All (Dusty) Roads Lead to Landor

The 22 minute mark of the final quarter in the Preliminary Final between Richmond and Geelong. Dion Prestia bombed in a goal to seal it for the Tigers and meant the Cats would be denied in yet another Preliminary Final and another summer of wondering if our footy stands up in September.

 

Following the goal the text came in from my brother:

“Landor it is then.”

I made the deal to go to either the MCG if the Cats made it to the big one or to the Landor Races. With the Cats demise, I was going bush for my first trip to the Red Dust classic in some 30 years. The WA outback is a place I’m more than familiar with from many trips as a kid. There were many times waiting outside pubs with a name like Arms, Freemasons or Central in the title kicking a footy to myself or a local that was always somehow related to a WAFL player. Many times we were going along at 80kms per hour in the old man’s Land Rover in the middle of nowhere with Slim Dusty or ABC radio as a soundtrack. Perhaps this was a chance to reconnect with the vast open space of regional WA and my family that dwell within it.

 

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The entrance to the racecourse. A blink and you’ll miss it pointer.

 

The Landor Races are held every year some 300 kilometres inland from Meekatharra in the Upper Gascoyne region near Landor Station. The races were started in 1921 after a dispute between station workers from surrounding properties at a muster over who had the fastest horse. Much like the landscape, the format hasn’t really changed over the years:

-A walk up start. No gates.

-Only horses from above the 28th parallel or are “North West Bred”, been in a paddock for six months minimum, and not raced in that time.

-Only amateur riders are allowed with a preference for those from stations.

-No more than eight horses per race.

 

There were two race days with Saturday being for the Ladies Bracelet, Sunday for the traditional gymkhana and Monday for the Landor Cup. Visitors, regional pastoralists and other local wildlife make up the 1000+ crowd in the vast camping areas with fire-powered, lukewarm showers, toilets and not much else. A cast of committed volunteers from the surrounding stations keep it going year after year under the umbrella of the East Gascoyne Race Club. Some families dominate as if they were the five families of New York. Bain, Hammarquist and Wendt are some of the names. A close knit community that spreads thousands of kilometres but inviting to all.

 

The brother and I headed up on the Wednesday travelling through the Wheatbelt and out in to the badlands with a soundtrack of The Triffids, Flying Burrito Brothers and Warumpi Band setting the mood.  The conversation is stilted at first between us – there’s seven years difference age-wise and we’re of different views on most subjects But our conversation started opening up much like the country side did the other side of Dalwalinu as the the farmland began to vanish.

 

After an overnight stay in Cue, we took the left turn at Meekatharra and, beyond the outside world of technology such as mobile range, we got to our destination.

 

Meeting us at Landor were our parents on their annual jaunt from Northampton. Along with them was an Uncle simply described as ‘Poppa’ and my cousin ‘Supercoach’ for her takes on footy when her son was a Brisbane Lions player. With her is her husband, as much a relative as anyone questionable enough to marry in to our family can be. Camp setups and catchups were the first order on the Thursday. Updates on each others lives were shared, cards were played and different opinions were vexed on life, the universe and everything. We have our differences, our struggle to understand each other’s life choices and views on the world. Talk is mainly kept to footy and ‘remember the time when’ rather than Pauline Hanson and Greta Thunberg. It’s an understanding built over time of when to let things be unsaid.

 

On the Friday the camping grounds filled with horse floats, camper vans, four wheel drives and other modes of transport. The vital water and fuel trucks, which were welcomed like a supply drop to a marooned army platoon, came into the area normally abandoned for 360 days of the year.

