MOST will remember the Melbourne Cup just run for the history-making quinella of Irish father and son Aidan and Joseph O'Brien but for a group of long-time friends who finally got around to organizing an overdue reunion it will be a day they will never forget.

That clichéd expression – the more things change the more they stay the same – could not have been further from the truth for the five of us who got together for the first time in well over a decade to celebrate the race that stops a nation.

Close-knit families and old friends traditionally use Christmas, Easter or their annual holidays to enjoy a reunion. But after years of growing up and going to the races together, Melbourne Cup day provided a perfect opportunity for the ‘old’ crew to re-live what seemed like a life-time of unforgettable memories.

You would think that organizing a group of five one-time like-minded individuals to rendezvous at a chosen destination on a given day would not be that difficult. At one stage it seemed like a higher being was sabotaging our plan.  But eventually it came together. We punted, we played, we remembered the best of times and at the end of the day we looked back, had a good laugh, were sad to leave and agreed to do it all again next year.

Old habits die hard when it comes to Cup day. There are those caught by the bug of making that annual pilgrimage to Flemington. Thousands of others prefer Cup day celebrations in their own backyard although that seems to have been largely overtaken by a somewhat younger brigade of drunken revelers.

Many like to party at their favorite club, pub or even stay at home. Then there are those – too worn out to make the trek that for so many years took them to Melbourne – who re-live the good times watching the action on television.

No matter what your tradition, I’m prepared to bet it has a downside. Perhaps it’s the nightmare of negotiating the big crowd on the trains or buses heading out of Flemington. Maybe it’s the battle for a taxi at your local track where the young drunks are even worse for wear on the rank than they were inside the course.

Or is it the din of the local pub or club where you battled to hear the race calls, had to line up for a bet then collided with the guy trying to wend his way back to a table with a tray full of drinks?

There’s something to be said for watching the Cup in the comfort of your own home - lazing back on the lounge, remote in hand, barbeque ablaze not far away, fridge full of coldies, mobile phone locked into the TAB account, not having to get dressed up or negotiate traffic.

The downside of that of course is you are forced to watch some of the mutton heads providing the television coverage from the course or studio. Don’t get me started on the Three Stooges who do the prices for the corporate bookies for Racing.com or that know-all that we christened, Mute Button, from Sky. There was some light at the end of the tunnel if you tuned into the Network Seven coverage, largely the brilliant Bruce McAvaney and the gorgeous Francesco Cumani. Pity about some of the other ratbags like the boring and beaming Jason Richardson, who just can't seem to shut up or the endless hosts at the celebrity marquees which seem to get more coverage than the stars of the show - the horses, trainers and jockeys not to mention the new Cups King, Lloyd the Magnificent.

But back to issues of far more importance – to us at least – the Cup Day reunion and the organization of that had more than a few downsides as well.

Many will recall earlier columns which told of the transition in my life from punting tragic to doting dad. It was something that snuck up and caught me by surprise. There was plenty of time for settling down – or so I believed – in my early working years when going to the races, meeting my mates at the pub and watching the footy were highest on my list of priorities.

In those early years my colleagues in combat were a great group of friends that I called racing’s answer to Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’. Every Saturday – rain, hail or shine – we would rendezvous at the track. There was Ginger, Stretch, Waldo, Yogi and his sister, ‘Butch,’ who was anything but. They were great times.

We would get the best of inside info from ‘Butch’ who was dating two jockeys at the same time. She had ‘Battery Bill’ at her beckon call alternating with ‘Handbrake Harry’ every other night. Her timing was precise. Her information spot-on – at least until she dumped both for an SP called ‘Shifty.’

Such was the success of our strike rate on the punt that financed several Melbourne Cup excursions as well as overseas trips to major race meetings including the Kentucky Derby, Japan Cup, Hong Kong International and Royal Ascot.

But all good things come to an end. We went our separate ways. What seemed like a life-time later – and by then the victim of a failed marriage but with two great kids to show for it – I returned to that old stamping ground at the races where the ‘Famous Five’ and I had enjoyed so many great times. But nothing stays the same.

Ginger, who we secretly regarded as the ‘born loser’ of the group, was the only one still living what he called the ‘life of Riley’ – punting from one meeting to the next but joining a new group of mates at the local club rather than going to the track.

How can I best describe Ginger? He reminds me of that Welsh wannaba artist named Spike who played the flat-mate of book store owner, William Thacker (Hugh Grant), in the movie Notting Hill – a loveable larrikin.

Then from the other side of the tracks we have Waldo, who inherited a fortune in mining shares when his parents died and nowadays flits around the country in his company’s private jet. His wife, Wilma, was the daughter of a well-to-do grazing family with long-time ties to that political party we call the 'goat rooters'. She’s a social butterfly who prefers to mix with the rich and famous of the racing set.

We remember Waldo from his school days when his mum would tie his tuck shop money in his handkerchief (he was 12 at the time). He grew up on meat pies and cream buns, which explains his portly appearance. Ginger always reckoned if Waldo’s parents hadn’t been rich he would be shoveling shit for a living.

Everyone loves big Stretch, a real gentleman with the ladies. He made it big in real estate and is now the King of his own little castle at Noosa where the punt remains very much part of his lifestyle.

