The death of a racetrack. Why punters everywhere should take a moment today.

December 21, 2013

Racetracks should never die. They should grow old, carrying the tales of champions and scallywags alike.

This weekend, one of the world’s most famous tracks will race for the final time. After 75 years, Hollywood Park, in LA, is closing the gates. The place that had Bing Crosby and Walt Disney as original members, is being knocked down, for a housing estate. Yep, another mall, where Seabiscuit saluted.

I was lucky enough to visit the hallowed turf a few years back. One of the great days. I wrote a piece that night for my Facebook buddies. And yes, it may have been influenced by some U.S hospitality. Here it is again. Farewell Hollywood Park.

December 12 – 2010

Apart from the Greeting Squirrel and the Mad Trumpeter, there’s not much difference between Eagle Farm and Hollywood Park racetracks.

The old rule of backing the first beast you see on track is hard to apply, when the animal in question is better known for storing nuts in tree trunks. (Or is that a chipmunk? Are they the same? Anyway, there was a large rat at the races .. you get it).

It was a decent enough conversation starter with the lady in the hut selling racing bibles, although she was more interested in comparing the Aussie dollar with the coin of her homeland, the Columbian tinbit. “Iz worth notheeng”, she moaned, before providing me with a lengthy history lesson on her native land, and apparent similarities to Australia.

With race 2 pressing, I feigned interest for all of 60 seconds, before returning to the squirrel/chipmunk/rodent. He was now lying flat on the bitumen, like a slobbering floppy-eared hound on a hot day. Was he sick? No, my new friend replied, he was giving us a sign. Either you’ll be lucky today, or it will be hot tomorrow. She couldn’t remember which. I carefully stepped over the flattened furball and headed trackside.

I had secured a lovely table in the prestigious Turf Club section of the racecourse, through an e-mail in which I explained my connection to one of Brisbane’s most famous stayers, a horse named Beartracker that almost qualified for the Melbourne Cup. I did omit the bit that outlined the need for 1,200 horses above him to be scratched for the Bear to actually get a run, but it did the trick.

There were tables as far as the eye could see, all with their own race monitors. OK, something else a little different to Brisbane headquarters. That, and the bloke in the green suit playing an extremely long trumpet every 30 seconds. He was everywhere. From ushering the horses onto the track, to playing Happy Birthday at the table below me, our man was the life of the party. It’s obviously one of those rich traditions of the American turf. By the look of him he may have started that tradition, because he was surely one solid blow away from sending his top dentures into the enclosure.

Something else that didn’t change was my luck. I won’t bore you all with more tales of near-misses, except to say that I can lose a photo finish just as comprehensively here as I can at home. And in case it makes the papers, yes, there was a minor blow up over the judge’s decision, and the lack of a protest over what was clear interference in the last 100.

My own objection from high in the stand prompted the only smile all afternoon from Mel Brooks, who may well have been having a worse day than me. (Note the star-spotting mention there – the daughters can’t be the only ones racking up credits on that front).

Anyway, it wasn’t a day where millions were collected, but still a fun and memorable stint, for an old punter who loves nothing more than to be in the company of others with serious problems. I didn’t get the chance to farewell my Columbian friend on the way out, but I hope she dresses for a scorcher tomorrow.

Champagne taste on a beer budget. And no madam, we are not Old Queens.

December 10, 2013

It could not have been any more romantic.

The sun, blazing a fiery orange, sinking into the Top End sea before us. On the table, a bucket, holding an icy bottle of champers, and two chilled glasses.

A woman of advanced years walked past us, and gave us a look. It wasn’t quite a smile. Just a look.

I was sitting with Big Nose. The two of us have been mates for years. Old coaching buddies. But this was a first. Normally, we would have shared a cold brew. Or eight. Not this time.

It took some explaining that I was now enjoying a champagne. He may have had one once, at a wedding a long time ago. Probably not his own.

This is a bloke more at home in the raucous front bar of a pub. It is fair to say he’s built for comfort rather than speed. Yes, he’s been in a decent paddock.

We would have looked .. different. Not that we cared. There is a reason for the shift to bubbles.

I had my first beer at the kitchen table, many moons ago. Dad shared a sip of his precious bottle. A brew from the time known as KB. It may or may not have been made in a vat of his old work socks.

Over the years, I developed a taste for the amber fluid. I have helped make shareholders in big breweries very rich indeed. A beer would be had most nights. Maybe two, on a warm weekend. But the Spanish Dancer changed all that.

After surgery, I found that my love affair with it had changed. These things happen. Those remaining organs expressed concern that they were not happy with the arrangement. So a replacement needed to be found.

As it would happen, I strayed into the world of champagne. And, to my great surprise, loved it. Who would have thought?

When the need for a cool drink beckons, I now more often than not head that way. And everyone is happy. Everyone, except Big Nose.

Back to our table for two in Darwin. As a great mate, he understands the change. A small price to pay, he reckons, for still being around. But such noble thoughts didn’t help much, when one of his workmates spied us.

At first, I’m sure he was just coming over to say g’day. A big bugger too. Covered in tough stickers. He was mid-greeting, when he saw the champers.

