From the sunburnt generation, to a tribe of pale whales. Should we be making a return to the sunshine?

November 29, 2011

When we were kids, you could find us most days at the beach.

No sunscreen. No hat. Just a towel, boardies and thongs.

If we weren’t in the surf, we’d be baking in the sun. After school. Weekends. And on summer holidays, morning till sunset.

The girls were worse. Apart from a quick dip, they didn’t move from the sand. Most used coconut oil to make their tan even deeper.

I think back now, to all the times I came home burnt to a crisp. I can remember actually peeling sheets of skin from my nose, so bad was my sunburn.

Mum and Dad didn’t know better. The Old Man spent every day of his working life frying on a building site. No sunscreen. No hat. For the most part, he was just a shade off being black.

It took too many years for me to realise I could have fun in places away from those harmful rays. Establishments that had a roof, and served cool drinks. But the damage was done.

The tan faded. Replaced by moles and spots. Innocent looking at first. And deceiving.

I began having them cut out when we were in Cairns. Fifteen years after those sun-drenched days. The first three or four were fine. But not the next one.

The doctor rang me at work, and asked me to come and see him. Rarely a good sign.

The lab had called, about a small, dark spot taken from between my shoulder blades. It was a skin cancer.

They were testing to see how advanced it was. And whether it may have spread.

A few days later, he called again. Good news. He’d cut deep, and taken the lot. What a relief. I was one of the lucky ones.

He explained that I would need checks every six months, to make sure any other bad spots were whipped off in time. That was the key, he explained. Don’t give the nasty little buggers time to grow.

I’ve done exactly that, ever since. Middle of winter and Christmas holidays. Checked from head to toe. And if any start to itch, I’m on doc’s doorstep the next day.

It also meant that I retreated indoors. No more sun. Which produced the original white whale. With floppy hat, and sunglasses, and long sleeve surf shirts.

My own girls always wear sunscreen. They see my scars, and are frightened. That’s a good thing.

It should be said, however, that they are now old enough to flatly refuse to wear sunshirts at the beach. “Dad, like, what are you thinking?”

You could say I have been the pale poster boy for Slip, Slop, Slap. Until now.

I have read with interest, the problems that a lack of sunlight is causing us. Major Vitamin D deficiencies. With links to a whole range of worrying ailments. Because we’ve gone to the other extreme. From peeling skin, to refusing to go outdoors.

It’s taken a while, but I’ve settled on a compromise. I’m in the sun again. Reading a book, or, as it happens, typing this blog.

Yes, I’m smothered in 30 plus sunscreen, with my trusty hat and sunnies. Never in the hottest part of the day. And I don’t spend too long out there.

I’m sure the experts will tell me I’m mad. After all those pesky medical procedures (there have now been at least a dozen), why take the risk?

Well, I feel healthier for it. Really, I do. Without the sunburn.

I will have more moles frozen, and prodded, and removed. No doubt about it. Paying for my past sins. Yet again.

You may be shaking your head. If you have medical knowledge, you might even be throwing small drug company giveaways against the screen. I’ll live with that.

A bloke is exercising, and eating healthier, and (ahem) only having the odd tipple. Never smoked. So, I’ll take my chances.

I’ll let you know how my return to the great outdoors unfolds. And I’d be interested to hear your own experiences.

Regardless of my stance, one thing is for certain. If you, like me, baked on the beach when you shouldn’t have, go and get checked over. It’s simple. And it beats that dreaded phone call.

It’s official. The three greatest days recorded on a racetrack. Were you there with me?

November 26, 2011

I’ve never had a bad day at the track.

Sure, there have been frustrating days. Costly too. Afternoons where common sense ran a distant last. And sessions that led to a long walk home.

But it’s always fun. Sometimes in a perverse sort of way. Non-punting friends are shaking their heads again.

To help those poor unfortunates who prefer golf or scrabble on their Saturdays, I thought I’d compile a list of some memorable days at the races.

Every chance you won’t remember them. No Phar Laps or Black Caviars here. Just some personal favourites. Special racecourse visits, that still make me smile.

So here we go. Counting down my all-time top three Ripper Days at the track. Not including the ones I can’t remember.

