In this town, the Amateurs beat the Pros. Another race meeting you just must attend.

September 6, 2014

Everyone has their favourite race places. Days you never forget.

The biggest events. Tracks that come alive. Where you don’t mind being part of the crush.

There are a few race carnivals that are compulsory, at some stage in your life. Must-do days before you turn your toes up.

The Melbourne Cup carnival, obviously. And not just Cup Day. For the true sports fan, Derby Day Saturday has to be included.

You have to do at least one Golden Slipper. And two Darwin Cups. You’re not a true racing fan if you haven’t done Stradbroke Day. Summer isn’t complete without a stroll through the Magic Millions crowd on the Gold Coast.

But there’s one meeting that stands above all others, when it comes to pure fun. Where nothing surprises. Look closely, and you’ll see that the rules on the back of your entrance ticket state clearly that cool drinks must be had.

Like all great sporting events, the magic of the Cairns Amateurs starts way before you waltz through the front gate. There is a genuine buzz across town. It’s excitement, North Queensland style. And I never get sick of going back.

The first lesson newcomers receive, is about the true title. Drop the Cairns. It’s Amateurs. Like Madonna, it’s all that’s needed. Too hot in the north to be wasting words.

Amateurs is much more than two days of racing. There’s the fashion, and the wonderful tropical food, and the flash Friday night ball.

Look a little deeper, and you’ll find the heart of the carnival. The reason it has been so successful for so long. At a time when so many race clubs struggle to understand their crowd.

The Amateurs brings folk together. People from across the vast north of our land, mark it on the calendar months before. Some travel for hours. Others days. So they can catch up with old mates.

Sure, the southerners are a wake up now. Flights are full. The locals spot them a mile off. Sweating through their suit jackets.

There will be a variety of headwear. Fascinators from Melbourne. Akubras from Mareeba. You might spot a nice little number with bobbing corks.

When it comes to enjoying a tipple, there is nothing amateurish about the Amateurs. No surprise there. Something has to settle the dust. The beer will be cold. Rum actually flows from the bubblers. Actually, I made that bit up.

The girls will enjoy a fizz, and a nice drop of white, and pick more winners than me by going on names and colours.

Some will have their shoes off by Race 3. Bless them. There will be dancing in some sections before the quaddie begins. No-one will blink twice.

The Amateurs has the perfect blend of bush and bling. This is no Country Cup. The corporate areas will be bulging. Big money. Starlets. And the odd punting journo.

No race meeting anywhere has more laughter. There is a giggle to be had at every turn. Even my plentiful losses somehow seem less painful.

It’s on next weekend, and I’ll be there. Catching up with old friends. Meeting new ones. And working on keeping my shoes on.

If you’re within a 500 kilometre radius, you should go too. I kid you not, you’ll run into someone you know.

Add it to your list. Flemington, Rosehill, Eagle Farm, Cairns. Has a nice ring to it.

(Disclaimer: Your humble author will be a guest of the organisers this year, eating and drinking everything in sight, and filling out a pile of losing tickets for the cleaners to deal with on Sunday).

A refresher course on the Golden Rules of Punting. If only I could remember them.

August 30, 2014

Here I am again. Appealing to those remaining brain cells to get their act together.

The Spring Carnival is all but upon us. And I have no idea what to do.

The most successful punters have rules, that they stick to solidly. The rest of us muddle through, trying to recall what didn’t work last year.

Time and again, I get it wrong. Because I remember nothing. None of the clever practices that may have picked up a dollar. And none of the crazy decisions that left me with no bus fare.

It means I make the same mistakes, time and again. And it drives me nuts.

What do I do with a heavy track? We only get one a year in sunny Queensland. And when it arrives, I’m at a loss.

Lightweights? Mud-loving sires? Greys? Or is it greys carrying a postage stamp with an Irish dad?

Can a champion win first up? Do I back the best regardless? Does class always beat arse? Do I ignore trainers saying their meal ticket is only at 70%?