He looked at Big Nose, and at me, and at Big Nose again. The wheels were turning slowly. Surely not, he was thinking.

I believe it was our ordinary looks and complete lack of fashion sense that saved the day. Even old footy coaches, it seems, can enjoy a fizz together.

Don’t be put off if I knock back a stubby for a flute glass over Chrissy. It’s all about embracing change. Whether we like it or not. The Old Man would be shaking his head. If only his work socks had been a little sweeter.

Buffering is Australia’s latest racing superstar. Whether you like it or not.

December 7, 2013

Racing, like all sports, needs superstars.

Without the biggest of big guns, it’s just another day out. Reserve grade up the road. The B team kicking off at midday.

We’ve been lucky of late. So many top liners. Champions able to capture the imagination of a fickle crowd.

Black Caviar, of course. They flocked to the track to see the Mighty Mare.

She was the best, but she wasn’t alone. Makybe Diva thrilled us. So gutsy. How do you win three Melbourne Cups?

By the third one, with Bossy dancing and waving in the saddle, she had everyone along for the ride with her. No easy task.

We cheered Might and Power every time he ran around. Out in front, daring the others to take him on. Few were able to. There is a special thrill, supporting front runners. They have to be extra special to get the job done.

Go back to Super Impose, and Kingston Town. Champions, able to put bums in stands. There is a way they go about their business, these types. The ability to make the day seem better, no matter what else might be happening.

There’s another galloper doing that right now. But it’s taken plenty of people a while to realise. For a variety of reasons. The Queensland champ, Buffering.

The southerners are now choking on their porridge. Did we just put the Brisbane horse in the same company as Nellie and the Diva?

Indeed we did. But for a different reason.

Rob Heathcote’s bulldog gives racegoers a thrill. He’s so damn gutsy. Just gets to the front, and stays there.

The others constantly think they have his measure. They reckon they can nab him on the line, when the tank runs dry. That’s where they’re wrong.

This ball of muscle gives everything. And then some. And the crowds lap it up.

He’s won three Group Ones now. Still more to come. And remember, he did all his early racing against Black Caviar and Hay List. Pretty handy opposition, in any decade.

Take them out, and three would be ten. They would be building statues of him at Eagle Farm.

Heathcote never once dodged the champion pair. That’s how much he thinks of his favourite horse. Damian Brown’s the same. Only a carefully aimed shotgun would get him off.

I can’t think of too many in racing today, that excite as much as the Buff. And what makes the story even better, is that he’s owned by a wonderful bunch. They love the sport, and they adore their horse.

So racing’s latest big thing comes from Queensland. Fancy that. The experts in the cold climates will dismiss it all, throwing up one of Gai’s, or a sheik’s pride and joy. Spare me.

I hear Rob is thinking of taking him overseas. Maybe Hong Kong. He’ll win there too. Just. Like he always does.

We love our champions. And they will too. Someone better tell them to stock up on XXXX. There are some noisy, thirsty Queenslanders on the way.

Yep, I have another bad habit. The joy of a morning cuppa.

December 3, 2013

My drinking habits have been well documented on these pages.

No snide remarks needed. Everything in moderation, and all that.

This time, however, I am referring to hot beverages. Not the cool ones that some of you enjoy so.

It is my duty to inform you that there have been changes. I have been converted. I am now a coffee drinker.

In fact, I may or may not be scribbling this, with a latte at hand. Who would have thought.

For years, I avoided the stuff. Decades actually. As the owner of a Woolies-brand bladder, the last thing I needed was a caffeine hit.

It wasn’t always so. When I started in radio, I would gulp down cup after cup. No, that wasn’t in the Menzies era. But thanks for asking.

As the industry’s worst ever midnight to dawn announcer, I needed something to keep me awake. Unlike my handful of listeners, who would doze off as soon as I began mumbling into the microphone.

I would take a double coffee, no milk, no sugar. That would keep my eyes open, until around midday. When I would fall in a screaming heap.

Eventually, it took a toll. I swore off the coffee beans, and thought little more of it.

That is, until surgeons started tinkering with my organs. Minus one, the issue resolved itself. And at the same time, I realised that all my friends had developed into coffee nuts.

They have one each morning. And then some. They love it. Starts their day with a zing.

One or two could be classed as coffee snobs. They cheerfully admit such. Others add a dab of this or a mix of that. It all seemed rather exciting.

So now, I’m part of the gang. I have my own favourite brew. Yep, the latte. With one thanks.

And there’s more. Proper coffee drinkers have their own hangouts. Places where the bloke with the apron knows your order as you walk in. I’m proud to say, I have progressed to that stage.

It’s a rustic, unusual hole in the wall, with less than comfortable chairs. But the coffee is to die for. See, that’s how we aficionados talk about our morning brew.

I go there most day. Have brekky sometimes too. There’s always laughter. Great way to start the day.

So there you have it. My new hot drink of choice. We might share one soon. My shout.

Oh, did I mention I’ve changed my cold drink as well? Beer has been replaced with champagne. Did I just hear the sound of old mates falling from their bar stools? Anyway, that’s another story.