By Chris Riordan

In South Australia, people know how often they’ve “been to Oakbank”. For well over 130 years, generations have journeyed in to the Hills and been intoxicated by the magic that is nowadays promoted (debatably) as the biggest picnic race carnival in the world.

The road there, formerly a winding trip across the Mt Lofty Ranges, is now a freeway that hacks a quick path to “the turn-off”, beyond which nestles a timeless valley. Oakbank racecourse is on a beautiful piece of undulating land that is seemingly preserved from the concerns of the outside world and, like the Myer windows at Christmas, reopened to its loyal flock annually.

It had been decades since I’d been to Oakbank — in Dad’s last year as a bookie, when I’d returned to swing the bag. Years before, as a teenager, we’d camped out behind the creek, gambling, drinking, freezing, then defrosting as the cars began pouring in to the course. Seeing the magic unfold. And always meeting people who’d been there so many times.

For campers, Sunday was the “badge”. I used to go and visit old Reg, who also worked on “the bag”, and had taken his van on to the course for fifty years. We had a tent for crown and anchor and a sculling/running (Great West End) stagger up the straight. We met fearless and liquored
jumps identities like Harry Green, who was barely able to get out of a chair but pledged to wave his whip with a lap to go to indicate his horse’s chance, and “Pat Haitana’s brother”, as Hayden Haitana was announced before he entered racing folklore through the Fine Cotton affair.

Easter is a time for rituals, family and, in Australia, sporting contests and Oakbank ticks all of the boxes. There are proud boasts of tradition,  with even the booming, persistent course announcer (“Time to clear the track again, please”; “Could we stop kicking footies on the course as the horses are coming out?”) referring to various people as, “Been coming here for fifty years”, or, ”Has a strong family connection with Oakbank”.

Dad tells me he first went to Oakbank in 1938. His father, also a bookmaker, fielded back when more than 150 “satchel swingers” serviced (fleeced?) the throng. As a young man I remember the pushing hordes jostling for their dollar each-way.

This year I was back “swinging the bag” with one of the several Melbourne bookies who made up the dozen “on the flat”. Bookmaking on the flat has always been regarded as a safe earner. The figures (150 per cent) are fantastic, but the money is very small.

Working on the bag at Oakbank is great. Punters are almost universally good-natured and it is a wonderful change to interact with a crowd. On Melbourne tracks these days most bets are from phones or “nods”. Here I faced a wave of good-intentioned challenges.

For starters, every punter seemed to want $1 each-way –  and they wanted to pay with a $50 note. Remarkably, those punters formed a queue. Our computerised board works on numbers, so each punter mentioned their pick by name, which I then converted to a number and handed out a ticket.

Once familiar with this need, patrons somehow managed to never use numbers sequentially and they’d say, “Each-way”, after we’d processed the receipt. Many, too, would then add, `Trifecta”, or, “In the following race”!

Then there’s the club, which somehow has managed for a century to ignore the need to post race results in a prominent position. Thus, all day we are beset with, “How did this go?” In one memorable exchange, I glanced at the track, about twenty yards behind us, and pointed out to the inquirer, “There it is … second at the moment but one lap still to go”.

Serious gamblers go elsewhere and I don’t blame them. In the early 1980s we went to the Clare races instead, and I can understand a punter filling up his corporate account and betting by phone.

But, for me, in spite of the dust and drawbacks, the betting ring offered enough enjoyment and nostalgia to make the trip worthwhile.

Ray Williams, now a once-a-year bookie, tilted his trusty trilby over his weathered face, loaded his left hand with tickets, and twiddled the knobs on his old betting board. Seated below, the clerk scratched each bet on to an A3 betting sheet. I longed to step back through time and use this virtually defunct skill for just one race.

Later, Ray came up to have a bet with us and recognised me from those long-gone days. “Last time I saw you, you had long hair,” he murmured, taking his ticket with a, “Thanks, young fella”, an acknowledgement I only ever get in Adelaide.

Johnny Pope, perennial doubles bookie, greeted me as “Young Barry”, a testament to my wonderful father and, for me, a perfect reminder of what Oakbank is all about.

It’s part of my heritage. I know I’ll go back to Oakbank.


  1. tim dixon says

    Beautiful Chris, sums it up, you forgot to mention the obligatory stop for a “heart starter” at the old “eagle on the hill”, I went many times as a kid, it seemed to take ages to get to the track from the “turn off”, I went back two years ago after a few years away from Adelaide and it had not changed a bit. I have only been to Clare once I think it was the weekend “super” won his first (did he win two??) Doncaster anyway I got “12’s” in the ring and was very happy for the rest of the arvo. thanks for the article.

  2. Thanks Tim.
    Can you believe I’ve never been to The Eagle?
    I notice that Clare now race on the Sunday instead – and Penola have the plum Tuesday this year.
    If you are going to Oakbank, I’ll be swinging the Terry Lillis bag in the main ring…not as much fun as the Flat but still usually pretty busy. Pick an off-peak moment to come up and say g’day.

