John Harms spent the day at the ‘Bool.
I am on the Metro heading towards Spencer Street. Through Clifton Hill. The sun is rising over the lanes and alleys of Collingwood, where SPs promised clover but delivered sour sob. The train is full. Booted construction workers (irradescent green with blue trim) are lost in their newspapers, suited workers (dark grey with white collar) are lost in their phones. They’re all reading about Gillon McLachlan (mustard) and his promise to footy fans.
A world away, Warrnambool groans to life, hungover, but keen to go again. Strappers ready their horses in the morning cold. It’s the third day of the carnival and there are stories to tell already. More today.
In my carriage many wear the blank faces of those locked into the mundane. But my soul is grinning.
At Spencer St, people have gathered on Platform 8. Most of us are off to the races so there’s bags and eskies and coats and newspapers. And the palpable expectation of a great day.
Through North Melbourne and Footscray. I get talking to a couple of blokes. One, an engineer, has just been re-trenched after 28 years. He has a young family, but he’s not too worried (“I played golf yesterday”). They have plenty of time to study the form.
The carriage is buzzing. Chatty. Laughing. Already the food and the special tea (the sort that goes pop when you open the bottle) are being passed around a group of people in their 50s and 60s. Initially I think they’re a work group.
“Right, first thing, the sweep on the Cup,” says one of the organisers. And that’s sorted.
A couple of women take up the vacant seats opposite me. We get chatting. It’s Jenny and Colleen.
“Big group,” I say. “Work?”
“No, we’re all from the Holy Spirit congregation at North Ringwood,” they say in that confident parish-on-tour sort of way. “We’ve been coming for 30 years. Not so many this year. One year we had a carriage and a half!”
It’s all very, very Catholic and the tradition of Irish mischief is alive and well in the refreshments. When a conductor appears at the door someone says, “Ducks on the pond”, which is Holy Spirit code for “Put your drinks away”.
“Right, now the raffle,” says a too-loud woman. “It’s $2.”
Everyone’s in, some twice, as the 52 cards of a deck are distributed. The three of clubs is drawn and a handsome woman holds her card up. Everyone laughs.
Let me guess, I say to Jenny, “That’s Bernadette.”
“No,” laughs Jenny, “it’s Mary, but she’s got a sister called Bernadette.”
Mary has $104 worth of coins in her bag.
Further along the parish priest, Father Kevin Mogg, is playing cards with four other priests who have made the trip. They have brought their own card table and it looks like serious business.
Jenny, who is the parish secretary, tells me that father Kevin is waiting for a phone call from a bookie, or a bookie’s nephew, or a bookie’s mate’s nephew, with some tips.
We hurtle through the green countryside, stopping at old railway stations like Birregurra and Camperdown. Train travel, so gently comfortable, has a way of sending you into the past. And when you arrive at the Warrnambool races you are in the past. That’s a key part of its many charms.
But we’re still a way off. Father Kevin stands up to read from the form guide. The winners of the sweep know their numbers: Father Kevin gives the name to the number, with a little appraisal of the nag’s chances.
I introduce myself and he sits down next to me. He is in his early 80s and has the Bryl-cremed hair of the 1950s cleric. He is clearly very warm-hearted and totally on the ball.
“You like a dabble?” I ask.
“I’ve been known to have a wager or two he says.”
“What’s your favourite horse?” I ask.
“Bernborough,” he says. “He won 15 in a row. I was a kid at St Pat’s, Ballarat, in 1946 and the brothers let me go to Melbourne to watch him.”
“I’m from Bernborough’s home town,” I say, loving the coincidence. “Oakey.”
It turns out Father Kevin has had a wonderful career, studying in Rome, head of the seminary, social justice roles, and many years at Holy Spirit. And his brother Les played in the 1950 North Melbourne Grand Final side.
It’s becoming a party.
By Warrnambool the ladies have made everyone a cup of tea and handed round the cake and bickies.
But it’s time to go. We bid our farewells and the Holy Spirit party tell me they will be under the big tree all afternoon.
At the station, buses wait to take the passengers to the course. We join the queues and shuffle along. “Moving in at Warrnambool,” says some wag.
I sit next to a bloke who (at this stage) is on his own. He’s one of the group of owners of Akzar.
I now have no choice. I’ll be backing Akzar under the first owner, first trainer, first jockey rule.
“Chances?” I ask.
“He should win,” he says. “Brad will drop him out the back. He’ll pick them up pretty easily on the turn. And that’ll be it.”
I like his confidence. I wish him all the best.
The Warrnambool club is well-served by its geography. When entering the precinct you look down from the ridge onto the course and across to the hill – Brierley’s Paddock – opposite. It is spectacular.
People are milling around sorting out tickets: blokes in jackets, some in ties, elegantly dressed country women, yobbos trying to look like Brendan Fevola (some do), lasses who look like they could be down from Sydney.
Inside, and I immediately spot C. Down, son of a Port Fairy dairy farmer, who is now a lawyer in Melbourne. He’s a careful punter and will be circumspect in the process of merriment as he is driving back to Melbourne.
Then I bump into Shorty and Marg Sheahan. Shorty played a few games for Richmond (his father Maurie played in the ’32 and ‘34 premierships – and also went to St Pat’s) before he and Marg were posted to Mildura to teach. I’ve raced horses with them. Courting Pleasure, about whom I wrote Memoirs of a Mug Punter, won five races in country Victoria, but never fared well on the slow tracks of Warrnambool. We chat about old times and about nights in the Cally with timeless characters like Ivor White, barber and trainer of professional runners, and Macca and other ratbags.
