Everyone working here at the Innisfail Turf Club in Far North Queensland is wearing a banana-yellow t-shirt, including Olive at the TAB and the two sweating blokes working the barbecue.
There are women in feathers and heels and bright colours, ready for Fashions on the Field.
For me, it’s just another race meeting; but for Con it is more than that. He grew up just down the road from the Innisfail racecourse.
“When I was eleven,” he tells me, not for the first time, “I had a job washing beer glasses at the races. I’d rinse them and upend them on a towel, then I’d walk around the bookies’ stands to collect the empties.”
As he went about his job, young Con would listen to the race callers.
“They were my idols. I’d fantasize about becoming a race caller. I didn’t sing in the shower – I’d practise calling races.”
One race day when Con was twelve, the regular Innisfail caller failed to arrive. The club secretary beckoned him over. ‘Connie, the first race is due in a few minutes. Can you call it for us?’
“In minutes I was up on the balcony, microphone in front of me. The horses were around at the start. I had no binoculars, so I checked the colours in the book. There were only two horses, thank heavens – Wee Thorn and Paul Denis.
“‘They’re off!’ I heard. It was my own boyish voice, coming through the loudspeakers!”
The real caller never arrived, so he called the next three races too, more confident each time.
“It was a busy afternoon, because I had to keep dashing back to the bar to wash glasses.”
Innisfail is an ancient name for Ireland, and around here it’s as green as Ireland.
Wherever there are Irish there is horse racing.
As for me, I come from staid English, Scottish and German stock. Although one of my ancestors confessed to a love of gambling on cards, he gave it up when he got religion.
To many Irish, horse racing is a religion.
Since he called his first race here, Con has visited one hundred and seven racetracks – and counting.
It was the wet season when we flew into Burketown for the first time, leaving our car behind in Mount Isa. Con had been transferred to Burketown as principal of the school, and we were picked up at the airport by the shire clerk. On the way into town, he told Con, “Of course, you’ll be treasurer of the Race Club.”
“Will I?” said Con, startled.
“Yes. The school principal is always treasurer of the Race Club.”
For the next three years, we were involved with the Burketown Race Club – Con as Treasurer, and I helping out with catering for the Race Ball. The races were held once a year. The racetrack was dirt, and bough sheds covered with fresh branches provided the only shade. It was hot and dusty, with lots of flies. Country race meetings are the only places where glamorous net fascinators may have a real purpose.
People came from a hundred kilometres around, the women dressed in smart race gear, sometimes with rollers in their hair so as to look good for the ball that night.
After the ball, there was another race down the track, with locals in their underwear; but we didn’t take part.
The Burketown Races were the highlight of the local social calendar. In recent years, rationalisations in the racing industry have meant that many small towns have lost their race meetings, along with many other services. It’s a shame.
When I met Con, I had never been to a horse race. Now I’ve been to ninety-three racetracks, but I still don’t follow racing. It’s just that when we travel, we go together. Consequently, after we visited the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, we went to the nearby Hawker Races, a colourful, lively and dusty affair.
We’ve been to the James Cook Museum in Cooktown, and Cooktown Botanic Gardens, one of Queensland’s oldest, and then the Cooktown Races. It’s hot at the Cooktown Races, because the racing administrators, for their own reasons, have changed its place in the racing calendar from May to November, even though it’s in the tropics. Still the horses run, and a large group of ladies, some with children and grandchildren in tow, turn out in the sun for Fashions on the Field.
Tolga, Charleville, Roma, Bundaberg, Cairns, Townsville.
Kilcoy, Gatton, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe. Mount Isa, Yeppoon, Dalby, Warwick.
There will be more.
Con still follows racing, although he rarely puts more than five dollars on a horse. He loves the atmosphere, and the craic; and because he has the memory of an old Irish storyteller, he remembers all his wins. He can recite Melbourne Cup winners from first to last.
And every few years he goes back to the Innisfail races, to see people he grew up with, still sitting there in the betting room with their form guides. “G’day, Connie,” they say. “Haven’t seen you for a while. Where ya been? What do you like in the Cup?”