Into the Valley of Death……………………….


by Damian O’Donnell

The good people at Down Syndrome Victoria must be Geelong supporters; they organized their annual fund raising day at the Moonee Valley races on the same weekend that the Cats have a bye, meaning of course I can attend Moonee Valley without having my ear to a radio all afternoon. It completes the trifecta of requirements to ensure a day out is as agreeable as possible. The other two prerequisites are having the kids baby-sat by Grandma and Grandpa or Nanna (they will be fed and watered to bursting point), and NOT having to drive (this means that the beer/wine is consumed at a rate governed by my own assessment of physical deterioration across the day, and not by the laws of the State).

Grandma and Grandpa arrived just before 11am. Grandpa offered to chauffeur Frances and me to Moonee Valley in his once white Toyota Corolla, which lives under sap dripping gum trees full of incontinent possums at the family home. He argues that washing a car in such an environment is a waste of time; so he never does. Over time Grandpa’s car will blend into its milieu like a chameleon in the Amazonian jungle.

Kids under control, I won’t miss the Cats play, and I’m not driving; the planets have aligned.

This function is now as much a part of our calendar as groundhog day is to Pennsylvanians. The day raises funds for a program which assists children and young adults with Down Syndrome to be integrated more easily into our schools. As a parent of a teenager with Down Syndrome I have an obvious self interest, but each year we are joined by family and friends who give up their money and time to contribute. It’s always a very humbling day.

Con Marasco greeted guests with his usual charm and wit. He told his old favourite jokes about being dressed by the Australian agent of Yves Saint Laurent – the Brotherhood of Saint Laurent – and commented that many people in the room seemed to be dressed the same way. Great stuff.

This year, situated in the Valley View Room which overlooks the lawns and across the home straight about 100 metres from the post, we assembled a mighty crew. My five brothers arrived with their spouses, old primary school mates Seany, Gerry and Max were there with their wives; Camille Woodward, long time friend of Frances and I and sister of Peter who played reserves footy at Collingwood and rucked in Montmorency’s U16 Premiership triumph of 1979, was on our table (Camille was an outstanding netballer in her own right), and a highly respectable representation from the Knacker community settled in to spend the afternoon punting their arses off; Andrew and Helen Fithall, The Hon. Peter J Flynn and his partner Annie, Dave Downer and his wife Brooke, and their friends Dannica and Kev. (I assume” Kev” is short for “Kevin” unless he’s named after a Russian chicken dish).

Flynny showed all the true resilience of a Geelong man in his very attendance. Recently he was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy and not only had to tolerate the pain of his condition but countless jokes about “keeping a straight face” and “why the long face?”, and “don’t look at him sideways” etc  etc. He took it all with good grace.

I’m not really a punter though I do get a great deal of enjoyment out of the Spring Carnival. I’ve noticed that when one is punting well one’s persona changes. You become Bart Cummings albeit with a different hair cut; you see the detail.  People sidle up to you pre race and stand too close as if they’re waiting for your brilliance to rub off on them. You start talking out the side of your mouth as the horses hit the top of the straight. You say things like “I hate these bull ring tracks” and “He never comes up after a spell” as if you know what they mean. You remember things that you otherwise wouldn’t like the fact that Viscount lost a Cox Plate by a nostril flare about eight years ago. You start wearing a Fedora hat. You take up smoking. The pockets in your coat are suddenly full with things; the form guide, reading glasses, small binoculars, and chewing gum. People point at you. Your lips become thin (if they’re not already), and your forehead carries knowledge in every wrinkle; the knowledge of experience. A real punter at the top of his game rarely wears shades.

When you’re punting badly none of this happens. All the horses look like, well, horses. And that’s what happened on Saturday. Anything I had my hard earned on was merely a four legged beast with a long face (sorry Flynny), big ears and an empty look in its eyes. And they chased other horses to the finish post like stupid penguins on parade at Philip Island; trailing behind.

But my bad luck was not shared around. Frances was regularly going back to the Tote window for ‘collects’ (that cash will probably go on a new pair of shoes), D. Downer was his usual unassuming self, pocketing wins like the Artful Dodger, and my brother Matthew turned into Bart Cummings as the day got older. He’ll spend some of his winnings on red wine and probably waste the rest.

However the biggest winner was Andrew and Helen Fithall’s young boy Herb. Herb was granted $6 by his generous parents and told he could have a flutter. And flutter he did. His $6 turned into $140 by day’s end. It was reported later that Andrew confiscated the cash and placed it responsibly into Herb’s bank account, though other witnesses dispute this. They say they heard Andrew muttering to Herb,

“Over’eads, Herb, I’ve got over’eads” as the cash was whisked away.

Young Herb has learnt a harsh lesson. Punting is for mugs – at least when you’re old man is around.

But the day belongs to the kids with Down Syndrome. Ian Cook, who runs the Follow Through   Program, spoke about how it assists those in need. He put up slides of young men and women who are successfully making their way in a difficult world. They are attending main stream schools, getting an education, and getting a job. Sounds normal to most of us, but it’s a monumental effort for this group. At one point Ian showed a slide of a young man about 18 years old whose ambition at the start of the year was to get a girlfriend. Ian joyfully reported that he had succeeded.

The last race came and went too quickly. This day always finishes faster than Kiwi in the 1983 Melbourne Cup. I’m always sad when it’s over but my wallet was relieved. Many of us retired to the Legend’s Bar to consume some last cold beers (D. Downer pointed out that they were offering $3 Crownies which was enough to entice us). The Legend’s Bar contained an eclectic mix of characters. It reminded me of the pub scene in the original Star Wars movie. Fortunately, just before junk time kicked in, Frances encouraged me to leave. As I slumped into the back of the taxi she was murmuring something about new shoes.

PS – D. Downer says Amah Rock is a good thing for the Caulfield Guineas.


About Damian O'Donnell

I'm passionate about breathing. And you should always chase your passions. If I read one more thing about what defines leadership I think I'll go crazy. Go Cats.


  1. Andrew Fithall says

    Great day Dips. One clarification: it would be unlawful to allow a minor to bet or to place bets on his/her behalf. As agreed at the start of the day, Herb had a notional $6 and for the remainder I accepted a number of hypothetical bets, which he made, based on information provided by his personal form analyst (MH). If indeed those bets had been placed, he would have a net return of $140. It is purely coincidental that following Herb’s advice, I placed the same bets on the tote with real money. At the end of the day I was able to give him a small sling.

  2. AF – of course!! I regret that I implied otherwise.

    Who does he like in the Spring Carnival??

  3. AF, I lobbied hard for our first-born to be Herby Harms, but The Handicapper vetoed. Herb went out in an early round: along with Hercules and Magnificent.

  4. Andrew Fithall says

    JTH, Gotta love alliterative names. Herb’s second name is Holmes (his mother’s maiden name). Mind you, none of our second, third and fourth born (who all came in a rush) are particularly enamoured with their second (and third in the case of the girls) names.

  5. I’m not sure which is the most impressive achievement. I’m thinking the DD sniffing out $3 crownies is competitive…

  6. David Downer says

    Punters must always “seek value” on course – this extends to post-track activities. Wish I had similar foresight to snap up Amah Rock at $19 on Thursday than $8.50 on the day.

    Dips, a great day. And “junk time” descended quickly at MV Legends. It was a 21st, 60th, hens night, bucks night, baby shower and bar mitzvah all rolled into one.

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