*Ripper Memory Number 3 – Magic Millions Day 2003 .. Regimental Gal.

I have always had a love of Gold Coast racing. And nothing says surf and turf better than Magic Millions.

Singo used to call it Melbourne Cup day in shorts and thongs. A unique party atmosphere. In the middle of summer.

Back then, Shaun Dwyer was training out of Toowoomba. A fine horseman, who’d been having great success. But without the profile of Bart, Gai, and the Freedman boys.

I convinced the boss that it would be fun to follow a Queenslander trying to win the big race. Just maybe, we’d link up with a bunch of locals who could  knock off the big guns.

Shaun was great. Incredibly generous with his time. He introduced me to the owners, and to a flying filly called Regimental Gal. More importantly, he confided in me that she was a huge chance.

On race day, the course was packed, as usual. We had a big crew, and no-one missed out on a cool drink.

Nothing unusual there. Except this year, I considered myself part of the team. Whether the team liked it or not.

She won, running away. One of Michael Rodd’s first big victories. When she saluted, I jumped in the air like she was mine. Possibly something to do with the 15 to 1.

After the race, I went down to congratulate Shaun and the rest of them. Hugged them, and possibly kissed someone. To their eternal credit, they didn’t have security drag me away. They even made me stay for an ale. I may or may not have sneaked into a photo.

The locals won the day. I was proud of them.

*Ripper Memory Number 2 – Melbourne Cup Day .. 2001

Going to the Cup for the first time is incredibly special. I’d been to Flemington, but not for Carnival week.

It’s like a cricket fan walking into Lords. Almost religious.

Derby Day was awesome. As I imagined it would be. Cup day? Simply spectacular.

We arrived early. Because everyone does. The big race was sponsored by Tooheys that year. What luck. It was decided that we should do the right thing, and support them straight away.

Hitting the bar, as the rest of the country was having breakfast, we encountered a snag. The sponsor’s product hadn’t been chilled. It was just sitting there, in cartons. What were they thinking? Hot beer was not the way we would be celebrating the great race.

So, our first drink of the day was that glorious product originating from the cane fields of Bundaberg. The Queenslanders were in town.

Somehow, I still remember the following hours. The colour and excitement of the day was more intoxicating than anything they served in glass.

Ethereal won the big one. She claimed a Caulfield/Melbourne Cup double. We cheered, and hugged, and laughed. And then caught a train home with 100,000 other people.

It should be compulsory for Australians to go to at least one Melbourne Cup in their lifetime. And if you’re a punter, you have to go to two. We’ll be back.

*Ripper Memory Number 1 – Beartracker wins at Eagle Farm – November 21, 2009

It wasn’t the biggest race of the year. Not even the feature of the day. In fact, it was Race One, on a pretty ordinary card at headquarters.

If you’d been there that day, you would have found a seat with ease. And there was no line up for drinks.

That humble Saturday, remains one of the greatest days in my life. The day a gritty gelding we had a part-share in, took the prize at Eagle Farm.

It was the mighty Beartracker’s main target. A 2400 metre Quality event. And so it was that a bunch of us gathered, to watch him go around.

Jason Holder rode like a man inspired. We stood and cheered in the stand, louder than anyone has ever cheered on a racecourse.

He won.

I doubt anyone could have been more excited. My face hurt from smiling. Jason may have been injured in the post-race hug. Rob Heathcote considered applying for a restraining order in the enclosure, to keep me away.

Members of our syndicate went into the Committee room, and drank tiny beers. The same place the greats had stood, and sipped. We gulped.

They finally kicked us out, to prepare for the next race. We found a nearby table, and continued the party. I can’t remember having more fun.

I can only imagine what the celebrations must be like after a Cup, or a Cox Plate. But for us, nothing could beat the feeling we had that afternoon at Eagle Farm.

So there you have it. Three golden moments. Just thinking about those great times makes me want to go straight to the track.

I’m sure you have your own memories. It’s the beauty of the racing game. We’re easily excited. And nothing beats a winner.

Being chucked in at the deep end. The day the swimming teacher tried to drown me.

November 22, 2011

The pool shop man sighed. “Ok, let’s go over this one more time.”

