Jenny - Clean

GETAWAY & GO RACING – It Can Be An Unforgettable Experience

MY first major venture away from home for a big race meeting occurred in the Spring of 1976 when good mates Ginger, Waldo and I were in our late teens.

This proved to be a trip that we would never forget nor would the tens of thousands of race-goers who got drenched watching Van Der Hum win the Melbourne Cup.

Little did we realize that morning when the three of us set out on the train to Flemington for the greatest racing adventure of our lives what lay ahead. As the storm descended and the heavens opened our main concern was that the big race would be called off – surely we had not come all this way to witness a wash-out.

As pools of water turned to rapid streams in various parts of the track, the betting ring was transformed into a river where punters donned flippers and goggles (where they got them from heaven knows) and swam around the bookies’ stands. It was a sight none of us will ever forget. Astute punters built makeshift bridges to get access to better prices as Cup betting continued.

The conditions were so bad that stewards delayed the big race indefinitely. But the storm departed almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving heavy rain in its wake. The Cup was run only five minutes late. It was left to a big field of brave jockeys and tired horses to plough their way through the two-mile quagmire.

The conditions were so bad that they inspired one of the great broadcasts of all time. “It looks like an invasion from Africa,” the late, great race-caller Bert Bryant told a listening audience of millions. “They're all black.” There was a pause for what seemed like an eternity, then Bryant roared: “And what’s this down the outside all covered in mud – it’s Van Der Hum!

Kiwi Van Der Hum proved a shade too strong for Gold and Black and in the process ended an attempt to Cups King, Bart Cummings, to complete the hat-trick after winning the race in 1974 and 75 with Think Big.

Ginger, Waldo and I didn’t back the winner that year – we never got close in fact – but it was a race to remember forever. We caught two things that day – our death of a cold and Cup fever. We returned the next year to see Bart back in the winner’s circle with Gold and Black.

But the Cup of 1977 was famous for more than the big race. Little did we know we would witness history of sorts in the making as the Governor-General, the late Sir John Kerr, made a prize goose of himself at the presentation.

Kerr, of course, was most famous for his controversial sacking of Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1975 and his Cup day performance paved the way for the saying: “As drunk as a Governor-General at the Melbourne Cup.” It’s a reputation that has since been well and truly upheld at racetracks around the land on the first Tuesday in November  – but probably not by too many of the GG’s vintage.

That infamous 1977 Cup day presentation prompted the great man, Gough, to write in The Truth of the Matter that Sir John was like Caligula, ‘weaving his way down from the imperial box and making his merry remarks to the owner, the fascinated crowd and a million viewers who may have thought that the horse would have made a better proconsul’.

From the time we returned home another of our good mates, Stretch, got so sick of hearing our tales from the Cup holiday that he insisted we should all head overseas – as he called it – for our next racing adventure. What he meant was a trip across the ditch to the land of the long white cloud. It was certainly different. We were also joined for the first time on that holiday by 'Butch', Yogi's sister, who was anything but. She completed what we called racing's version of Enid Blyton's Famous Five.

New Zealand was hosting an Inter-Dominion Harness Racing Championship around the same time as we were heading over for the races so we decided to fly the flag for Australia in Christchurch.

We soon learnt why Stretch liked the place and it wasn’t because he had been there on a school excursion riding the rapids on the Shotover River near Queenstown. It was the beer. We always reckoned his mother weaned him on a mixture of Fourex and mince pies.

Our entry into the public grandstand at Addington on that Inter-dominion Grand Final night was a shock for the system. The hundreds of Kiwis sitting and standing around tables had one thing in common – endless jugs of beer. They didn’t seem to bother ordering by the glass. Those returning from the bar were loaded up with three or four jugs. Stetch was in Seventh Heaven and immediately ordered one for himself and three for the rest of us. The beer tasted almost as bad as the bar food – which looked more like leg of mongoose.

But the sign on the wall said it all. We have ‘chucken and chups’ and ‘fush and chups’ but we have ‘no chucken.’ Obviously there had been a big, early run on the ‘chucken’ – and we soon learnt why.

In next to no time the grandstand was near on deserted – but it was still an hour before the first race. Rather than be left alone, Ginger asked one of the locals. What’s going on? ‘Aren’t you going out to see Ena?’ she snapped.‘Who the hell is Ena,” the group replied in unison?

Ena Sharples, played by Violet Carson, was one of the original characters of the long-running British soap opera, Coronation Street. The Kiwis, many of whom are of British ancestory, were great fans of the show and when ‘Ena’ was driven down the main straight at Addington in a horse-drawn carriage the locals stood and cheered. “When you spend your time milking sheep and feeding chooks I guess the soaps would be exciting,” Ginger suggested.

Much to our delight an Aussie scored a surprise win in that Inter-Dominion that year – the sore-losing Kiwis claimed with a little help from a juice called Elephant – but it didn’t matter to us. At last we had found something that silenced them. We returned home convinced that New Zealand was a great place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there – too many Kiwis!

