They don’t call it the sport of kings for nothing. Racing has it all – magnificent animals, intense competition and consummate sporting skill. All heightened by the faint but ever-present risk of danger and a distant whiff of corruption.
Nothing beats being there trackside, where anything can and will happen. Where fortunes are won and lost, hearts filled and broken, and the manicured and coiffed get horrendously drunk and fall over. I’m by no means an expert, but I have spent a little bit of time at Royal Randwick, Eagle Farm and Doomben, and loved every minute.
There are few more piquant outlets for people-watching, as young and old alike succumb to the lure of easy money and overpriced alcohol. As the day wears on, see fascinators slump lopsidedly, high-heels become untenable torture implements, and unruly cleavages threaten to spill forth from their double-sided-tape shackles at any moment.
Witness as the unfortunate side-effects of a few too many beverages, usually so well-concealed, become commonplace and public: the removal of shoes, the pashing of unworthy suitors, teary emotional outbursts and, let’s face it, vomiting. God, the races are great. All the folly of the sozzled human condition writ large.
But there’s one thing that’s perhaps even better than stumbling off the packed train to Ascot, heaving with goonbag-clutching students, into the heady aroma of fresh-baked-fake-tans, hairspray and horseshit. And that’s a country race day.
Forget manicured lawns and meticulously maintained track. Your average country racetrack gets a workout once or twice a year; it might even be in someone’s back paddock. There’ll be a rickety rail, and once the nags jump the only way you can tell where they are is by looking for the large cloud of dust. On the way in, pay a few bucks for the race book – it won’t take too long to read and will be filled with novelties like seven- and eight-year-old horses doing their last dash before the glue factory.
The Flinton Easter races are held on a station a few minutes out of Westmar. There’s a shed, a bar, and the stables and betting ring are simple structures with rooves of box leaves and branches, added to year by year. A handful of bookies make the trip out and run the odds old-school style – all pens and paper and gladstone bags, no computerised systems and (I could be wrong) no trifectas for gawd’s sake.
The mood is somewhere between a bush school fete and a B&S – little kids queue up for the foot races, which have suprisingly lucrative cash prizes. Nannas catch up on gossip over checked tablecloths and styrofoam cups of tea. For every girl in a flawless outfit there’s one who hasn’t worn a dress since their school uniform. And for the blokes there are no ironic trilbies or faggy fedoras – your work Akubra will do just fine, thanks.
After dark the band kicks in and the dancers kick up the dust. In past years rains have turned the event into a mudbath, but this year the air was thick with dust and insects buzzing halos around the floodlights. The only beer is XXXX Gold. The wine ran out hours ago. Your phone has no reception. If you’re a vegetarian, you had better have packed your own food, and if you don’t like Cold Chisel you’re out of luck. It’s heaven.
Later the Lions Club volunteers will flick the lights off to try to dissuade bleary-eyed punters from the bar, and the party will move to the carpark, where the age-old battle of the car stereos will rage. Swags will wriggle with dalliances as short-lived as the few bucks you made on the Cup. Mozzies will bite, boys will fight and those red dirt stains will never come out of your dress. All too soon the sun is rising, someone is retching metres away and you’re cursing those last seventeen drinks. But you’ll do it all again next year.