 

As is apparently traditional, my family walked around the track for the annual morning inspection, removing any rocks or other hazards that could harm the horses that the grader would miss. An “emu-bob”, as described by Poppa who was in his element. Kangaroo, lizard and other tracks littered the circular track now being soaked and padded down to keep the dust at bay and the track not as hard as granite. We again spent an afternoon at a leisurely place, the games of rummy getting a bit more competitive and the urge to get on the drink seriously becoming stronger. We took a walk around the stables to see the horses, their donkey companion offsiders, and campsites ranging from grey nomads passing through with their humble vehicle and caravan to setups obviously there every year and looking like an outback Kensington Palace. One camp even having a chandelier.

 

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The traditional ’emu-bob’ walk around the track to remove hazards.

 

That evening the most important part of the event occurred, the bar opened. Many, including ourselves, left their respective campsites to attend and mingle with friends old and new in what is traditionally a big meet up for a lot of the station folk. Characters such as ‘The Queen of the Murchison’, full of gossip and confession. Two-up (with dice) is a usual event on this night with pineapples a plenty and virtual bollocks being thrown on the table. Some were there for a quick flutter, some beginning an arduous few days of betting they have been waiting all year to indulge in.

 

We eased in to the night, talking with strangers and trying not to look like we were from places far removed. A cover band belted out the well known hits that echoed out in to the void. What struck me was that, even for this event, there was no real stereotypes of station people seen in popular culture here. No-one like the ones Ray Martin in his brand new country shirt used to interview on his ‘top blokes’ shows or Macca has on his ABC show Australia All Over subliminally patronising his subject. Polo shirts advertised various stations, towns, regional sporting clubs and other bush races such as the Gasgoyne Juntion races held just weeks before this event. Held every year some 220 clicks ‘up the road’, the races at the junction were kind of a Caulfield Cup to the big event on the first Tuesday in November that is Landor. A chance to see which horses would stand out for Landor now that the ban on non-racing was over. Not even a major flood a few years ago, which pretty much shifted the Junction town site a few kilometres down the road, jeopardised its usual run.

 

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The two-up table. Dice used instead of coins and plenty of money going on the table.

 

That evening the most important part of the event occurred, the bar opened. Many, including ourselves, left their respective campsites to attend and mingle with friends old and new in what is traditionally a big meet up for a lot of the station folk. Characters such as ‘The Queen of the Murchison’, full of gossip and confession. Two-up (with dice) is a usual event on this night with pineapples a plenty and virtual bollocks being thrown on the table. Some were there for a quick flutter, some beginning an arduous few days of betting they have been waiting all year to indulge in.

 

We eased in to the night, talking with strangers and trying not to look like we were from places far removed. A cover band belted out the well known hits that echoed out in to the void. What struck me was that, even for this event, there was no real stereotypes of station people seen in popular culture here. No-one like the ones Ray Martin in his brand new country shirt used to interview on his ‘top blokes’ shows or Macca has on his ABC show Australia All Over subliminally patronising his subject. Polo shirts advertised various stations, towns, regional sporting clubs and other bush races such as the Gasgoyne Juntion races held just weeks before this event. Held every year some 220 clicks ‘up the road’, the races at the junction were kind of a Caulfield Cup to the big event on the first Tuesday in November that is Landor. A chance to see which horses would stand out for Landor now that the ban on non-racing was over. Not even a major flood a few years ago, which pretty much shifted the Junction town site a few kilometres down the road, jeopardised its usual run.

 

By 9pm it was time for the Calcutta in the main shed. Draws were made with many followed up when it came to the bidding for the Ladies Bracelet horses. If you were the highest bidder you ‘won’ the horse and became able to share in the winnings if it was first past the post. With a cash based system and no eftpos, rolls of notes were flashed by those bidding. Money like I hadn’t seen in such abundance since attending the Kalgoorlie Two-Up school. One of Elders’ finest auctioneers was behind the mike, never missing a beat with the auction or with a quick jibe at one of the regular bidders. A horse that was going to be sold for a $700 bid would double for want of his efforts.

 

All was in readiness.