  3. It never ceased to amaze me when punters would queue up to bet at Oakbank but I have since noticed they do the same thing at Flemington over the carnival. obviously a flag indicating they have no idea of racing etiquette (i.e. push through and thrust money at baggie!).

    The Hahndorf Inn was more our local than the Eagle ever was, given it was staggering distance from the course- the scene of my magnificent sprinting triumph over jockey John Murray up the main street.

    Was Harry Green actually able to complete the course that year??

    To this week, can I just declare myself in top form. Having said that, the one that jumps out for me is Shoot Out in the All Aged at Randwick on Saturday. I know he didn’t get near to the Cav 1st up but he was quite dominant fresh in the Spring and I can see him being over the odds and a very sound each way bet as Hay List would be some risk on a wet track at 1400m.

  4. Crio and Budge,

    For some reason, you mention Oakbank and I think Skipton Town. Not Kingston, Skipton. Budge, why is that?

    Inaugural entry of well named humans. Sydney trainer Joseph Pride has a son called Brave. BRAVE PRIDE. Good name for a racehorse. WTF!

    Zutara wins the first at Randwick. Fresh form OK and is is off a 4 length 7th of 18 in the Wakeful behind Brazillian Pulse.

    The Quuen Elizabeth is a great betting race. Track will play a major part. A collection of clowns I have tried in the past, but which one? Ginga Dude, Buccellati, Galizani. Take 6 weeks off withn pay on finding the right trifecta I think.

    I have backed Count Encosta to win the Cup, but lose confidence with every breath. I am now leaning towards Laristan so will back it as well.

    I will be backing up on Praecido and Muirfield in the Frank Packer.

    Good tale Crio, and good luck.

  5. Ah, Skipton Town. That was at Clare, not Oakbank, when CB was in charge of security (circa 1982 or 83?). I had heard it win a race in the bush beating a horse that then came out and won at Flemington so I declared it. CS had a first starter that knocked it off by name of TRULY VAIN. I continued to follow Skipton Town and was eventually rewarded with a good win at 16s. I have continued to keep an eye on the G A Daffy stable at Camperdown ever since.

  6. Good thing Royce Hart never called his son Brave!

  7. Budge,

    Royce Hart, you’re right, can you picture his son Brave running out with white boots and a blue face.

    I have just given Shoot Out scrutiny considering your current form and “shit yeh”

    Slow: 7:3-1-2
    Track: 4 for 3
    Distance: 6: 2-2-1
    2nd up: 3: 2-1

    Backed him just now at $9. Not going to miss out this time Myrtle.

  8. Elvis,
    You can get $12 on IAS and Betfair and there’s still over 24 hours to go but I like your enthusiasm. Below were his 1st 3 runs last time in work.

    3-11 CAUL
    28-Aug-10 1400M Slow7 (MEMSIE G2) 3YO & Up WFA $201,000 ($18,000) Stathi Katsidis (5) 58.5 Rtg:115 1st SO YOU THINK (NZ) 58.5: 2nd WHOBEGOTYOU 59.0: 1-26.68, Margin 1.5L 4th at 800m, 4th at 400m, Betting $2.6/$3F. 1000m bumped on several occasions. Raced wide without cover.

    1-14 CAUL
    14-Aug-10 1400M Slow7 (LISTON STK G2) 3YO & Up WFA $201,000 ($121,000) Stathi Katsidis (9) 58.5 Rtg:112 2nd PREDATORY PRICER 59.0: 3rd HEART OF DREAMS 59.0: 1-27.28, Margin 0.2L 6th at 1200m, 5th at 800m, 5th at 400m, Betting $2.5/$3F. 600m bumping, severely hampered. 100m bumped

    1-10 CAUL
    31-Jul-10 1200M Dead5 (BLETCHINGLY G3) No age restriction WFA $125,750 ($75,750) Stathi Katsidis (1) 58.0 Rtg:112 2nd STANZOUT 58.5: 3rd VELOCITEA (NZ) 56.5: 1-11.73, Margin 0.5L 2nd at 800m, 2nd at 400m, Betting $4.8/$6.50

  9. Elvis,
    Theres one in tomorrow a half to Hooked on a Feeling called High on Believing. Both out of Ugachaka.
    I also see JB had a first starter during the week called IN EXCESS. Went OK. Thought you would have had that name reserved.

  10. Budge,

    I might have gone that way with In Excess, but it was time for Greg or Ralphy to name one and it had to have a “Z” in the name. In Exzess just looks stupid.

    I’m happy with the $9 Shoot Out. I know I’m on.

  11. Anyone else get to Oakbank?
    I’m in the main betting ring and it was a bit lacklustre. Still big crowds on the Flat and they manage them really well. Might look to Randwick, Stawell or Bells next year.

  12. Peter Flynn says


    I’ve been to Randwick at Easter time.

    I wouldn’t put it in the bucket list.

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