I find my other party in time for the third. P.J. Flynn, mathematician and bon vivant, has travelled from the metropolis with a crew and they’ve started early. Ando was sans scarf (can be an error at the Bool) so they stopped at the draper at Terang and purchased a maroon-purple number for $19.99. I am presented with the tag. It may be my only collect of the afternoon. They are in top form. The real world will not enter their minds for the duration.
The plan is to meet at the Buxton Bar after each race. P. Flynn gives me a history lesson: “Buxton won it in ’63. Broke the track record. I think the jockey Noel Cole went on to be a boxing correspondent for The Truth.”
The Buxton Bar sign is one of the many things that gives The Bool such character. It’s a sort of retro-sign like one of those old tin signs you see for Resch’s or Bushell’s or motor oil. It should never be touched up. It is as authentic as the people who are milling about.
- Flynn and co are on About the Journey (pink and grey diamonds) which is almost certainly an omen, carnival, spirit-of-the-universe sort of selection (my favourite). It looms. It’s got plenty in reserve. And D. Stackhouse steers him home.
“How long’s this been goin’ on,” says Flynn.
The lawn in front of the Buxton Bar is holding up surprisingly well. It has been trampled and stilettoed but it remains a Dead 6, but with a little rain will become a Slosh 12. The crowd is considerable and growing.
I wander further, taking in the friendly atmosphere. Old friends are greeting. Blokes are having a fag. The small of chips is in the air.
I get talking to a bloke who’s good on the chat. He introduces himself as Peter Ludeman.
“Related to Tim, the wicket-keeper?” I ask.
“My nephew,” he says. “He’s here today. With Callum Ferguson and Darren Berry.”
“There you go.”
“He’s his nephew too,” Peter says, pointing to Mark Bushell, his brother-in-law. “This is my partner, Fiona, and another mate Andrew Delaney, he’s a relly of Whiskey Delaney.”
I then hear the stories of his great-great relative who had stills in the bush around Boggy Creek and no-one could find him until they brought a detective out from Ireland.
“We played in a flag together in 1985.”
They played together at Nirranda (blue with white monogram).
An older fella walks past.
“See that bloke,” says Peter. “That’s Max Anderson. He lost his wife and son in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in ’83. Most people forget we had terrible fires down here.”
Fickle fortune is a bastard. But you keep going.
They’re all over Akzar in the Cup. (Seems everyone is) I wish them well.
Flynn et al have picked out the Wilde’s Mr Barnbougle (grey with pink band) in the fifth, which means they are definitely omen punting. They are hack golfers. And Barnbougle would suit them like the beautiful woman in black just walking past would suit them.
Mr Barnbougle is full of running. He bursts away. Flynny crows early. “Home. Home.”
“I’m a genius at the ‘Bool,” he claims, boldly. “A genius.”
“He always wins here,” says his support crew.
The crowd makes its way up the steep hill, as is the tradition, for the Grand Annual. This can be a task but there are no falls, and the challenge is worth it. The view across the course is superb, made better by Brierley’s in the distance and the look back down the straight.
It’s a small field and there has been so much money for Lord of the Song (navy blue with cream seams) that it bumps Palmero (aquanita blue) from favouritism. Many are still on Palmero, having backed him early.
Course broadcaster Rick McIntosh has had an interesting carnival, opening with an epic call of a not-so-epic maiden hurdle on Tuesday, which made people wonder how he’d be by the Cup. He is more measured in this Grand Annual but is fighting the urge to get excited.
Rangatira (red with black Maltese cross) leads as is his way and Palermo sticks with him. They stride a dozen lengths clear. The rest chase, jumping stylishly early, and functionally in the second lap. The crowd watch intently, but quietly. They stir as Palermo fights off the Kiwi, and is full of running. The backmarkers close but they have used too much in making up the ground and die on their runs. Except for Paddy Payne’s Chaparro (white and pale blue halves).
- Flynn is on Palermo and with 250 to go yells, “He’s home. He’s home.”
- Cully lifts Chaparro who finds a reserve, and gets on terms. And Palermo goes under. Flynn looks bewildered.
“Right,” he says. “Let’s go to the dungeon bar.”
I keep spotting people from the Holy Cross party. They have a perma-smile. “This is better than the Melbourne Cup,” Jenny had said to me on the train. There was no argument.
We find the dungeon bar under the ancient stand where we watch Ticket to Toorak (fluoro yellow) on the Toyoda TV (which has probably broadcast the ’79 Grand Final). He is caught wide and just can’t ping in the straight.
Akzar (black and white houndstooth) is all the rage in the Cup. I don’t hear one other horse spruiked. Brad Rawiller drops out and snags him across. He sits on the flank of the second last horse. He is eased into the race from the 800 and, just as the owner had told me, is on terms with them at the top of the straight. B. Rawiller lets him go and he explodes away. There’s plenty of time for cheering. He blows them away.
It’s a popular win. Very popular.
I find the owner from the bus in the presentation area. Turns out he’s Ken Jones and he has the look of a man who’d rediscovered the thrill of human existence. We chat excitedly. He’s a connection, and I’ve jagged the trifecta. He races Akzar with some mates from the Morning Star Hotel in Williamstown. Darren Freyer put it together. Ken’s a huge rap for D.K. Weir.
Brad Rawiller makes a heartfelt speech. D.K. Weir comes shyly to the microphone. He has the same thrill of his owners – and a new Merc.
We try to add to the day with a dabble on the last. The crowd is packing up as the wrong O’Leary horse salutes.
It’s clearly been another wonderful carnival.
I have a lift back to ordinary Melbourne with C. Down. We vow to come back – and kick on.
So does everyone else.