 

DAY ONE aka ‘LADIES BRACELET DAY’

 

A hotter day than yesterday greeted us for Day One of the races on the Saturday. The rums were flowing the night before with alcohol perhaps filling in the gaps between our personalities. Despite the drink being soaked up by the campfire stew, a few heads were dusty like the surrounds we found ourselves in. Collared shirts were the preferred dress requirement for the day, much like a members area at the MCC or WACA, but wasn’t enforced.

 

The bar was already buzzing and the betting area filling when we arrived. The Kalgoorlie Cup was on the same day which meant some got their betting on early, a small television hooked up to a make shift antenna the only connection to the outside racing world. The bookmakers had the run of things under the main grandstand and were popular early. With only a half dozen at most horses, each race’s odds didn’t fluctuate much beyond 5/1 to keep in with the spirit of the event. All and sundry were having a flutter, from the veterans to the day trippers betting on a name or a jockey colour. In the marshaling yard between the main event shed and the bar area/grandstand, the participants were paraded before heading to very far side of the course for Race 1, the Mt Augustus Maiden. The maiden was a race for 3-year-olds and up over a flat kilometre. The maiden has always been the opener and, up until kind of recent times, had been a true stock race: stock saddles only, all weigh-ins at 83 kilos exactly, and 3 years and over.

 

I was trying to peer over to the very far side of the track – it was hard to ascertain a start for the five horse field. Getting the horses right for a standing start fair on the field was harder than it looked but eventually they were off to a cheer from the crowd baking underneath a sea of broad brim hats. As the horses flashed around the bend in a sea of red dust, trainer Beth Hammarquist’s horse ‘Despot’ ran in as the winner at top weight in just a fraction over a minute. A first win of the meeting for the veteran jockey James Dear too, a rider well into his 50s and rusted on to such races.

 

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Legs dangling in the ‘grandstand’ area of the track, the betting area to the right.

 

Race 2 was the Woodlands Handicap, an open trophy race over a 1000 metres with a 70kg minimum. In a tighter race that its predecessor, ‘Jester Dini’ won by a neck from ‘Maybe One More Time’ and ‘Nothing In-between’ with a time of 1:01:63. Race 3 was more of a sprint with the Ben Wilson Handicap over a mere 800 metres and featured a field of seven for the first time in 2019. Much like Race 2, the trainer-jockey team of Jeana Venz and Natalie Burke won again with ‘Centipede’ romping home by eight lengths from a fellow Ladies Bracelet fancy ‘Moon Man’ and ‘Obalata’.

 

The precursor to the Bracelet was be the 1200 metre Steadman’s Handicap. With the horses in the Bracelet now preparing, no more warmups were possible and so only four horses made the start line for this event. With two horses in the Handicap, Venz was again favoured to be the winning trainer and her charges didn’t disappoint, taking out the quinella with ‘Beef Wood’ beating ‘Amusium Balloti’ and ‘Rodinia’ by two lengths. With the Bracelet imminent, the lines were longer for the bookmakers than for the bar for the first time in the afternoon. The atmosphere was jovial, one of just being glad to be there to be with friends and strangers alike. We had all found a good place near the finish line without being in the baking sun.

 

By this stage of the afternoon, it seemed that everyone but me had had a win in our small collective. ‘Moon Man’ had disappointed in the third, the tip I had received had amounted to nothing. Going on hunches rather than a form guide, like a one a year Cup day mug punter, seemed to be the way to tackle this event. ‘Supercoach’ was claiming she had a system after one place, the old man was well in to his element, always striking up a conversation in the smoking area (which was pretty much everywhere). Everyone was looking forward to the biggest and the only race of the day to feature eight horses and all the big gun trainers and jockeys.

