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.

The Punting Gods are not smiling. What have I done wrong?

January 4, 2014

I have not backed a winner all year. Four full days. And last night’s debacle. Don’t ask.

The bank manager is getting nervous. The kids are wondering what chance new shoes for school.

I know what’s happened. The last bet of the year is all important. And I blew it.

In years gone by, I would call stumps, if I’d backed a winner near year’s end. Not that I’m superstitious in any way.

It’s just nice to end the season with cash in the kick. A sign of things to come.

A few days ago, I got the tip of all tips. It would just be winning. At Toowoomba, of all places. A New Years’s Eve meeting, where we would fill our boots.

When I was told this special, I was drinking champers. And listening to a very loud band. The brain cells available at the time dictated that I delay the call to my favourite betting agency. Too loud, you see.

You know the rest. Stop gloating. I was too late. Ten minutes, that cost me a heap. But much more than cold hard cash.

It was my last betting venture of 2013. And it was a spectacular failure. We all know what that means.

Ever since, I can’t pick left from right. Up from down. Leader from stalker. Mudlark from dry track specialist.

So now I’m lumbering on, throwing good cash sideways. Getting beaten in photos. Watching unknown hoops beat the world’s best. Sigh.

We need to change the mojo. So punting Gods, here’s what I’m prepared to do.

If I get a decent tip, back it. And no grumbling if it gets bloused.

Back my favourite jockeys in Perth. At any odds. It’s a place like no other. They will win at fifties. And no-one will ask why.

Back Chris Waller in Sydney. But not at the Provincials. No exceptions. He has camels, like all the others. And that’s where they end up.

Go to Eagle Farm more. Because it’s fun. Doomben too. And my beloved Gold Coast. And get a crew together. So many laughs.

Do the Melbourne Cup form before the Monday. You will be hungover, or drunk. Print this and tell all your close friends.

There are other rules, but I need to get to Gloucester Park trots. You understand.

I hope you’ve started the New Year with a blast. If you have a tip, maybe send it my way? Not that I’m desperate. It’s only early. What time is Turner riding in Perth?

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.

Who is your hero? Hopefully not the nude girl on the building site.

November 12, 2013

Everywhere I go, I see a nude Miley Cyrus.

Not that I’m searching for such images. She seems to pop out of every screen I get near.

Music programs day and night. Morning chat shows. I looked up while doing the Cup form, in a reputable pub last Monday, and there she was. All skin and pout.

For those older folk who are trying to place the surname, and wondering what the hell I’m banging on about, let me assist. Cyrus, as in Billy Ray. King of the Mullet. A one hit wonder like no other.

His daughter is Miley. And I feel like she’s one of my own.

Regular readers will know I woke up with her on a Saturday morning. Or, more specifically, her show.

A few years back, Hannah Montana was a character every young girl celebrated. She was fun, and sassy, and goofy. Sang like an angel, and wise-cracked with the best of them.

Tears were shed in the family, when it all came to an end. It was assumed that she would become a wholesome, good looking young star of stage and screen.

Instead, she’s now twerking (they tell me that’s a rude dance) with older pop stars, and doing video clips hanging off giant wrecking balls in the buff.

It makes no sense. Is there no market for young, talented folk, without Johnny Young being involved?

I wondered what my girls would make of it all. In this multi-media age, sometimes it’s hard to work out who their heroes are. I had nightmares that The Teenager would start hanging around construction sites.

My fears were unfounded. They were both left scratching their heads. Love the song, hate the clip.

They would have watched her, whatever move she made. Because they liked her. She didn’t need to go feral, to keep their attention.

As a young bloke, I had no such dramas. My hero was Dad. No-one came close.

He worked hard, and had little. Whatever cash was in his pocket, was ours. The simple things made him happy. Good friends. Big laughs. The occasional cool drink.

He treated people better than anyone I ever saw. Made them feel important, whoever they may be.

On his building sites, he was patient, and good-humoured, even with the narkiest of clients.