He’d been trying to explain how I needed to remove my pool pump. He may as well have been asking me to memorize the Space Shuttle’s flight plan.

I realised there was a problem in the cement swimming hole, when the water turned vomit green a few days ago. It’s quite possible that Shrek is enjoying some quiet time at the bottom.

My routine to test if there’s a problem with the filter is a time-honoured one. I turn the control switch to ON. If nothing happens, I rush to the pool shop.

I explained to the pool shop man that I might not be able to complete this task he was setting me. It sounded… technical.

Easy, he said. Even for you. And we can only fix it if you bring it in to us. The pool shop man is kind and patient. And rich, from all my visits.

I went home, and did what he said. He now has my pump, which may or may not be repaired by the next state election.

Of course, pool pumps never fail in the dead of winter. They are designed to turn up their metal toes only in extreme heat.

In the meantime, the family has no-where to swim. Which is why we decided to join the masses at the public swimming pool. And that’s when my nerves surfaced.

The first time I went to our local pool, all those years ago, Dad couldn’t come. So Mum took me by bus.

She wanted me to learn to swim like the other kids. Dad couldn’t understand the fuss. He worked out the swimming caper in the surf, and thought I should do likewise. As was usually the case, Mum won the day.

I remember spotting the bloke they claimed was the Swimming Teacher. It was an interesting description. He was a successful swimmer. He wasn’t a teacher.

It was a weekday, which meant the pool was all but empty. He told me to take my shirt and thongs off.

Mum hadn’t even taken her seat in the stand, when he picked me up, and tossed me into the deep end of that pool. I was about 6 years old.

His method, a long-standing one apparently, was to MAKE me get to the pool’s edge. The true definition of sink or swim. Sadly, I embraced the sinking part of the equation.

After thrashing around for a bit, I sank like a stone. Mum told me later that the more she screamed, the more he laughed. Maybe he didn’t realise that she couldn’t swim either.

Someone else jumped in to save me. Safely out of the water, I coughed, and spluttered, and cried.

My mother was not a woman to be messed with. Especially when it came to her children. The so-called teacher had just landed himself in a world of hurt.

Years later, I asked what happened. All she would tell me was that they stopped letting him teach small kids after that. I’d always suspected that his bigger problem was the visit Dad paid him the next day.

My greatest recollection of that terror, was the smell. Chlorine. I suspect that the pool had just been given a healthy dose. It’s stayed with me ever since.

Whenever I returned to that pool, or any other public swimming facility, the mere sniff of the stuff saw a wave of panic wash over me. Even when I could swim. Which, I might add, was the result of lessons from a wonderful, caring teacher soon after.

It returns, that feeling, for just a few brief seconds, even today. When I walked into that crowded pool on the weekend, I picked up the chlorine the same way as large hungry men detect a pie stand.

We move on, of course. My greater fear now is re-connecting pool pumps. If it ever gets fixed. Now that’s really being thrown in at the deep end.

Why it hurts so much when we lose a jockey. Take a minute, and think about the dangers they face.

November 19, 2011

I didn’t get a chance to back Corey Gilby. A battling bush jockey. One of those characters who ply their trade away from the big smoke.

He was based in Mt Isa, but had ridden all over the place. From the NSW South Coast to country Victoria. Central Queensland to the Northern Territory.

The young bloke had cheated death once on the racetrack. Can you believe, he was hit by lightning while in the saddle? And survived.

That should have been enough. But fate can be awfully unfair.

Last weekend, Corey rode on the five race card at Julia Creek. About as far as you can get from Flemington. A training gallop was organised after the last. Not uncommon at country meetings.

Just two horses. Both passed the post. Then something went wrong.

Corey’s horse, a galloper that will never make it to Randwick or Eagle Farm, floundered. It seems the young bloke was crushed underneath.

He died in Townsville Hospital on Sunday night. Corey was 25.

The thing about being a jockey, is that tragedy doesn’t discriminate. Group Ones count for nothing. Accidents can happen if you drive a Mercedes to the track, or catch a bus.

Ken Russell was a huge name in the eighties. The King of the Gold Coast. Doncaster winner. He got them home everywhere.

He was one of the industry’s most popular hoops, with thousands of senior rides under his belt.