 

‘Rock River’ was the horse I was pinning my betting comeback on. Trained by Geraldton’s Craig Wendt, he was at the common odds of 3/1 and was being ridden by Natalie Burke, a two-time race winner already today. This was a race was without a multiple winner since the mid-90s until a rough-around-the-edges gelding called ‘Biara Flyer’ came along and won three in a row from 2016 and was now going for a fourth on the trot. Trained by Julie Walsh and ridden by Jessamy Palmer, the 9-year-old went into the race some six kilos heavier than the rest of the field and still smashed it by six lengths to make it four in a row from ‘My Boyfriend’ and ‘Moonlight Rain’.

 

Both trainer and jockey were overcome in the post-race interview. Walsh was could only say “four” repeatedly following it up with:

“What a horse. What a legend. What an amazing heart. What an amazing horse.”

 

A popular winner and a now certified legend in the history of Landor. Ten wins over five meetings with the same trainer/jockey partnership that you could now compare with the hallowed sporting partnerships like Montana and Rice, Greenidge and Haynes, Gaze and Copeland.

 

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Four-time Ladies Bracelet winner ‘Biara Flyer’ following her latest triumph and before the donning of the sash.

 

With two races to go on Day One, attention for the serious mug punters turned to Kalgoorlie and the running of the Cup on the telly. Kids, perhaps being a little sidelined by parents consuming alcohol and dishing out betting advice, organised a cricket game in the vast open spaces either side of the racing area. Walsh and Palmer with ‘Maybe One More’ won again in Race 7, the Beringarra Handicap over 1400 metres with a field of five horses. Without even a place, my betting was a shambles the whole day. ‘Moon Man’ was set for the final race and odds shortened as everyone loaded up on a possible Landor Cup winner. I gave the gelding another chance. The race to wrap up Day 1 was the Yarlar Weelor Handicap over 1400 metres with several horses in a competitive field. ‘Moon Man’ failed to impress running fifth. Jana Venz got another win with ‘Black Coba’ by two lengths.

 

With the racing over, the bar closed until for a couple of hours so the crowds could slink back to their camps for various duties, including preparing for the Annual Ball. Held in the same shed as the Calcutta, it was a ‘Children of the Forest’ theme in 2019. As we sat around our camp, many went past in various states of dress, some like a tree elf, some like Groot, some dressed like they were off to an event at an esteemed Monte Carlo casino rather than a glorified old tin shed. The day had worn us out so we were there only briefly to take it in. Jamaican born ‘DJ Rev’ played the tunes with the odd boot scooting all-in getting everyone literally in a line. The Ball went well into the night as various sounds emitted from stereos around the campsight after we had departed.

 

And still two days to go!

 

DAY TWO aka ‘THE GYMKHANA’

 

Day Two has always been the traditional gymkhana: a competition to show off the riding skills of various ages from the stations. There was many a slow riser in the camp this morning after the day and night before. Many took this as a chance to buy merchandise, stock up on whatever they may need and to have a quiet day out of the sun. There was an area for such things to be done. The EGRC country shirts were popular, as was the charity ‘Dust off Depression’ (raising awareness for mental wellbeing on these vast stations) selling trinkets and clothing.

 

The gymkhana events always start with kids as young as 6 or 7 on horseback displaying skills ranging from the ability to make a horse canter and run, to putting lances through hoops at full pace, and the barrel races. Jim Watters has called the gymkhana for some 15 or 16 years after attending for decades on top of that. Watters made the point that it was good to encourage everyone in the events, especially the kids. His call was measured and sometimes witty, sometimes sarcastic depending on the subject and if they could take it. The skill sets of the riders went up as the ages progressed leaving the elite station riders at the end to showcase skill-wise things could be done on horseback that would put Genghis Khan and his hordes to shame.

 

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One of the more younger competitors in the gymkhana getting ready to go out on the track.

