To go to Oakbank is to back a certain winner

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. Chris

    Love your piece Chris. I have never been to Oakbank. However on the Monday of the Easter weekend when The Handicapper and I were married (Sunline won the Doncaster) our horse You’re Joking won the Country Cup at Oakbank. We were watching it in the front bar of the Brekkie Creek Hotel in about a 3-iron from the sprint lane at Albion Park. Great ride from Travis Creek. They round that home turn like they’re chasing cattle.

    I reckon I’ll pack the swag and the Trilby, head to Oakbank for the Saturday and Stawell on the Monday.


  2. Sounds like a great Easter John, but it does present the problem of trying to do too much. You know those fantasies you write in primary school (ok, even dream them much later) where you have a round-the-world whirlwind sportfest? Truthfully, though, it is not always thus. A whole test match, not a session. I once went to St. Andrew’s for practice rounds and the entire tournament. Stawell from the “call of the card” to the final…you get the point? Do Oakbank one year and Stawell another. They are each worthy.

  3. Mark Freeman says

    Great yarn Chris. I’ve always coveted a trip to Oakbank at Easter and haven’t got there yet, but you’ve given us a great taste of it in this yarn.

    The one thing you fail to mention is that with the Riordan family fielding there for some generations, the clan must by now have amassed a fortune to rival Lloyd Williams. I don’t reckon a favourite has saluted at Oakbank since 1742. It’s a mug punter’s graveyard if ever there was one.

    Nonetheless, I’d better get my skates on if I’m ever going to get to Oakbank with the way things are heading for jumps racing.

    Mark Freeman

  4. Anyone in Adelaide this Easter (2010) I recommend a trip to Oakbank. I’ll be in the main ring with Terry Lillis so come up and say hi.
    Otherwise, I heartily recommend Stawell but you’ll have left it too late for local accomm.

  5. Crio

    Oakbank is an original, I used to go up every year on “the red cross bus” departing from pirie st. about 8.30 we’d all be half cut by the time we got to the “eagle on the hill” which happened to contain a pub where we would all go in and have a couple more. My “almost legend” moment happend one day it must have been in the mid 80’s or so, when as per usual after studying the form all day on good friday, I had come up with an absolute certainty in what was the second in melbourne, a nag called Heavy Harry. I had a “ton” in my pocked for the whole day which had to supply drinks (a bit of food), as well as punting money, so on the bus the whole way up I am telling everyone that I am having 50 each way on Heavy Harry when we get up there, and I hoped to god we would get there in time! When we reached the course it was 10 minutes to the race and Heavy Harry was 16’s instead of having my 50 each way I had 2 each way with the bookie, (keeping in mind that given my luck it wouldn’t win and I would be a very sad sight for the rest of the day with no money). Then given the weight of my bet the bookies blew him out to 25’s, I then goaded by my mates had 5 each way at this price. As manna from heaven Heavy Harry bolted in by 3 lengths so I was in the cash. I also think that was the meeting when my name sake “go timmy” won at 45/10 and being flush I had 10 each way.
    I love oakbank and have many stories to tell as I go up as often as possible, and funnily unlike the rest of the year on the punt, I don’t reckon I have lost on the day up there.
    If you get a chance go.

  6. by the Crio, did you go to sacred heart at somerton park???

  7. Yep

  8. yeah good on yah.

    I’m tim dixon, I reckon we were mates a few years ago!

  9. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Love Oakbank and I don’t bet magnificent social occasion loved your article Crio are you coming over this year ? ( was stunned that Harmsy hadnt been to Oakbank )

  10. On a whim, Malcolm, we are coming over to Oakbank (Saturday) this year. I am taking my son and nephew – 4th generation to the track. I’ll find a bag to swing, they’ll have a kick on the racecourse and then they’ll get to Adelaide Oval on the Sunday.
    Come up and introduce yourself.

  11. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Crio were will you be roughly ? A funny moment was when a lot of us were around a car up full blast listening to Port v Gold Coast when Westoff missed a shot for goal after the siren with in seconds there were all these car horns going off celebrating , the majority of the crowd were not power supporters at Oakbank !

  12. Malcolm and others,
    I will be swinging the Terry Lillis bag on the flat.
    Might be busy for A long chat but love to say g’day.
    Got a winner?

  13. Malcolm Ashwood says

    I chase Roo up for tips tomorrow morning will try and call thru and say hello

  14. carmel riordan says

    Beautifully written… so evocative… I look forward to your book :)

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