick response and bushman know-how to get them out of a fix. Clearly, we think Sam is awesome (although ‘we’ are his parents and girlfriend…). But, when he received these wonderfully written poems in the mail, we realised that our customers love him too!

They were trav’lin’ through the outback,

Down Diamantina way,

When they happ’ed upon a small town

And there they spent a day.

 

The people were quite friendly

When at the Birdsville Pub they called,

So they settled in for two nights –

Soon the locals were appalled.

 

They headed for the ‘crossing’

In spite of recent rain,

“Pajeros can go anywhere,

We’ll prove that right again.”

 

So down the bumpy, sandy tracks

These ‘city slickers’ wander,

Until they hit a soggy patch

And then were they a goner!

 

They revved the engine, spun the wheels,

In four-wheel-drive they sat

And soon they found, for Sam they soon

Became another stat.

 

A quick phone call and quick response,

Soon found them Sam at hand.

Behind his smile amusement lurked –

MORE tourists in wet sand.

 

He brought a rope but needed two –

Another soon to hand –

He checked the hitch then gave a tug,

Pajero on dry land.

 

Then Sam he headed back to work,

The tourists back to town.

They called into the Roadhouse,

Then took off to look around.

They liked young Sam, the tow-truck man –

He did a cheerful job.

Whate’er he’s paid, they’d tell his boss,

“He’s worth each flamin’ bob.”

 

And… the next instalment…

 

‘Big Red’ – now here’s another tale;

It happened just this way –

They bought a pass so they might go

That self-same fateful day.

 

Petrol to get them there and back,

They’d water – they weren’t fools!

Sunhats and glasses and such things,

They knew the outback rules.

 

They travelled down the gravel road

Until a detour’s seen –

There’s water where, one hundred years,

No water has been there.

 

So 13ks around the pool,

‘Long sandy tracks they wander,

Until at Big Red’s base they be –

The top is way up yonder.

 

In four-wheel-drive, with engine revved,

They whizz right to the top,

A glance around, turn engine off,

And out of it they pop.

 

The scenery is engaging,

They look in great delight.

Photos taken, back into car,

But something ain’t quite right.

 

They can’t reverse, forward must go,

So down the other side.

They turn around and face Big Red,

Now for the upward ride.

 

The engine revs and up they head –

Just halfway up the slope.

Back down they go to gather speed –

Two-thirds, but still no hope.

 

They needed to reach Birdsville,

Neil said that he’d go back.

And so through water three-foot deep

And up the gravel track.

 

Neil had about a 5k trek

Until he hailed a truckie,

Who wired through to Birdsville

(which did prove rather lucky).

 

While Neil was gone, King tried again,

Going way, way back –

He got three-quarters up this time,

Which was a worthwhile crack.

 

Then back came Sam, the tow-truck man,

Collecting Neil enroute.

King saw the dust come down the track

And cheered “Whako! You Beaut!”

 

Relief at seeing Neil climb out

One tow-truck cabin door,

While Sam climbed out the other side,

Was huge – that is for sure.

 

Sam released air from the tyres,

Reversed back down the hill,

Then up he came without a care,

Car bending to his will.

 

With smile upon his happy face

At showing up these oldies,

To Birdsville once again he drove –

Suspect to have some coldies.

 

Again the oldies hit the road

With ne’er a further worry,

Back to the Birdsville Roadhouse,

Where no one’s in a hurry.

 

While driving on a sandy beach,

These oldies know the drill –

You let air out of tyres,

WHY NOT ON SANDY HILL?!?!

 

Yes, they liked young Sam the tow-truck man;

He was a cheerful kid.

But, behind his pleasant, smiling face,

Amusement surely hid.