What about apprentices? What did I decide all those years ago? (Actually, this one I remember. Take 3 kilos off, put 4 kilos on).

Someone told me something about favourites in big races at the start of the Carnival. It was either they always win, or they always get dusted. We may have been sharing refreshments at the time. If it was you, please, put me out of my misery.

I came up with an incredibly clever theory about the Cups, foreign horses and lead-up races. It made so much sense, I jotted it down on a coaster. It’s never been seen again.

When do Sydney horses win in Melbourne? First week, or last week? It’s one or the other. Someone must know.

You will have your own punting theories. Take a tip. If they work, tattoo them on your forehead.

As punters, we live and die by rules. It’s time I got serious, and started making a record of them. Financial success depends on it. Pass me that coaster.

We’re back on track. Time for racing to light up in Queensland.

August 23, 2014

Yes, it’s true. I’ve been out for a spell. In a decent paddock, being fattened up for the Spring carnival.

You’ll be happy to know that little has changed since my last scribbling. Pockets remain empty. Quaddies are elusive as ever. The Sportingbet boys are enjoying overseas holidays thanks to my inability to find the most basic of winners.

Anyway, enough of the hard luck tales. Too much exciting stuff happening in racing for bottom lips to be dropping.

They’re ripping up my beloved Eagle Farm any time soon. A world-class track is on the way. What a difference it will make. Short term pain for long-term yeehaa.

We’re finally going to get some decent prize money in Queensland. That sigh of relief you hear is from the hundreds of owners who pay the bills.

For an industry that talks in billions, it’s hard to believe that owners have been picking up what amounts to loose change for so long.

Change is in the air. So here’s something else for the power brokers to consider. Let’s call it a light bulb moment.

Regular (and long suffering) readers will know of my love of the Gold Coast Turf club. Fun central, every Saturday. But it could be so much better.

Pretend you’re at the bar. Ok, some of you probably are. Anyway, look out across the straight, past the winning post, and what do you see? The amazing skyline of Surfers Paradise.

Few other tracks have such a backdrop. A little piece of magic, each and every time a winner salutes.

Now, hold that thought, and imagine the same scene at night. A dazzling array of lights. Equal to any night racing venue around the world.

What a coup it would be, if the Gold Coast could race under lights. Punters joined by party-goers, on their way out to hit the tiles on the Glitter Strip.

The concept could be sold through Asia. Tourism bosses would be drooling. Reckon the Chinese wouldn’t love it? We could write the campaign in ten seconds on the back of a coaster and it would still be a winner.

Yep, there would be an initial outlay. Make the spend now, and then sit on the pile of gold that night racing on the Coast would attract.

Racing needs new ideas. Something for everyone. Tracks have to be proper entertainment precincts, not just a few tote windows and a keg of XXXX Gold.

The industry here in Queensland finally has the right people making decisions. They now need money to play with.

A new super track at Eagle Farm, and night racing on the Gold Coast. There’s a winning quinella. I can feel my luck changing already.

So much more than a talented young jockey. Why the loss of Nathan Berry hurts so much.

April 5, 2014

He celebrated the way you want them to. Showing that victory meant something.

Nathan Berry has just won the Magic Millions. Easily. The young bloke had been up against some of the nation’s best hoops. And left them in his wake.

He waved his arms, and gave a yelp. Showed off that million dollar smile. Somewhere between rock star and choir boy.

The Gold Coast faithful lapped it up. It wouldn’t have surprised if he’d just stepped from the Broadbeach surf. He could have been their poster boy.

Confidence without arrogance. A young man sports administrators dream of.

He fulfilled every commitment asked of him that day. Every interview. All with that cheeky grin.

How painful it is, that we won’t get to see it again. We lost Nathan this week. Not from a fall. But from a rare illness, that most of us still don’t understand.

When he become crook in Singapore a few weeks back, it gained little attention here. Some thought it was from wasting, the curse of all jockeys.

But it was so much more. Something so insidious and invasive, Nathan stood no chance.