Yogi, to put it in the nicest way, was always a bit of a dreamer. But he has unbelievably fulfilled a lifelong ambition to train racehorses and has proved very good at it in fact. His stable of horses and owners is strong. We knew there had to be a secret behind his success.

It turned out that his sister, ‘Butch’ the brains of his family, provided the finance to start Yogi’s training operation. She has run a successful ‘escort’ business with outlets in three States for many years and the majority of her clientele are – you guessed it – prominent members of the racing fraternity.

Over the years we all kept in touch but our lives drifted apart. Everyone bar Ginger has children of their own. This year we agreed to shift heaven and earth to celebrate a reunion. It was decided the crew would converge on my home on the bay outside Brisbane for Melbourne Cup Day.

It couldn’t be that hard organizing a get together for five like-minded people. The entertainment was ready made. The house was big enough to comfortably accommodate a platoon of punters. My Filipino house-keeper Josie and her daughter, Concita, handled the catering. There was an endless supply of good food and drink and giant screen TVs to watch the action beside the pool or in the media rooms.

This was a far cry from the days when we roughed it at the races in the bush. Who said the more things change the more they stay the same?

Waldo was the first on the blower issuing a set of instructions. “I really want to be part of this but you know how much Wilma hates Ginger and ‘Butch’,” he cried down the phone line. “This is the first time in 10 years we haven’t been to Flemington.”

A normal Cup day for Waldo and the missus is sailing up the Maribrynong to Flemington on the Pritchard-Gordon’s motor launch, heading to the committee room for lunch then rounding the day off with champagne and chicken beside the Rollers in the car park. Was this Cup day going to be a culture shock for Wilma?

Ginger was flying out of Darwin on the ‘red eye’ on Cup eve and had to meet up with some mates for a session at the Pineapple. Yogi had a horse running at the provincials the day before but was arriving that night. Stretch and the missus were arriving by limo on Cup morning.

‘Butch’ decided to drive north in her new ‘toy’ – a motor home that resembled one of those that featured in the blockbuster movies ‘Meet the Fockers’ and ‘RV.’ She stopped off on the way to do a ‘stock-take’ of her business on the Gold Coast where her ‘girls’ were gearing up for the busiest period of the year – Magic Millions week.

As Cup Day dawned Daylight Saving proved a blessing in disguise. The crew had no sooner arrived when the first of 10 was about to be run at Flemington. With Queensland an hour behind the southern states you have hardly finished breakfast when the Cup card is underway.

There was just enough time for a team meeting to discuss tactics on how we were going to attack the punt. Way back when, there were no arguments. We would run with the late mail from Butch. But this time Ginger was the ‘odd’ man out.

‘Butch’ was instantly offended and blew up. ‘What the stuff’s the matter with you Ginger? I know what you need and I nearly bought along one of my best girls to look after you but that would have been a waste of time.’

I had confidentially warned them beforehand that after years of unsuccessful punting Ginger had finally discovered a way to win. The ‘born loser’ was now the ‘born again winner.’ He still religiously spent hours doing the form and working out the best horses to back. The difference now was that instead of backing them to WIN, he backed them to LOSE, and had become one of Betfair’s biggest clients.

The rest of us agreed that backing horses to lose was not in the spirit of our battle with the punt. The team decided to cast Ginger adrift. I won’t bore you with the details of our Cup Day betting spree. But we did manage to find the winner of the big one (we reckoned it and the second horse were really Lloyd's choice despite his insistence that Frankie wouldn't do a slaughter job on last year's winner). There were also two nice priced winners late in the day and, for our crew at least, it was far from the disaster that many punters encountered.

The majority of winners were in the double figure range. ‘Butch’ had four big tips. ‘The mail from Gai is that Our Crown Mistress is a good thing. The best roughie of the day is Ocean Embers and Pedrena is a big tip at nice odds in the last.' Adding the icing to the cake was her Cup selections which ran the quinella. Our day's punting might have started slowly but it doesn't finish much better than that.

Ten races and only one heavily backed favorite saluted – Ginger was in ‘seventh heaven’ having won a small fortune backing his fancies to lose. He offered to shout us all dinner ‘at Macdonald’s’. I thought Waldo and Wilma were going to throw up. He was only joking though and we all adjourned to enjoy seafood and more drink at one of the bay’s finest restaurants.

Wilma even got a bit ‘tipsy’ and reminisced about growing up in the Queensland outback – the good ‘ole’ days when Joh and his bunch of merry-men did just the opposite to Robin of Sherwood.

I had to give Ginger a pep-talk in the ‘little boys’ rooms’ – urging him not to refer to the National Party in Queensland as ‘goat rooters’ or ‘Laurence’s losers.’ There was another election coming up and just in case Anastasia didn't fall across the line we had to accept that idiot Tim the Toolman might, Heaven Forbid, become Premier with the help of Pauline 'the fish and chip' lady.  As Wilma waffled on, the odd kick under the table was necessary to keep the peace.

Our post mortem of the big day agreed that nothing quite rivals the Melbourne Cup but the support program has long been a bookies’ benefit. Once again they would have needed a convoy of armored vans to transport their winnings.

From ‘born loser’ to ‘born again winner’, Ginger had the final say: ‘The moral of the story is - if you want to bet up on Cup Day then open an account with Betfair and back the favorites – especially the short-priced ones - to lose. You’ll win a fortune!’



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