If it hurt him that he couldn’t take us to nice places, he never showed it. Beers and chips with mates under the orange tree more than made up for it.

These days, I hear stories that parents have lost that gloss with their youngsters. I don’t buy it.

I know plenty of successful people who still talk to Mum and Dad every night. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

In our workplace, the running joke is that us old blokes have found a new hero. And he’s not family.

Ben Roberts-Smith keeps walking into the newsroom. Blocking out the sunlight as he does.

Forget the girls swooning. They reckon us blokes keep falling over ourselves to shake his giant hand. Too true. What a guy.

When it comes to heroes and role models, I think we’re still going ok. They don’t need to be nude starlets, or highly paid footy stars. Mum and Dad and Ben will do just fine. As long as there’s no twerking. And they stay away from those wrecking balls.

Celebrating the Cup any way you can. Important tips on how to have a winning day.

November 5, 2013

My mate declares Melbourne Cup Day a religious holiday.

He worships Flemington. Has the day off very year. Wednesday too. For as long as I can remember.

We have had some of our most enjoyable days on the first Tuesday in November. The laughs never end. And yes, cool drinks are had.

Sometimes we’re at the track. Or at lunch. That turns into dinner.

We’ve been to so many places over the years I’ve lost count. Wonderful fun, each and every time.

It’s also a day that produces stories that even I find hard to believe. Success, and hardship, and sheer bloody bad luck.

We drew Viewed in the Cup calcutta one year. Actually had it in our hands. And gave it back. How could Bart’s wet tracker win?

I stood and watched that day, in ever increasing horror. I couldn’t hear Greg Miles, but I knew those colours. Closing in with every bound.

He won, of course. It cost us thousands. We just looked at each other, shook our heads, and eventually, laughed. Once we got to the bar.

Another year, my mate declared Efficient as his bet of the day. Reckoned it couldn’t be beaten. I thought he was mad.

He won, of course. His celebration involved spilling a bucket of red wine on anyone within cooee. They took it in good humour. I think.

That same day, we jagged a trifecta in the last. It was worth a heap. And we lost the ticket.

There was a mad scramble, checking tables far and wide. Staff at the track were inspecting bins for us. Nothing.

I had to go to an office, and fill out a form, saying we were the dumbest people on track. It meant we would get paid, after 3 months. Not that we needed the cash at that minute. Much.

I came out, to find my mate laughing. He does that lots. The ticket was in his pocket. The one he hadn’t checked. It was the longest 3 months of my life.

It’s the beauty of Cup Day. Everyone will have a story to tell. Whether you’re at Flemington, or Doomben, or the local surf club, or the staff canteen. There’ll be winners, and losers, and hard luck stories.

Make sure you celebrate it. Even for just half an hour. If the best you can do is have a plastic cup of champers, so be it.

It’s an afternoon that is so uniquely Australian. No other country comes close. That roar we make when the gates open, is truly something to savour.

Good luck with your bet. For what it’s worth, I think Mount Athos will make up for last year, and get the prize. With Dear Demi as a big threat. But you’ll remember, I haven’t had a decent win on the Cup since Kiwi. When half of you were in nappies.

Enjoy the day. Watch out for flying reds. And don’t lose your ticket.

Why the rules have to change, so Bart gets to Flemington on Tuesday.

November 2, 2013

So here we are. Australia’s greatest day of racing.

But there’s a more pressing issue than finding the winner of the Derby. Which, by the way, will be Savvy Nature. Money for jam.

Unless we do something, the one and only Bart Cummings might be missing on Cup Day.

Mike Colman has been fighting this all week in the Courier Mail. And I’m with him.

Have you seen the great man lately? Bart, not Mike. Father time is within a length of him. In our mind, we still see him as he once was, tall and proud in the winner’s circle. It’s no longer the case.

It could be, that there won’t be too many more visits to Flemington on the first Tuesday of the month. So we need to act now.

His one and only hope is Precedence. He’s decided not to run him today, even though he could have qualified with a win. No, Bart won’t do that. He wants the committee to help him. And they should.

