Almanac Horseracing – Oakbank: Best picnic racing carnival on the planet

The author on the famous log at Oakbank 1990.



by Roger Lowrey


With apologies to Tolstoy, all racecourses are alike but each racecourse is different after its own fashion. You know, a bit like that episode of Sesame Street where Bert and Ernie realise they are similar notwithstanding their individual differences such as the former’s fondness of his paper clip collection and the latter’s fondness of his rubber ducky.


Australian racecourses are no different. For example, in its home “straight” why does Mount Gambier have a dogleg about 150 metres from the finish. Please explain. Why is the Rockhampton home straight a lung busting 650 metres? What were they thinking? Why is the Burrumbeet track shaped like a poorly drawn circle with no straight of any sort to speak of? You draw the rails you start favourite. What part of simple don’t you get?


But there is an old favourite of mine quite different to all other tracks and over Easter I ventured deep into the Adelaide hills to rekindle the romance.


Yes, welcome to the Oakbank Racing Club’s Easter Carnival.


The somewhat understated official description says “it is recognised as the biggest annual picnic race meeting in the world and, although ostensibly a race meeting, Oakbank is more. It’s an event in itself with a festival atmosphere, carnival rides, picnics and lots of other activities.”


Walking thought the dusty car park your senses are ambushed by that unmistakable smell of horses and the sounds of the course announcer advising of gear adjustments for the next race. Sure, that could be any country track. At Oakbank however there is all that plus the smell of BBQs, the sounds of kids playing and families enjoying picnics during the school holidays. Some bring caravans and tents and set the family up for Easter in adjoining paddocks. The prevailing dress code is rural informal. Think here, leave the Long Room attire in the wardrobe. No, this is certainly not Flemington.


In fact, viewed from any good vantage point, the whole joint looks like a cross between a Brueghel the elder painting and a Where’s Wally page. People are scattered everywhere and all seem to be doing different things.


“Grandpa what colour is bay?”


Grandpa answers quietly.


“Well it just looks brown to me.”


Grandpa sighs patiently.


“And what’s chestnut?”


But I leave Grandpa to sort out that discussion as I move on to see why a sudden burst of crowd excitement has erupted trackside. The good-natured crowd are cheering on the kids participating in an egg and spoon race. A bloody egg and spoon race down the home straight – if you don’t mind umpire.


Inside the track enclosure itself there are half a dozen of those thrill seeker rides you see at the Melbourne Show although this year I wonder why the Ferris wheel is missing. Perhaps it was due for a service. But where do you take a Ferris wheel to be serviced? A quick check with Dr Google and I discover there is no registered Oz business called Ferris Wheels R US. So who services it then? Maybe it’s at the Mowers Galore branch at Mount Barker. If they’re anything like the blokes at the North Geelong branch I reckon they’d have a red hot crack at it.


Down further from the amusements a series of strategically placed 44 gallon drums and hay bales mark the course for the younger children from the local pony club. No, this is certainly not Randwick.


Back behind the betting ring older kids and grown ups young at heart are dancing as a band plays between races. The sudden bounce of a nearby football abruptly distracts me and confirms that other kids have found sufficient space, almost, for some kick to kick practice. The intended recipient of the kick sheepishly retrieves the footy while apologising to me for his mate’s inaccurate kick. No, this is not even Morphetville.


Just to impose some passing formality upon the day’s agenda, the SA Governor’s arrival is announced. His Excellency looks a little over dressed in a simple two piece suit however he is clearly overshadowed by his aide-de-camp in a formal white naval uniform complete with ensigns and cap. With the improbable juxtaposition against the prevailing dress code, think here Admiral Halsey meets the man from Snowy River.


The paint on the Ladies Retiring Room (sic) and the CS Hayes Room started to peel some years ago however the beer inside the latter is cold and welcoming. I chuckle quietly as I think the feisty old CS probably never touched a drop of the strong stuff but the intentions of the club are kind.


As I finish my restorative schooner I remember it’s time to head to the mounting yard to see the small five horse field parade for the feature event, the Great Eastern Steeplechase. No race for the faint hearted, it is over 4950 metres or three laps of the course including 27 fences including the famous fallen log and it takes about six minutes.


Patrick Payne’s horse Zed Em, last year’s winner, is starting a warm favourite. Steven Pateman is legged up and I try to memorise his colours – emerald green with a purple band and light blue sleeves. (Who on earth conjures up these colour combinations for goodness sake?) And far be it for me to tell Steven Pateman how to ride a horse but I am relieved at least to some extent to see he rides on the balls of his feet not on his toes like most of the flat race jockeys do. I marvel at the balance he and all his colleagues have. Well, equal parts balance skill and courage more like it. I recall the observation of a friend who once noted that this was the only occupation he knew of where an ambulance followed you around all day at work.


Zed Em wins the race for a second time and favourite punters breathe a sigh of relief. All five horses complete the race although one of them has lost his rider. Other races including the Oakbank Cup fill the remainder of the card.


In another quirk of the track, horses in most flat races don’t come into full view until the 1000 metre post. I imagine the club could solve this by removing that large stand of trees at the top of the back straight but I also imagine this would be highly unpopular. Besides, the stewards towers enable them to see all the action so why bother?


Many years ago in SA Tourism advertisements I recall Don Dunstan saying in his distinctive manner of speaking “South Australia – kind of different”. Quite possibly he had Oakbank in mind.


The program gradually draws towards a close as I head back to the car park. Mind you, the band is still playing; indefatigable young’uns are still dancing; kick to kick still seems to be causing disruption; the rowdier noise in the CS Hayes Room suggests the beer is still flowing while the whole charm of the carnival reminds me of what Les Carlyon meant when he once said “racing is about horses and people – everything else is dross.”


I even smile contentedly as I realise I have subconsciously added a new entry on my bucket list. Next Easter I am going to have a ride on the Ferris wheel when it returns.




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  1. Jamie McPhee says

    Nice article Roger. ?. I agree…one of the great race meetings in the world. ??

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