The Queenslander lost his life, on a black day at Rosehill, in 1993.

I know racing people who still get emotional about his death. All these years on.

Then there are those jockeys who survive. But have their lives changed forever.

Alan Cowie is one. Another much-loved rider, who had the ability to make horses travel sweetly for him.

I was at the Gold Coast the day ‘Pup’ fell. It was one of those terrible moments, when you feared the worst.

He’s in a wheelchair now. With an incredible spirit. He does form, and manages jockeys. Rare to see him at the track without a smile.

The problem is, the horses they ride are so bloody big. Over 500 kilos. On four skinny legs. Going like the clappers.

The margin for error is so tight. It only needs to go slightly wrong, and we hold our breath.

They face dangers like few other sportspeople. Lives are on the lines, every half hour. Often for very little reward.

It’s worth remembering, the next time you grumble about a jockey. I thought about that, after seeing a mid-week special go under this week, thanks to a ride that may or may not have involved a blindfold.

Yes, it was infuriating. Yes, the family will be eating beans for a week. But there are worse things.

Let’s hope Corey Gilby’s family knows how much we feel for them. That sometimes, a terrible price is paid, simply for doing something you love.

Our jockey friends will go around again today. And tomorrow. And next week. There’s no racing game without them. And we thank them for it.

Mum’s place used to be in the kitchen. Daughters, are you listening?

November 15, 2011

Mum did all the housework when I was a kid.

Cooking. Cleaning. Washing. Ironing. I can’t remember Dad doing any of it. And I was no help either. Just a boy.

We’re talking late sixties and early seventies. Things were different back then.

Dad looked after outside stuff. And fixed things. He worked hard in the building game. It was like Mum didn’t expect him to do anything when he arrived home.

He’d have a beer, and pour the missus a shandy. They’d talk about the day. Usually while Mum was making dinner. Steak. Or chops. If we were lucky, maybe a mixed grill.

Later, Dad and I would take our plates back to the sink. That was about it.

She would wash up, while we relaxed at the table. No offers of help from us. And she never complained. Not once.

In those early days, I’m pretty sure our washing machine was one of those old wringers. Nothing like today. It must have been bloody tough going.

Dryer? Forget it. They didn’t exist. Anyway, that’s what the clothes line was for. I’m not sure the old man even knew where the laundry was.

Before I was old enough to go to school, I remember my dear mother dusting, and mopping floors, and making beds. Every day. There would be music on as she zipped around the house. Which was always clean and tidy.

Things changed a few years after that. Dad’s business went bust. Just like that. I remember our trip home from the bank. The manager, who he’d known for years, refused to help. It was the first time I’d heard Dad swear.

They made us sell our clean house. We moved into a rental place. Much older, but closer to the beach. I’ve told you about it before. The one with the outside dunny and the orange tree out the back.

With money tight, Mum went back to work. Dad was still building, but for others. It hurt him deeply.

It meant their household routine changed. Mum didn’t have time to do all those chores on her own. So Dad had to help. He’d do more around the kitchen. I’d dry up. Sometimes.

He got crook soon after that. And died a few months later. He may have even blamed the washing up.

After that, it seemed Mum went back to doing everything. I have no idea how she did it. She was keeping us afloat financially. And still doing the dusting.

When I moved out of home, I lived with mates, who also had no idea about the finer points of housework. So for the most part, over many years, we’d simply ignore any domestic work.

Can you believe, Mum would actually come over, armed with brooms and buckets, and clean that house too? She couldn’t drive a car, so she’d arrive, unannounced, in a taxi.

On one such trip, the driver warned her not to go inside. Thinking she was a hired cleaner, he thought she should be aware of the horror stories he’d heard about our House of Sin. Even she laughed about that one.

Marriage changes a man. The Treasurer might dispute this, loudly, but I believe I picked up my game. Jobs were shared. Still are. Most of the time. Such is the agreement.

I should stress, I’m still no good at any of it. The blokes out there hear me. We try, but we miss spots. And mopping just doesn’t come naturally.

That’s the beauty of having kids. Of late, they’ve become our domestic helpers. Washing dishes. Drying up. Clearing the bench. And they hate it with a passion.