 

Traditional tug-of-war contests for the kids and adults as well as other events completed the lay day before the night’s Calcutta for the next day’s Landor Cup. The ferocity of betting and excitement in the air had dissipated since the previous Calcuttaon Friday. Perhaps the drinking and previous night’s Ball had coloured everyone a little, but the auctioneer did his best to garner interest and big amounts changed hands again to ‘own’ the horses for the big one the next day. Our own camp was also bearing the scars of a few days of somewhat extreme socialising but battled through the weariness with a game of ‘Molkky’ in the red dust. The game is Swedish where you throw a round peg at other round pegs. Perhaps it was designed for a back garden in Stockholm rather than a sandy pitch that was deteriorating like Day 5 at the SCG.

 

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Setting up for another round of ‘Molkky’ at dusk in the Gascoyne. Serious business. Sledging allowed.

 

DAY THREE aka ‘THE LANDOR CUP’

 

The big day was upon us and attendees wore their finery to the venue as the stadium area began to fill. There was no rush to get the venue for us. Mum and ‘Supercoach’ went for another wander around the stables to wish those competing luck. My mother once said she had white-lighted Geelong in a Grand Final and there was no way they could lose, but lose they did so her blessings always came with a risk. I worried for those riders and horses. Camping means there’s always an early rise, some further games of Rummy, and down time for some reading. The fashion finery ranged from an expensive dress to just a blue singlet for the punters. The point of view differed on what your best clothes were and it was not to be judged.

 

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The Landor Cup Calcutta. A chance to be a major owner of a horse…just for one race.

 

Race 1 was the Belele Plate over 1400 metres, a long distance event to kick off the proceedings. In the first photo finish of the event in 2019, ‘Moondlight Rain’ held off ‘Hand Cannon’, yet another Venz horse in the six horse field.

 

Race 2 was the R.F. Power Maiden, a four horse sprint won again by the Hammarquist/Dear combination with ‘Let Me Live’. By now the heat was starting to mimic what it would for the next 5 months or so in this region and beyond. We had been lucky with a lack of easterly winds, melting sun and the odd willy willy but it was turning. Fascinators stayed attached and such trials were tolerated weather-wise when it was time for Race 3, the H.M. Rutter Trophy over a flat kilometre. In a talented group of eight horses, Venz had another winner with the much lauded mare ‘Centitpede’ running out the winner for a second time this meeting by 10 lengths. In between Races 3 and 4, it was time for Fashions on the Field minus crass commercialism, WAGs and any Instagram influenced pouting. The winner in a class field received an authentic pearl from the Abrolhos Islands which was no small prize. How the participants in this event managed to keep their outfits free of red dust and immaculate until this stage of Day 3 of the carnival was as awe inspiring as any feat from Biara Flyer.

 

Race 4 was back out to 1400m with the Mt Clere Handicap where I finally scored a place after the shithousery of my betting efforts in every race beforehand. I have many vices in my life but gambling is not one of them – a blessing. Although ‘Super Saxon’ stopped me hemorrhaging money momentarily, the Meg Forrester trained and ridden ‘Yukon Gold’ won by a few lengths. This was Forrester’s first win as a trainer and backed up her gymkhana efforts the day before.

 

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The bookies area at Landor in a rare moment of tranquility.

 

With four races gone for the day, it was time for a quick break and the running of the $10,000 senior gymkhana barrel event before the big one, The Elders Landor Cup. The cup is an event with far more history, pedigree and reverence than a made-up Sydney horse race force fed to us by shock jocks on 2GB could ever muster. Only six horses took to the track for the Cup with two scratchings from the original nominees. In barrier one was ‘Moon Man’ under the successful Walsh/Palmer combination, taking part in its third race of the weekend. Barrier two was ‘Tavesta’, a place-getter on Day One trained by Landor royalty Miles Bain and ridden by Samantha Jones. Barrier 3 would see ‘Black Coba’ try to defend its crown from 2018 – another horse, unsurprisingly, trained by Venz and ridden by Burke. Barrier 4 was ‘Ten Outa Ten’, a horse that had finished second last in the second last race of the first day, trained by Craig Wendt and ridden by another Bain, Jessica. Venz had another horse in Barrier 5 with ‘Thou Shall’ being ridden by Will Eldsen. Finally, in Barrier 6, was ‘Equity Rules’ which had run in the Ladies Bracelet and was trained by Beth Hammarquist and ridden by Dennis Thompson.

