Bush pub race meets

bush pub races

THE race meetings promoted by wayside publicans of the Outback are things of the past, and most of the old wayside pubs are things of the past, too, but many old residents of the wide western spaces can still remember the excitement which prevailed as the winner flashed past the winning post, especially if, as some times happened, the pub verandah served as a grandstand.


There was a time when every wayside pub of the outback had its racecourse, but it is many a long year since a race meeting was held on any of them.
There have been two reasons for the disappearance of wayside hotel racing. One is that most of the wayside hotels themselves have long been closed, the majority of them having, in fact, been pulled down.
Another reason is the Racing and Gambling Act of 1906 or thereabouts, which prohibited betting on other than registered courses. This Act, as far as I have been able to discover, did not prevent the temporary licensing of any course on which it was proposed to hold a meeting in aid of a sufficiently worthy cause, but for some reason or other the bringing of business to an enterprising publican does not seem to have been considered a sufficiently worthy cause.
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THE old bush publican’s meeting was organised entirely by the old bush publican, who drew up the programme and provided all the prizes. He sometimes acted as one of the racing officials, but more often not, for he was apt to be busily engaged in his own business while the meeting was in progress, especially if the situation of the course was convenient.
As the location of the course was a matter for the publican, the situation was almost always convenient, the chief point under the heading of convenience being nearness to the hotel.
In at least two instances within my own knowledge the winning post was one of the hotel verandah posts, and the verandah was the gathering point for those who wished to have a good view of the finish. Some of the spectators, in all probability, could see the finish quite comfortably through the door or windows of the bar.
In the case of the hotels out on the plains the racecourse was always in front of the hotel, because in dry weather one part of the plain was just as suitable for racing as another. In wet weather no part of the plain was much good for the purpose, but that didn’t matter, because these meetings were never held in wet weather. Apart from racing considerations, there was not much sense in staging a meeting at a time when the condition of the unmade roads of the outback would have prevented a good attendance of racing men – and drinkers.
The outback scrublands it was harder to get a conveniently situated course. Even in these parts, however, the race meeting was quite good business proposition, for the pubs were further apart, and the racegoers might stop all night after the meeting was over. And in a land of widw distances they were all travellers within the meaning of the Act. Even in the scrublands a convenient course, convenient to the pub, could sometimes be found. Few wayside hotels were situated in a more scrubby area than was the Carowra Swamp Hotel, on the now almost unused track from Cobar to Ivanhoe, but this hostelry, which faced the swamp from which it took its name, had quite a conveient course. Race meetings were held only when the swamp happened to be dry, which was fairly often, and then the bed of the swamp became the racecourse.
It would be too much to say that there was never any crooked work at these meetings, for, as Banjo Patterson remarks, “But things like this they sometimes do in bigger towns than Dandaloo.” I have very seldom heard, however, of the publican being involved in any shady doings. Generally he preferred them to be cleanly conducted.
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THERE have of course, been publicans whose behaviour at the race meetings which they promoted caused some comment.

There was one, for instance, who used to act as starter. His son acted as judge, but did not always give his decision until Dad arrived at the winning post. And Dad went to the starting, point on horseback, and was seldom far behind the field at the finish. On arrival at the judge’s box he would inquire which horse had won, and would sometimes remark, on hearing the name, “No race; false start.”

Being of a trustful nature, and anxious to believe the best about my fellow men, I would hate to suggest that this honest old starter had back-ed any horse other than the one which passed the post in front of the others. Indeed, I feel that his conscience would not allow him to back any horse in a field which he was starting. I have his own word for it, but bush bookmakers are a suspicious lot, and there is no doubt that whenever a certain relative of the old gentleman, who was suspected of working his commissions, put a pound on a horse that horse immediately shortened to three to one on.

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weigh in birdsville races 1926

Weigh-in at the Birdsville Races, South Australia 1926

SOME of the appointments at Randwick and Flemington are noticeably more advanced than those of these old wayside meetings. The weighing of jockeys at these meetings was usually done with butchers’ steel-yards, the jockey sitting in a loop of rope attached to the beef hook. At many of the meetings, however, the owner had to be satisfied with any weight. If he could get a light rider he did so, and if he could not get a light rider he had to be satisfied with a heavy rider.

I remember feeling all blown up with pride and vanity as a small boy at the sight of my father, who weighed well over fifteen stone, riding his own horse to victory in front of the Merowie Creek Hotel in the long ago.

The bush publican who staged one of these meetings did a roaring trade on the day of the races, but it must not be thought that he was entirely “on the make.” He had his responsibilities, and these were apt to cost him money. Those who had won money spent well, but there were plenty of losers who got just as drunk as any winner could possibly do. These generally ran up a nice little bill on the slate, and a decent publican (as most of the old-timers were) would always advance a pound or two to an unlucky customer who was leaving the place in a penniless condition. These loans were generally repaid, but not always, and in any case the publican might have to wait months before he got his money back. His race meeting, even if it was a stunt, was a perfectly legitimate business stunt, and the race meetings provided an opportunity for reunion among a widely scattered population.

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THE meetings are things of the past. The posts which marked the courses were round, sappy pieces of timber, which have crumbled to dust long ago. Some of the pubs have vanished so completely that only broken glass and china, which are indestructible by weather, enable the sites to be located. And the old way-side publicans who helped many a stone-broke wayfarer on his way, and their wives, who nursed many a sick swagman back to health, are mostly dead.

But I like to think that sometimes, when a summer moon sheds its ghostly light on the dead grasses of the plains, the ghosts of long-dead outback pioneers stand on ghostly pub verandahs and cheer the ghostly steeds which pass like wisps of fog through the wire fences which now cross the old courses, while a ghostly publican hurries into his ghostly bar to be ready to play his part in enabling patrons to celebrate the victory or drown the sorrow of defeat.

-Land (Sydney, NSW), Friday 6 March 1936.

Categories: NSW hotels

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