A FEW years later our crew had been enjoying an unbelievable run on the punt courtesy of the tips being provided by ‘Butch’ who was dating a couple of top jockeys ('Battery Bill' and 'Handbrake Harry) at the same time along with an SP bookie called 'Shifty'. We put our winnings aside and stockpiled enough brass to head to America for the Kentucky Derby.

As this was our first ‘real’ overseas adventure we decided to book one of those ‘racing trips of a lifetime’ where ‘they’ do all the work, make all the bookings, open all the doors and all you have to do is turn up and everything happens on clockwork – or so we thought.

The tour party was a mixed crew of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ We put ourselves in the latter category and found some like-minded travelers to link up with for the next three weeks. We had taken an 'insurance' policy – much to the displeasure of the tour operator at the time. The five of us had organized to split the camp while the rest went on a week of stud visits – sure this was a racing tour but how many stallions did you need to look at before you got the picture?

It gave us a chance for a break from the group – and them from us – so we headed off to New Orleans for some non-racing action – a paddle-wheel steamer cruise on the Mississippi, a couple of nights out in the famous French Quarter and a visit to Pat O’Brien’s Bar where nightly the locals battle their way through almost every favorite American song known – requesting and singing numbers played on two giant grand pianos – as the crowd goes bananas drinking Hurricanes into the wee hours of the morning. It’s a must-see experience - and still is!

We returned to the tour group refreshed but a major setback awaited as we boarded the coach at Louisville Airport bound for Bluegrass Country and the five star hotel that would be our home for the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby. It was left to the tour escort to regrettably advise that there had been a mix-up with the bookings. “That’s where we were supposed to stay,” she said meekly, as we drove by this palatial five-star abode not all that far from the famous Churchill Downs.

With so many thousands of Americans converging on Kentucky for the Derby it wasn’t easy finding last minute accommodation – but we were reminded how lucky we were that we had travelled with a tour company that had such great connections in the event of unforeseen eventualities such as this.

Down the road the coach meandered to the next big town of Lexington. It was the home of the famous Red Mile harness track. There were many long faces and a few remarks from ‘Butch’ that don’t bear repeating as we pulled into the parking lot of the Lexington Downtowner. This was no five star establishment. It was in fact a motel – with the odd bullet hole through the walls. The ‘haves’ weren’t impressed – the ‘have-nots’ decided to make the most of it and headed straight for the bar where Stretch continued to complain that the Yankee beer was as ‘poor as piss.’

It didn’t matter, we were going to the Kentucky Derby and that was all the locals wanted to talk about. What surprised us the most was the lack of knowledge of American racing among the homegrown punters. Sure they knew their star gallopers but when it came to the support program they virtually just cheered for a number. Like ‘come on number seven’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘go you beauty!’

Our detour to Lexington had provided an added bonus – a day at the local races and a visit to the famous Keeneland sales complex which adjoined the track. What they didn’t tell us was that there were no broadcasts of the races because of noise pollution. The racetrack was too close to a school and the race calls were forbidden at the risk of annoying the children. ‘Cripes,’ quipped Yogi. ‘Don’t they realize the kids are probably having a bet anyway?’ Nevertheless, a bell was rung – not for ‘schools out’ but to let you know that the field had jumped. The punters screamed ‘Come on number whatever they had backed.’ We stood and shook our heads. Give us Australian racing any day.

Finally Derby day dawned and the excitement was electric. It was a magnificent atmosphere and we weren’t disappointed by the pomp and ceremony at Churchill Downs – even if our grandstand seats were overlooking the furlong pole and not the finishing post. As we hurriedly departed our Greyhound coach the tour escort reminded us to remember its number. How could we forget what a bus looked like?

After a terrific day of drowning in Mint Julips and watching the Yanks go berko at their answer to our Melbourne Cup we headed back to the parking lot. There we were greeted by thousands of race-goers heading to – you guessed it – hundreds of Greyhound coaches. Now what was that number of ours? It was a 69er, a far from sober Butch declared.

Whatever, we never did find that elusive ride but we managed to get back to the Downtowner eventually and the ‘haves,’ who had to wait a couple of hours while they dispatched an unsuccessful search party for us, were never forgiving for the rest of the trip. The ‘have-nots’ were as pleasantly pissed as we were and just enjoyed the commotion that we had created. ‘Perhaps they have been kidnapped and are now in Deliverance country squelling like pigs,’ an old West Aussie shearer suggested. ‘I wish!’ Waldo thought out loud.

Over the years we have learned a lot of things from that first overseas racing adventure. These days there are any number of reputable tour companies that provide a terrific experience for those who do not want to plan their own racing trip. More importantly, when you travel once to a major race carnival overseas, it only tends to whet your appetite to return and try something new. But at least once try the adventure flying solo - it can be a ton of fun.

And that’s just what we did. My next column will highlight the final part of some of the other racing adventures our group undertook, as well as a fateful return to Melbourne for the Cup. I hope you enjoyed the ride and will join us again.



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Getaway & Go Racing &
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BN: 55127167

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