 

1800 metres in length, the race carried a prize of over $5000 for the winner. From the start, ‘Thou Shall’ was in front passing of the post before a further full lap of the track. ‘Thou Shall’ kept her lead to four lengths past the 1400 marker and on to the back straight. With around 1000m to go, ‘Moon Man’ made his move and hit the front, making me think I could peg back some of the losses after stupidly betting on him again. As they rounded towards the finish, ‘Black Coba’ and ‘Tavesta’ joined ‘Moon Man’ up front, ‘Thou Shall’ floundering. By the final few hundred metres, ‘Black Coba’ timed her run and hit the lead with ‘Moon Man’ seeming to get bogged in the red dirt on the inside lane. ‘Black Coba’ went back to back by three lengths to take the Cup for a third time in four years. The 8-year-old gelding kept her run of places to eight out of eight at Landor, never finishing out of the money. While not quite the romance of ‘Biara Flyer’, another horse became a legend in 2019. ‘Moon Man’ finished second with ‘Tavesta’ third. ‘Equity Rules’ ran into issues and failed to finish.

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“And they’re away!” The start of the 2019 Elders Landor Cup.

 

With three races to go, some dissipated to prepare for the trip home, many more stayed. We had more than enough drink tickets to get through before closing. The 1000 metre sprint for Race 6 was the Dalgety Downs Plate and the Hammarquist/Dear combination did it again through ‘Nothing in Between’ by one and a half lengths. Trainer/Jockey Jacqueline Scott backed up a Race 1 win on ‘Moonlight Rain’ to make it two in the 1200 metres Race 7 Farrar Handicap with the same horse. For the final race there would be a full eight horse field featuring runners from the previous events who still had some go in them. Walsh and Palmer combined for one more win with Walsh steering ‘Rodinia’ home by half a length in the A.E. Potts Handicap.

 

The racing was done for another year. Done and more than dusted. Some will move on to the Kulin Races in the Wheatbelt, most will be back to the stations to run the massive sprawling businesses.

 

We had a quiet night to pack what we could, finish what we could drink/eat and one more lot of cards. A fine few days of being off the grid and immersing ourselves in a community far removed even from the ones my parents are involved in in Northampton.

 

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Rummy. The one card game and subject we could all agree on over the weekend.

 

What I got personally from all of this wasn’t so much the form guide or losing money to the bookies. It was just about how this race club has been doing this year in, year out over vast spaces and keeping its traditions intact. On top of this, it still attracted curious visitors such as myself, its history and complete and utter removal from anything seen at Flemington or Royal Ascot meaning Landor and its message demands your respect. Not a cheap Tarrocash suit or collection of rose bushes in sight. Country racing has suffered in Western Australia and other States for a long time. A hardy group of volunteers meeting once some six months out from the races keeps it all going but, with stations now also moving away from using horses for work, there is always a risk of the end being nigh. The prestige and tradition of the event should see it survive. Competitors and organisers are still immersed in the world of being a stockman/stockwoman on horseback, skills passed on through the generations.

 

The races are a tribute to the traditions of the stock workers from well over 100 years and, in two years’ time, the races will celebrate its 100 year anniversary, an event that will probably sell out, moving to online ticket sales for the first time ever. A sure sign that this event won’t going anywhere for a while.

 

Hopefully I’ll be there for the 2021 event, ‘Biara Flyer’ will probably still be laying waste to the opposition, and Geelong will probably still be losing Preliminary Finals at the G.

 

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The class of 2019.

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

 

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

Comments

  1. Dennis, certainly an epic and a great look at life from another perspective. Thanks for the effort!

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