We cheerfully ignore their excuses. And because they need pocket-money, for important items like Girlfriend magazine and after-school slushies, they have no choice.

They’ll be so much better prepared than I was, if they ever happen to leave home. And even better, their husbands will know no better than to pitch in.

If things had been different, I’m sure Dad would have to. The bloke managed to go to war for his country, and build houses. He would have coped. As long as it didn’t involve anything in the laundry.

No Black Caviar. No movie stars. And empty pockets. Sandown, you need to woo me.

November 12, 2011

Saturday at Sandown after the Flemington Spring carnival is a bit like visiting your second favourite pub.

You know they do things better down the road, but you’re still happy enough to drop in for a pie and a pint.

It’s the same scenario for State of Origin players, heading back to club footy after a Suncorp Stadium triumph. You have to do it. But it’s not quite the same.

I run into similar problems after Stradbroke Day in Brisbane. Just seven days later, we’re in the massive crowd for Ipswich Cup day. Trying to work out which weekend the favourite was actually set for.

I’ve never been to Sandown. I’m sure it’s pleasant, and that they put on a fine show, like every other big race day in the southern capital.

It should be said, however, that my instinct at this time of year is to spell myself, to recover from the flogging I endured over Cup week.

For the purposes of research only, and in the interest of you, dear reader, I shall ignore that instinct, and saddle up again.

So how do we find a winner, with only the sounds of coins jangling in our pockets? Good question.

In most races, we have to decide whether they were unlucky over the carnival, or just not good enough.

Would they rather be picking buffalo turf in the paddock, reminiscing about chasing a Group One rump, instead of trying for a Group 2 or 3 consolation?

The Sandown Classic provides an annual headache, for those of us still trying to work out how we did so badly in the Melbourne Cup.

Usually, we see a stack of horses backing up from the great race, and every year I forget how the form will stack up.

Stayers who’ve been trained to the minute for the great two-mile race, dropping back in distance at the tricky Sandown track.

No such problems this year. Only five runners will face the starter. How does that happen? Hardly makes for a memorable day.

And that’s a shame. For the first time, the race will be known as the Zipping Classic. Yes, another name change. That great old horse deserved better.

Americain will win easily, at no price. Connections must be giggling. Easy pickings for them, but not much fun for the punter.

I hate to be negative, but the rest of the card is hardly inspiring either. We’ll do our best to find a winner, as always. And it’s still better than fixing the bathroom tiles.

The problem, you see, is that we’ve been spoiled. It’s hard to move on, after the greatest week of racing on the planet. But accept it we must. Remember, there’s only one Cup week.

Yes, it would be nice if we were still at Flemington. No use complaining I suppose. After all, the beer is still cold at your second favourite pub.

It’s party time in the garage. Just make sure you’re allowed to move the junk.

November 8, 2011

I’ve noticed that people are doing strange things in their garages.

Not that I’m spying. Or perving. Just observing from a respectful distance.

It seems there’s been a shift in where we do things. Maybe homes have become too small. Cars are being left outside to make better use of space.

A bunch of lads down the road seem to be having fun whenever I drive past. Sometimes singing. Usually with a guitar. They laugh lots. Such is the Islander way.

Head up a few streets, and you’ll find a double garage that’s become a makeshift dance studio. Lots of girls dressed in national uniform. A mini Bollywood in suburbia.

Smiling parents line the walls. It’s never too noisy. Just enough for the dancers to hear the beat.

There’s another gang not far away. This gathering is a boys-only affair. They drive souped-up cars, which usually sit on surrounding front lawns.

Inside, there’s lots of fun stuff. A giant pool table, and a dart board, and other Big Boys Toys.

I noticed their collection one evening, heading home after some generous hospitality from my local publican. Admittedly, I was a little confused, but I swear there was a decent card game going on.

It was duly noted, that I didn’t receive an invitation.

Sadly, there is no such frivolity going on in my garage. No happy tunes, or toe-tapping, or sporting contests. Because the Garage Full sign is up.

Yes, it’s a double garage, but there’s only room for one vehicle. Just. Officially, I’m advised that it has become an Additional Storage Area.