In the days before his death, the support through racing circles was overwhelming. Social media came to the fore. He must have felt it, surely, in that hospital bed so far away.

Racing folk are rare beasts. They are quite capable of tearing each other limb from limb, over the merits of a change in riding tactics. But when trouble strikes, they unite. And when a family is hurting like Nathan’s is right now, they reach rare levels.

Tributes on Facebook and Twitter have been overwhelming. Such a genuine outpouring of love, and respect, and sorrow.

Jockeys, trainers, punters, journos. Millionaire owners, and one dollar punters. As one, they’ve sent a message to Nathan’s loved ones. You are not alone.

We want his twin brother Tommy to know that we are trying to share his pain. Of course, we can do little to ease what must be unbearable heartache. Two young men with the world before them. Now there’s just one.

I never met Nathan. But I feel like we were mates. Just like the rest of his followers on social media. We saw pictures of his victories. Laughed at fun the boys would have, on their rare nights out.

We shared his wedding day, from our phones and I-pads. Saw the love between two special young people. Just a few months ago.

Some things don’t make sense. A young man who you would be proud to have as your son. From a family that base everything they do, on love and respect.

It’s Golden Slipper day, and we’ll have a punt, because that’s what we do. Tommy still wants to take his ride in the great race. Could you do it? Such courage. Because Nathan should have been there too. Riding Unencumbered. The horse that he danced on after that Magic Millions win.

Even if Tommy’s mount Valentia gets up for Gai, there’ll be no real celebrations. Just sadness. On so many levels.

Keep the tributes coming. Remember Nathan in your own way. For me, it’s the happiest ever winner of one of my favourite races. Which I’ll never be able to watch the same way again.

Celebrating the sound of a generation. A special trip to see the band that shaped our young lives.

January 14, 2014

I first heard them in Steve’s garage. He’d turned it into his pad. It was the coolest place I knew. Except for Smithy’s garage. That had been turned into his pad. He had a fridge.

At sixteen, we were easily impressed. We thought we were so hip. If only we knew.

While our clothes may have let us down, my mate’s choice in music was impeccable. We dined out on The Beach Boys, and Australian Crawl, and Steve Miller band. The Mentals and the Doors were on high rotation on his ripper record player. The neighbours knew all about it.

One afternoon, he introduced me to another band. One that would send me soaring to places I’d never been.

They were a bunch of good ol’ boys with a unique country rock sound, out of the US West Coast. The Eagles.

What I recall from way back then, was the amazing harmonies. And guitar work that dazzled.

We would buy their new albums, and give them priority airtime in the garage. Any female visitors snuck in were stuck with Don Henley and Glenn Frey as well as us. Fair to say, few of them shared our devotion. Or stayed past song one.

Hotel California. C’mon, sing it with me now. You all know the words. Take It Easy. Life in The Fast Lane. And The Long Run. Our favourite.

As we got older and went our separate ways, those melodies stayed with us. Lines that bonded us. And described our journey.

We would catch up whenever we could, and dust off those tunes over cool drinks. We knew most of the lyrics. And would belt them out.

Others shook their heads. Our boys are an acquired taste apparently. That’s ok. Each to his own.

A few years back, they dragged their millionaire butts to Brisbane. What a treat. I got to do a story on my idols.

Cameraman Lukey and I managed to snag seats. What a show. Luke is the coolest kid in the class. I thought he might have fallen asleep. Instead, he loved it. Knew every song.

They made a DVD from the Melbourne concert. I have played it one thousand times. Usually late at night. With glass in hand.

They’ve been going for more than forty years this mob. And now, I’m going to visit them. Off to LA to see them in concert. Possibly for the last time. They could be in rocking chairs.

If you’re an American, going to the Friday night show at The Forum, keep an eye out for the excited Aussie. I’ll be easy to pick. Off-key, and mangling a lyric or two. It didn’t matter in Steve’s pad. I’m sure they’ll let me off.

Important advice for anyone buying a horse at Magic Millions tonight.

January 11, 2014

The business of buying a horse is a serious one. It’s not a job for any idiot.

