FROM MINGELA TO THE MELBOURNE CUP – the best of both worlds

IT’S a long way from Mingela to the Melbourne Cup – and a bit of a culture shock as well – but my friends and I were determined to experience the best of both racing worlds.

The Kentucky Derby adventure had whet our appetite for more overseas racing trips but the crew decided to first attend a picnic meeting in the Australian outback and make a return visit for yet another Melbourne Cup.

We had unanimously agreed that you could never get enough of Cup week in Victoria but choosing the right venue to head bush for was no easy decision. We finally settled on a Queensland Labor Day long weekend meeting at a little place called Mingela.

For several of us it was a return to our roots. We were born and bred in north-western Queensland and had experienced while growing up the atmosphere of picnic and bush racing when it was an extremely important aspect of country life.

Mingela is a dot on the map on the Flinders Highway between Townsville and Charters Towers. It now has a police station, a pub and a population of about 20. But on the long weekend in early May the place would traditionally explode when it hosted an annual Cup race meeting and rodeo.

Heading from the big smoke to the bush, this was a race meeting that brought back memories, especially for Yogi, Butch and I. Mingela Cup day had been a major drawcard when we were growing up. This visit again gave us the chance to rub shoulders with ringers, roo shooters and general roustabouts who were regular visitors to the Georgetown rodeo, Jericho camp draft or any number of outback race meetings.

We camped track-side with hundreds of others – some in tents, others just like us under the stars in their sleeping bags. Everyone should experience bush racing in Australia at some stage of their lives. We hear so much of Birdsville but a stack of meetings, just like the one that we attended, still occur.

The crowd was massive and there was a big ring of bookmakers. Some of the starters were grass-fed, requiring them to spend time in a special paddock before the meeting. Of course the trick was to know which had been fed on the side – the secret was in the size of their grass belly.

This was Mingela’s answer to the Melbourne Cup and the atmosphere was electric, the betting ring a hive of activity and although the horses went onto the track 15 minutes after the advertised starting time for the first (thankfully there was no Sky Channel schedule back then), the racing action was soon underway.

The race-caller was only a kid – face covered in freckles with a coconut hair-do – standing on a butter box to reach the binoculars on the stand in the open-air broadcast box. Waldo reckoned it was a girl, Ginger insisted it was a boy and after the broadcast we all decided it could have been either – but this caller nicknamed ‘feathers’ got the result right and that was all that mattered to us – we had backed the winner.

Butch had convinced an old jockey flame, Battery Bill, to rendezvous with her at Mingela and he knew the right ones to back. His formula had something to do with the saddles on the horses or the riding boots that the jockeys were wearing. Those days he had developed quite a wide market for his product.

After the races we all headed off to the pub where the bat-wing doors were exploding and the crowd was over-flowing. There was no beer on tap – just jugs on the bar and everyone helped themselves – fortunately the beer never got time to get warm.

Ginger was working hard on this pretty young thing that must have been half his age. She worked in the bar at the Imperial down the road at Ravenswood, once a thriving gold town but now more of a ghost town and popular tourist attraction.

“Don’t worry about her age. The guys where she lives are either over 60 or under 10,” Ginger told us. Butch was quick to wade-in with some matronly advice: “You are an imbecile Ginger,” she snapped. “Stick to your own vintage. They don’t yell, don’t swell and don’t tell.” He never did get off base one and we all headed home the next day – much the worse for wear.

Ginger recently remarked how important it was that we went to Mingela back then as this wonderful meeting no longer exists. The Mingela Amateur Race Club was one of the victims when a new-look control body reduced the number of smaller country clubs in Queensland.

I probably also should mention that almost half a century ago the Mingela Cup was involved in an alleged ring-in scandal. The accused were a butcher from Guru, south of Townsville and his lady employee, a one-time jillaroo. The horse involved, Hello There, not only won the Cup but an earlier race on the card. But unlike those in the Fine Cotton scandal, this duo was acquitted.


The outback racing adventure behind us, the crew decided to head off to yet another Melbourne Cup – a trip that had become almost an annual pilgrimage. We would go for the week and enjoy one hell of a good time. But as they say, all good things come to an end, as this did for us.

As crazy as it may sound, the greatest drawback for us was getting out of the track after the last. Taxis were near impossible to get and the queues seemed to last forever. Ask the locals and they will tell you the only way to travel to and from Flemington at Cup time is by train.

What they forget to tell you is that once the last race is over – the later you wait – the bigger chance you have of encountering a train-load of morons. Our most forgettable memory was of catching one of the last trains back to the city. We had been invited to join friends at an after-race barbeque in the Flemington car park on Derby day and stayed on to watch the Cup barrier draw on the big screen.

When we finally arrived at the racetrack station it was a bit like that song ‘By the time we got to Woodstock they were half a million strong’ – and most of them feeling pretty much the same as those at that historic event of some 40 years ago.

Among our group that day was a guy we called ‘Mad Mitch.’ Terrific bloke sober – quiet and intense – but a real Jekyll and Hyde character after an afternoon on the punt and drink. This had been a particularly bad day for him. He had done his proverbial and was ready for a blue.

