Almanac Racing: Mysteries of the Track


It’s Friday night, Derby Day eve.

I’m no punter, yet I love a racecourse. It is a mystery to me, I know.

I like the look of the racecourse, the open space, the greenery of the turf and the white railings circling the tracks.

I like the city track for its urbanity. The distant CBD, its buildings, its cranes, its smog and its blue-grey haze.

I like the commission flats rising up like pop up sprinklers above a flat botanic lawn; they are all beige and boxy; and a bit eastern European in appearance. They guard the perimeter of the Flemington track at odd intervals in the neighbouring suburbs of Kensington and North Melbourne.

I like the Queens Avenue Californian bungalows of Caulfield East, with their second storey bay windows and terracotta roofs peering down onto the far side of The Heath. The avenue meets with the Monash University block and the Metro towers running wires and persons along the Cranbourne, Frankston and Pakenham lines.

I like the members lawn at Caulfield on Cup Day. It is sheltered from the gusty Spring winds and the crush of the outside crowds, albeit, wilting in the sun as the day progresses, and sprawling their fluid limbs across plantar boxes filled with marigolds and the plastic turf of the ground below as the day draws to a close.

I like the fact that a racecourse predates our Southern Cross and Spencer Street stations. Races on Batman’s Hill in a city barely named, let alone formed.

I like the country racetrack, with its low horizon and wide open skies; and the Black Angus studded across the granite soils in the background; and ochre wheat fields and paddocks of grazing ewes and gum trees and dust, and car park mud too; or not, depending on when and where you are, of course.

I like the architecture of the stands, ornate filigree and long wooden benches stepping upwards; the stewards towers and the finishing posts; especially those in the shape of the horseshoe – and the ads; Elders always, the local real estate agents, financial advisors and beer, naturally.

I like the Schweppes Ad at Kilmore.

I like the chrome green John Deere tractors lined up in the middle of a track way out west.

And the country girls with contours in all shapes, colour and dress, lining up for fashion on the fields, waiting to be judged by the owner of the nearest ladies fashion boutique. As judge for the day, she is demure in her refinery and ready for the responsibility she has at hand.

I like listening to the call of a race, on a radio…..I don’t know why.

I like a torrential downpour at St.Arnaud, where everyone one runs to the betting ring for cover.

I like being at Towong when the skies are blue and the sun is shining and news of a ferocious storm ripping through a Flemington meeting filters through; the horses disappeared from the racecallers view, so the crowd at Towong said, and the meeting had to be abandoned.

I like the shady Oak trees at Woolamai in March, and the blazing heat and dust of Dederang in January.

I like sitting on a rug on the grass with my kids, especially when they were little, sleepy and dozing off in the open air.

I like the story of Phar Lap. He was shot at, so the papers said, in a Glen Huntly street on Derby Day 1930. My neighbour was about ten. She remembers the day. Her friend saw it all.

And Feathers, the man up the road, so named for the brightly coloured feathers adorning his hat; his horse trainer grandfather found the cartridge wadding from the shooting. It says so in a book titled A Century Galloped By. He takes me to the page where his grandfather is named in print.

I like the colour and the character of people, all mixed in together, slipping between the veiled layers of place, time and memory.

I like the loneliness, and the camaraderie.

I like the mystery of it all.

Image: Shooting in Etna Street

ink and watercolour on paper

Kate Birrell 2016


  1. Lovely Kate. Love your paintings.

  2. jan courtin says

    Without knowing you’re an artist – or even seeing your painting – I would take a good guess that you’re an artist, Kate!

    Visual artists SEE things: the shapes, the colours, the architecture, the visual configurations, the clouds, the distant landscapes, and all the spaces in between – especially the spaces.

    And, I like the work on paper too!

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Beautiful Kate,
    The punters following the horse down the street to the track. Very 50s-60s feel brought to life for today. Not a fan of horse racing and the carnival, but I appreciate the glorious colours that come to play at the events and the people with their urbanity, naivety and quirkiness – Melbourne. Thought the jockey might be wearing yellow and black, however. Deliberate?

  4. Captures everything that is good about racing Kate. I doubt many in the Birdcage today felt any of the joy you have expressed

  5. Beautiful kate, capturing the essence of the lure of going to the track.

    Torrential downpour @ St Arnaud. They had their Cup last Saturday. God seeing it return to TAB status.

    You were at tong the day the heavens opened at Flemington.. We were @ the acquarum with the granddaughter that day. It was wet’n’wild in Melbourne town.

    On the way to work this arvo i heard the wonderful tones of Gerard Whateley calling the races from headquarters.

    Anyhwo my break is finishing; back to the patients. They’re all very settled.

    Now i;m none the wiser re todays Berrigan Cup. I’m curious if the Corowa runner Marchello saluted. Any one know?


  6. Thanks for your comments everyone.

    Phil, the yellow and black have faded for my mind, I wonder why, the red black and white were pharlaps colours….although Yvette did pick up also on a footy thread too.

    Thanks Jan and Rob… Yes, I’m sure the birdcage would be a spectacle..would love to be there and draw it in action. As for enjoying the races my favourite way is low key casual and yes, the country tracks are superb. I’d like to get to more of them in the future now that my kids are growing up…(although…still X 6 years of weekend sport ahead, but only for one).. Biggest hurdle is being able to get away on weekends.

    Budge..good luck

  7. Saw Feathers at the races the other day. Still wearing the hats. Bookie Rod Cleary looks out for him on track.

  8. Ta Budge. It’s a good day out, the Berrigan Cup.

    Happy PUnting .


  9. Loved this, Kate.
    You may not be a punter.
    But you sure seem to know a lot about racing…

  10. Scott McIntyre says

    Hi Kate. Watching the televised races from Dunkeld today made me remember that I had intended to comment on this piece, which I loved.

    One of my favourite things in racing is watching the “second” Victorian meeting on a Saturday on Invariably it is run at one of our glorious old tracks in the west or north-west of the state. The rackety grandstands and outbuildings, the cloth-capped old locals lining the mounting yard, the background of mature native trees, or wheat crops, or grazing pasture. A feast for the eyes.

    Fully endorse your comments about the area around Caulfield racecourse – a real Melbourne treasure. My heart aches at the idea of losing racehorse training from that precinct. It would be a tragedy, in my view.

  11. Thanks Scott for your words.

    I agree about the possible loss of training from the area. The area, up until the last couple of years still had many backyard stables in use in , so it was usual to see horses being led across the streets early mornings.

    On hot days the breeze sends the stable aromas our way., some hate it, I love it….reminds me of the bush, the country.

    Interestingly this morning, I was listening to Don Watson talking about the city being a , can’t recall his exact words, but in essence fortifying us from the bush. This made me realise that was in part why the city racecourse appeals, as it becomes a space that breaks or relieves the tension of the heavily urbanised city and for me reminds me of country and my own past

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