Unless, of course, the said idiot has spent the day having a ball at the Magic Millions. Then, anyone can have a crack.

I have ventured to the sales several times after the big race day. Like everyone else there, things have gone a little shabby. Ties end up a tad crooked. Girls are looking to throw their shoes.

It’s so tempting. All that magnificent horse flesh. Just waiting for a buyer. The one we’re drooling over, could be the million dollar winner next year.

Normally mature folk start talking syndicates. Sums are done, that will make no sense tomorrow. It all seems so easy.

I’ve told the story before of Singo buying one deep into a Saturday night, on the strength of the Queensland brew. Breeding meant nothing. It was just fun. Of course, the damage would be repaired come Sunday morning.

I could very well end up in that field of dreams tonight. Yet again. So here are the rules we will abide by.

First and foremost, don’t listen to any rules. If we went by the book, no-one would have owned Black Caviar or Makybe Diva.

Don’t even think about launching a bid, without a bucket of giggle juice on board. There are international gurus spending zillions while drinking sparkling water. How is that fun?

Pick a horse with a big arse. Nothing else matters. Spend way beyond your budget, if the filly reminds you of Beyonce.

Do nothing unless you’re surrounded by mates. There is every chance you’re about to make a huge mistake. They must be part of it.

At some stage, someone will say you’re all kinds of crazy. You will be told to walk away. Make sure you get them to sign a waiver, as you secretly buy that More Than Ready colt. It could be worth thousands in January next year.

If we’re swaying side by side when the last lot appears, I’ll consider joining forces. As long as you’re on the rum, with your best buds, drooling over a great big booty. And I’d appreciate if you could get the bill. I’m good for it, I promise.

Farewell Uncle Tom. The kindest man I knew. With the biggest heart.

January 7, 2014

I had no idea what to wear. The biggest event of my young life. I had to look the part.

Uncle Tom was taking me to the cricket. He was a Sydney Cricket Ground member. He knew I was a cricket nut. He decided that I needed to see an Ashes test.

Dad might have been more excited than I was. What a thrill, he said. Clearly, I was one lucky boy.

Mum told me to take a jumper. In January. I could have been selected for a space shuttle mission, and she would have insisted I take that bloody garment.

I didn’t own a tie. Just my good jeans, and my only buttoned shirt. Uncle Tom said that would do just fine.

I don’t remember the cricket. Just the surrounds. We ate lovely food. Uncle Tom knocked back a few beers. In fancy glasses I’d never seen. Everyone was in a jacket.

When I got home, Dad pumped me for details. Every little bit. He loved his cricket too. He was thrilled for me.

A few years later, I was back at the SCG. A league semi final. Newtown v Wests. A full house. Those rarified surrounds again.

This time, I soaked the action in. The most exciting afternoon I’d experienced.

It’s what Uncle Tom did. He made us all happy. I can’t remember him ever being cranky. Not one cross word.

With his beloved Aunty Heather, he made sure no-one went without. We were so lucky, those in his extended family. They did so much, and asked for nothing in return.

I had never been to a house with a pool. The first time we stayed at their place, I wouldn’t get out. A little blonde boy with prune-like skin. So different from our backyard.

Uncle Tom was a successful businessman, but he would never tell you that. The conversation about who should bat at number three in the baggy green was much more fun.

When we lost Dad, he looked after my family like a guardian angel. So much support for Mum. I know she was forever grateful. And it wasn’t the first time. It was just his way.

He died last week. He’d been crook, but had no intention of going anywhere. Fought it all the way. Was still working from his hospital bed, into the final hours.

I feel like I should have told him more how much we all loved him. How he made such a difference to all our young lives. He would laugh that off, I know. What he did, he did because it was the right thing to do.

He left us, a few days before the Aussies scored their historic Ashes victory at the SCG. There’s something right about that. He would have clapped, politely, with that great big smile.

Farewell Uncle Tom. Thanks for showing a country kid what could be. And letting all of us see that there is no greater love, than family.