The Banana Cup

fullsizeoutput_473eThere’s a jockey mounted on a banana on the cover of the race book for the Banana Industry Cup.

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.

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Olive Simeon who has been working at the Innisfail Races TAB for forty years

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.

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Innisfail Racecourse

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.

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Horse trailers lined up at the Hawker Races, Flinders Ranges, S.A.

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.

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Fashions in the Field at Cooktown Races

Tolga, Charleville, Roma, Bundaberg, Cairns, Townsville.

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Kids on the fence at the Tolga (Atherton) Races

Kilcoy, Gatton, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe. Mount Isa, Yeppoon, Dalby, Warwick.

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Looking down the straight at the Mount Isa Races

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?”

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Checking the fields at Tolga

Losing a Wheel

A few kilometres south of Gin Gin, as dusk approached, we were travelling at one hundred kilometres an hour when a wheel came off the car and bounced off through the bush beside us. I watched it go.

Sparks flew up from the road as the axle scraped a track through the bitumen.

It was 1976, and we were driving from Townsville to Brisbane for a family wedding. Before starting out, we’d had our blue HR Holden serviced, including rotation of the tyres. On the rear passenger side, the mechanic had failed to re-tighten the wheel nuts.

Pulled over on to the verge, we considered what to do. It would be dark soon, and we had our young kids with us. We needed to get a message to the RACQ agent back in Gin Gin.

Around this time, a number of travellers had been murdered when pulled over on the Bruce Highway, not far north of here. People were nervous about stopping for strangers; but luckily a family in a car following us saw what happened and stopped to help. Generously, they interrupted their journey to turn around and go back to town.

It was an anxious wait in those days before mobile phones, when stranded motorists relied on passing strangers to contact the RACQ; and a great relief when assistance arrived. Less than an hour after the wheel had come off, the tow truck came to take us and the car to Gin Gin.gin gin 2

Roadside assistance: it’s good to have that backup on road trips. I’ve heard only one bad story connected with roadside assistance, and it came from an unpleasant man met by chance in South Australia.

It was a glorious, starry night at Rawnsley Park in the Flinders Ranges, and there was a fire pit outside the accommodation units. I knocked on doors and invited others to join us for a glass of wine round the fire. We were looking forward to a pleasant evening.

But one man was obnoxious.

First, he embarrassed a nice young German couple by making Hitler jokes.

Then he told us of a great trick he’d played on a policeman he’d come across, broken down beside an isolated country road.

“I hated this cop – he’d pulled me up a couple of times for speeding – but I stopped and asked him if he was okay.

“‘Yeah, I’m right,’ he said. ‘I waved down another bloke and asked him to call in at the RAA in town and get them to send someone out. Thanks anyway.’

“I fixed him, though,” said our obnoxious companion. “called in at the RAA in town and cancelled the call-out. Said the problem was fixed. That cop is probably still out there waiting!”

He got a laugh out of telling the story, but we gave up on the evening. A good campfire ruined.

Back in 1976, after losing the wheel, we spent two nights at the Gin Gin Motel, waiting for repairs

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Gin Gin Main Street

It wasn’t the first un-planned stopover we’d had. In 1970, we took our first long car trip as a family. Living at Rosevale, southwest of Ipswich, we were travelling to Innisfail for Christmas with our eight months old baby, Matt.

All went well as we drove north in the blue Holden, until we stopped for fuel in Rockhampton. There was none. The tanker drivers were on strike, we were told.

“We’ve got enough fuel to get through to Marlborough,” Con said. “They’ll probably have some there. Let’s give it a try.”

An hour or so later we pulled in to the Marlborough service station.

“We’ve got no fuel, mate,” said the man behind the desk. “The tanker’s coming through in the morning. You’ll have to wait until then.”

In the nearby motel, all the rooms had been taken by other stranded travellers. Our only choice was the Marlborough Hotel, in the tiny township a kilometre or so to the east, beside the railway line.

We checked into the last available room in the basic, single-storey pub, grateful to get it: Con and I and baby Matt in a room with two sagging single beds and a washbasin in the corner.

That Saturday night in Marlborough, ringers and stockmen from the surrounding countryside came into town for a night out at the pub, the only drinking place for one hundred kilometres. We were welcomed in the bar, and little Matt was passed round and admired. Later, I washed his baby bottles in hard water in the dingy, concrete-floored communal bathroom out the back.

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Marlborough Hotel from the back

I shared my narrow bed with the baby. The sound of boots tramping along the verandah outside was occasionally drowned out by the rumble of a freight train on the track just across the road. Next morning, we made our way back to the highway service station, where mercifully the petrol tanker had arrived.

The Marlborough Hotel still offers accommodation. According to its web page, fifty dollars a double will buy you a bed and “continental” breakfast; or you can camp out the back and use that dire bathroom for five dollars. I hope they’ve softened the water.

Flat tyres, lost wheels, petrol strikes, bogs, floods, blown-up engines and broken fan belts: we’ve experienced them all over the years. With improved technology and better roads, breakdowns don’t happen so often now, but with gaps in phone coverage, even on the highways, there are still times when travellers need help from passing strangers. It’s wonderful how generously that help is given.

Repairs done and a new wheel on the Holden, we set off again from Gin Gin, heading south. I could picture the wheel bouncing away through the bush, and when we came to those scrapes in the bitumen we pulled over and went searching for it. And there it was, in the long, dry grass among the gum trees, waiting for us.

I can still see that bouncing wheel; but of all of this, our two kids remember only that while we were waiting in Gin Gin, little Lizzie walked in front of a heavy wooden swing in the playground. It hit her under the chin and knocked her over, and even today she can tell you that story, and show you the scar.

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Lizzie and Matt on the swings on another trip

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