I’m sure there’s a conveyor belt somewhere in the house, silently shifting mountains of stuff that, like a father’s favourite song, can be out of style within minutes.

Think I’m exaggerating? How’s this for a list of useless crap, that remains on a Protected Items list..

Doll house. Hula hoop. Santa poles. Unfashionable CD stacker. Faulty cat carrier. Broken table. Rug with small but definite dog wee stain. Hose with holes. Suitcase with no handle. Oh, and about 100 plastic bags of unwanted and unnecessary paperwork.

Fancy having all that rubbish, sharing the same space as my priceless bag of surf club medals from the Seventies, and those very important coaching notes I’ve kept since our premiership days.

As you can see, there’s a definite mix of highly significant memorabilia, and utter garbage. All on the one floor.

There’s been talk of a garage sale. I’ll believe it when I see it. The women of the house just hate to let anything go.

If you’re heading out our way, with a song in your heart or a dance that won’t wait, don’t come to our garage. There’s simply no room. You’ll be looked after up the road.

Keep an eye out for cool garage parties in your own neighborhood. You might be surprised what the locals are getting up to. And if you happen to find a card game, see if you can get me an invite.

The inside word: What Kim Whats-her-face said when she heard about Black Caviar’s big day at Flemington.

November 5, 2011

The Hollywood hand maidens exchanged nervous glances. This wasn’t in the script. Trouble was brewing.

Their girl was a star. Apparently. Los Angeles royalty. The PR types from all those big companies had been begging for her to appear at this race meeting down under.

It took some convincing. What with the reality TV show. Oh, and a marriage. Sort of. How lucky would they be, these Australians at their fancy racing carnival?

Now she was here. With a mood darker than her flowing locks.

The star looked up from the notes they’d assembled for her, and drew breath. This wasn’t going to be pretty.

“Like, what do you MEAN, that like, some HORSE will be, like, more popular than ME?”

The highly paid helpers tried to soothe their meal ticket. Giant doses of spin were needed, fast.

“Kim, honey, you know that could never be the case. Your face is on billboards around the world. You have your own line of handbags. A horse could NEVER be more popular than you.”

Another chimed in. “Kim, darling, what are you thinking? It’s a smelly horse, that doesn’t even have a line of perfume. And from what I’m hearing, her arse is ENORMOUS!”

They were on a roll. “Kim, sweetie, once you’re frocked up and waltzing around the racetrack, they’ll forget all about some freakish mare.”

The star wasn’t being distracted. She knew what she’d heard. From one of those pesky Aussie journos.

“Like, that horribly dressed man said that this horse has, like, never been beaten. And that she is, like, the best in the world. And that thousands come to, like, cheer her, and, like, wave flags for her. Tell me NOW, like, is he telling the truth?”

There was a shuffling of feet in the penthouse. The truth could end a career.

The silence was crippling. They were saved, by a loud knock. Room service. All sprouts, and tofu, and yoghurt. With a young Aussie steering the tray.

“Hey, aren’t you that American sheila from the TV. The one with the crazy family that wouldn’t work in an iron lung?”

The assistants were stunned. No-one spoke like that to their princess. But the boy was on a roll.

“So you’re off to Flemington today, to see our Mighty Mare, eh?” (Yes, he was a Queenslander). “She’s the best thing since sliced bread, our Black Caviar. We adore her. Today will be 16 straight. With the eyes of the world on her. How special is that!”

Finally, the helpers jumped from their comfy lounges, and hurled the excited race fan into the corridor. But it was too late. The damage had been done.

“Like, that’s IT”, Kim said coldly. “Get me out of here, like, NOW. There’s no way I’ll be a support act to a goddamn horse, even if her arse IS bigger than mine”.

So was the tale of an American reality TV star almost making it to Flemington. On the day Australia’s wonder horse will add to her amazing record. Before a crowd that will match Cup day. Kim won’t be among them.

And that’s a good thing. No overseas stars needed today. The biggest star of all will do her thing, on the turf. And every single person on course will be screaming her name.

Trust me Kim, you made the right decision in going home. Most of those at the track wouldn’t have known your name.

And here’s a tip. Your helper got it dead right. The mighty mare’s behind IS enormous. And, like, we’ll be cheering it all the way home.