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 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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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.
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