The opportunity didn’t take long to present itself. This dear old couple, obviously on one of their last Cup visits, had found themselves battling to find a seat in a way too over-crowded carriage. They were ready to collapse from the exhaustion of being pushed from pillar to post. Their prayers were answered. An opportunity to sit down and relax appeared, when from the seats opposite a couple of sets of legs blocked their passage. These unlikely lads were dressed in fine suits but drunk as ten men – one with a long pony tail and the other head shaved with a large shiny pendant dangling from a ring in his ear. They were being total prats.

‘Mad Mitch’ pounced – tossed their legs off the seat – and before either could raise a fist had Phar Lap slumped in his seat out cold and his bald mate mopping up the blood squirting out of the ear from which his ring and pendant had been unceremoniously ripped.

“Now you just sit down and relax until we get into the city,” Mitch quietly told the old couple, who didn’t seem to know whether to be scared or relieved. We made it back safely to Flinders Street Station and joined the throng as they virtually walked over the top of the two victims of the earlier melee who were still cast on the floor of the carriage.

‘Mad’ Mitch never returned to the Cup – nor did we. He’s now running a newspaper across the Ditch and bashing heads with burly Maoris who tend to get a shade upset when he mouths off about their beloved Warriors.


Having been to the bush and back, I dared the crew to be different the next time we travelled but my argument was not as convincing and only three of us undertook this overseas adventure when we headed to The Philippines where experience showed us that in racing just about anything goes.

I had worked in Hong Kong and just loved the racing there (which will be the subject of a later column) but The Philippines was unbelievably different and far less professional. Through the media I had been given all the right contacts to open the doors and get us where we wanted to go on race days – or so we thought.

Our contact was a racing PR lady called Tess Milka – Stretch felt she should more appropriately be running a dairy in his old home town of Dunedin. We looked her up at the racing headquarters in Manila. “Leave it to me,” I told Stretch and Yogi. “I’ll tell her we’re racing writers from Australia looking to get to the races this weekend.”

Tess could not have been more co-operative. “Call back and see me in a couple of days and I’ll have everything organized,” she said. Back we went to be greeted by a gleaming Tess with the news: “I’ve organized rides for the three of you on Saturday.”

Despite the fact that Stretch was 6-foot something, Yogi almost 20 stone and I was only slightly smaller than both, poor Tess had thought we were ‘racing riders’ not ‘racing writers’ and had engaged us for what she described as ‘several top chances’ on the day.

More the pity for the poor horses – we thought in hindsight – after finally getting the situation resolved. The locally bred steeds that raced in The Philippines back then were not much bigger than ponies.

Our Day at the Races was not without incident before it began. We hailed a cab and after a little trouble convincing the driver where we wanted to go, we were on our way to the track – or at least we thought we were. But it turned out there were two tracks in Manila – one San Lazaro and the other Santa Ana Park. Unfortunately the cabbie took us to the one – on the opposite side of this huge metropolis – where there was no racing.

We finally got back across the city to San Lazaro and were ushered into the palatial private members’ lounge where Tess had graciously organized us tickets. Our private box looked down on the public area where there seemed to be total chaos between races with everything from fist fights to cock fights.

Stretch was surprised to see two directors of his race club from back home in Australia were also guests in the private box that day. He knew they were in The Philippines on holidays with their charming wives but were surprised to see the company that they were keeping on this particular day. They had in tow four pretty little bar girls who seemed intent on fulfilling their every need.

There were a couple of embarrassing glances across the room before they came and joined us, offering the gift of a set of free tips provided to them – they said – by officials of the club. After a few races we soon learnt that this was no ordinary set of tips. Not only was the winner tipped in every race but the top four included the trifecta. The party got longer and louder as we kept on winning. The two race club directors from back in OZ were quick to remind us: “What happens on tour stays on tour.” No worries, we winked.

The races seemed to go on forever while the peasants continued to work in the paddy fields in the centre of the track. We asked about the white line down the fence at about the 600m mark in the back straight. “That’s the point of no return,” one of our Filipino hosts explained. “Up until they reach there the jockey can do just about anything to improve his position.” We watched more closely. He was right when he said ‘anything’.

After about 10 straight winning races the inevitable occurred – we lost and all hell broke loose. Within no time there were officials running in all directions. Eventually a stern looking little Filipino, who we were later told was the chief steward, was hauled before us. He addressed the two directors from OZ and offered his profound apologies for the ‘result being wrong in the previous race.’ It turned out one of the jockeys had failed to fulfill his obligations and would be spending a significant time on the sideline. Yogi reckoned if that’s the way they ran racing in The Philippines he was all for it. Stetch and I felt it took the fun out of losing if you won all the time.

We returned home after an eventful week in Manila – cashed up after our visit to San Lazaro and even better with a gold pass to the committee room any time we wanted to visit the home club of those two OZ directors who we just happened to discover in the wrong place at the right time for us. The Philippines was different but from a racing perspective we all vowed never to return.

As was always the case when it came to racing there was no place like home. And nothing has changed – all these years later – even if a day on the punt occurs at the local or at home watching the box. Once again I hope you enjoyed the ride.