If they don’t, there’s every chance our great race will go around without the living legend. And that’s simply not acceptable.

Punters, it’s time for us to act. We need to band together, across the nation, and take things into our own hands.

The campaign must start right now, to have the rules changed. Just this once. There’s still time. Precedence must run. Sacrifices can be made.

Yes, it means connections of another horse will miss out. If they are genuine racing lovers, they’ll cop that.

It might be one of the lesser internationals. Boo hoo. Who would you rather see, a Canadian camel, or the famous Cummings colours?

Can you imagine the roar, when Bart shuffles out to the mounting yard? It will be deafening. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.

I can’t begin to think what would happen if the horse actually won. Cup chaos. The only thing guaranteed is that The Master would deliver one of the great one-liners.

Racing has a long and proud history of bending rules. Never has there been a more important time to do it.

It will send a message, that the Cup is about more than money. It’s bigger than that. It’s a part of who we are.

We owe it to Bart. It’s our race, and we want him there.

Start sending messages now. Hit Facebook and Twitter. Ring your radio station. We have until the last race this afternoon.

If they listen to us, it could be the most memorable Cup ever. The day Bart stole the show. Again.

Shedding a tear at the school concert. When daughters still dance into Dad’s heart.

October 29, 2013

This was going to be about something else. Until the girls started dancing.

Why was this performance so special? Remember, I’ve been watching them jump and twirl since they came up to my knee.

I’ve sat through concerts where fathers should have been receiving the medals.

We’ve done shopping centre recitals. Strutting their stuff in front of the fruit shop, as bananas are weighed.

They’ve always been good. Natural dancers. Both practice hard, at rehearsals and at home.

This particular show was for school, on a Sunday afternoon. I went alone, and managed to snare a seat close to the stage.

Their first dance was a lively number. They nailed it. The kids around them were great too. Such a confident, talented bunch.

But it was the second dance, a more sedate affair, that blew me away. I have no idea why. I’d seen them perform it before. In the same flowing red dresses.

For some reason, this was different. They LOOKED different. Older, both of them. With perfect hair and make up.

It was like I was watching in slow motion. I saw things, in those precious few minutes, that I hadn’t seen in months.

Teenager Too was glowing. I had to look twice, to make sure this tall, graceful young woman, was the daughter who used to fall asleep at the dinner table.

She stood out, among girls much older. Every move was perfect. But it was beauty shining from within, that lit up the stage. Her smile, lit up my heart.

The Teenager is now a leader in the group. The others follow her. When did she get so .. mature?

She works so hard, to be so good. Every spare hour, she’s trying to get better. I watched her glide across the floor, and saw the passion in her eyes. Ridiculously long limbs, making complex moves look easy. Every teenage boy in the room was watching too.

I thought back, to when this gorgeous young woman could hardly get out of bed. Not that many years back. A stomach problem that had us visiting every specialist in town.

She couldn’t eat. Constantly felt sick. Reflux you would normally see at the end of the bar.

The little girl who would listen to stories in bed until I fell asleep, could hardly keep her eyes open. She had no energy. And she was scared.

I feared the worst. That’s what Dads do. So one night, running out of options, I prayed.

It was a shout out to anyone who was listening up there, to swap the pain. Whatever this bad thing was, I wanted it. Or anything else, to square the ledger. That’s what Dads do.

To this day, I don’t know what that sickness was. One doctor said he thought it could pass, with time. And so it did. With or without my help. Slowly, her old spark returned.

So here she was, with the sister she squabbles with on the hour, but loves like no other, dancing like there was no tomorrow.

Near the end of the performance, they linked up, and for a split second, they were as one on the stage.

It was then, sitting alone in the dark, that I shed a quiet tear. So very proud, and so incredibly lucky.

I wish every one of you had been able to come and share those few minutes with me. Even my old racing mates, who last waltzed to the Glenn Miller Band.

That one dance, made me as happy as a father could be. Sometimes, you can’t beat the simple things.