DESTINATIONS - EVERY LITTLE TOWN HAS SOMETHING
As this iconic outback town saddled up for the 140th anniversary of the Birdsville Races in September 2022, we took a look back at some of the historic moments, milestones and characters that have made this regular event Australia’s oldest and most iconic outback race.
In the Spring of 1882, a group of 150 owners, managers and stockmen converged on the South Australian and Queensland border, and the first ‘unofficial’ Birdsville Races event was run.
The track was very different 140 years ago: a straight-line course, marked with posts 200 yards (180m) apart – more of a fence-line than anything else.
Forget barriers and a starting gun: the 1882 Races started with a flag, to the applause of 150 punters – not the thunderous sound of the crowd’s clapping and hooves that you hear today.
The 1882 headline Border Handicap was taken out by the W&W Hood-trained Bedouin.
A far cry from the $200,000+ prize-purse up for grabs at today’s September’s Birdsville Races, some 200 pounds – around $35,000 in today’s money – was raised by public subscription.
After the first Birdsville Races was held, 42 people sat down in the Burt & Co Iron store to establish the ‘Border Jockey Club’. Stewards were appointed, a working committee was elected and the next race meeting was set for July 1883.
That annual pattern has pretty much continued until the 21st century.
In the 1930s, the Birdsville Racetrack was moved from the western side of town to where it sits today. The track measures 2000 metres in circumference and the longest race, the 1600-metre Birdsville Cup, starts in the back-straight. Birdsville remains one of only four tracks in Queensland that operates in an anti-clockwise direction.
Current Birdsville Race Club President, David Brook OAM, recalled his earliest memory of the Birdsville Races:
“My dad had a horse called Mookadee that ran third in 1957,” David said.
“That was my last year at school in Birdsville and, in those days, there were probably only 150-200 people at the Races.”
By 2022, David had acted as either Birdsville Race Club President or Secretary for close to 50 years, but his pathway into the role wasn’t entirely by choice:
“My uncle Bob was the President of the Birdsville Race Club for many years and, one day, when he was leaving town, he handed me a leather bag with all the Race Club documents in it.
“He said, ‘You’d better hold onto this’ and that’s how I got the job,” said David.
David and his family are a cornerstone of not just the Birdsville Races, but the town of Birdsville itself. As long-time cattle graziers, their connection to the western corner of Queensland goes back generations.
“On my mum’s side, our connection to Birdsville traces back to the 1880s,” David said.
David has begun passing the baton; with his son, Gary Brook, now the Birdsville Race Club Vice President. David’s daughter Jenna is the Birdsville Race Club Treasurer, as well as owner and operator of the Birdsville Roadhouse, Humpy Cafe Birdsville Fuel Service and Post Office, and Birdsville’s first Recycling Centre.
All six of David and Nell Brook’s children have attended the Birdsville Races from a very young age, and their grandchildren are now growing up with the Races as part of their lives.
In 1962, indigenous stockman, Kevin ‘Spinny’ Monaghan, aged 18, rode in his first Birdsville Cup. The 140th anniversary Races marked a 60-year association between Spinny and the iconic outback carnival.
Spinny rode as an amateur jockey until 1979, when he got his professional licence at the Birdsville track. He never managed to take out a Birdsville Cup win, but he did come close… placing second.
When Spinny started riding at the Birdsville Races, there were open fields and a little shed, and only about 400 metres of fencing around the desert track. There were no barriers, so horses lined up in starting gates and a one-finger rope-drop across the front of the horses signalled the race start.
“I didn’t ride every year, but I’ve attended the Races nearly every year since I started riding in Birdsville,” said the Diamantina local.
The Monaghan family also has a rich association with the Birdsville Races, with Spinny’s granddaughter, model Venessa Harris, acting as a race ambassador in 2018 and 2019. His son, David, has ridden two Birdsville Cup winners: Pensami in 1997, for the Brook family and Amirreb in 1999, for NSW trainer Rodney Robb.
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Ranger, Don Rowlands OAM, hadn’t missed a Birdsville Races event in 56 years until the Covid cancellations and postponements of recent years. He is a descendent of the Watti Watti family and is a Wangkangurru Yarluyandi elder.
Don discovered numerous sites and artefacts left by his ancestors in what is now the Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) National Park. Don plays an integral role in preserving the culture and history of his people and their life in the Simpson Desert.
Don and his wife, Lyn, opened the Karrawa Wirinya coffee place in Birdsville that is also an Indigenous ‘keeping place’ and space in which to showcase Indigenous artwork.
In 1978, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser AC made the pilgrimage to the Birdsville Races and Fred Brophy’s famous travelling boxing troupe also attended the Birdsville Races for the first time, challenging punters to ’avvago’ in Brophy’s legendary boxing tent.
A fourth-generation showman, Fred and his boxing troupe — the last of its kind in the world — became synonymous with the Birdsville Races and was also the location for his first date with Sandi, his long-term partner, some 37 years ago.
Fred’s horse won the Betoota Cup in 2019 and had a horse place third in the Birdsville Cup in 2009.
Fred added the first female boxer to his troupe in 2010 – a young Brisbane-born woman named Brettlyn Neal, who was working as a security guard at the Birdsville Pub. Brettlyn headed over to the Brophy tent and took her shot in the ring, going undefeated for two consecutive nights. Fred approached her on the third night and told her : “You fight for me now!”
Brettlyn became ‘Beaver Brophy’ and she notched up more than 200 undefeated fights in Brophy’s boxing ring.
The 1982 Centenary year was celebrated with a record crowd of up to 8000 visitors and the Brook family won the first of six Birdsville Cups with the George Dawson trained Brashleigh. George Dawson (1932-2012) became the most successful Birdsville Cup trainer of all time, winning seven Birdsville Cups, in 1982, 1983, 1984, 1991, 1992, 1997 and 2000.
Speaking to the Birdsville Race Club in 2017, George’s daughter Cindy Monaghan said that she knew he got a bigger thrill out of seeing the owners happy than actually winning the race for himself.
“Dad always said you can’t take any horse to Birdsville,” said Cindy.
“The ideal horse is tough, relaxed, can travel in testing conditions and is a good eater.
“It has to run a strong 1600 metres and also be able to handle the dirt track, without get ting bothered by dirt flying in its face.”
Cindy said that travelling to Birdsville with her parents became a rite of passage in their family.
“We’d go up there a couple of weeks prior, so the horses could settle after the trip up to Birdsville from South Australia.
“I remember staying with friends along the way and the long haul up the Birdsville Track.
“They are great memories.”
George’s family continued the Dawson legacy with the Birdsville Races and his late son, Tod, trained his last winner in Birdsville in 2016, when Peritus won in the colours carried by Brashleigh back in 1982. George’s grandson, Port Lincoln trainer Ryan Dawson, also fielded horses at the 2017 Races, including in the Birdsville Cup.
In 1985, the Birdsville Races’ current day bookie, Graham Saunders, attended his first Birdsville Races and had missed only one Birdsville Races event since then.
“I’ll never forget the first time I came to the Birdsville Races,” said Graham. “It was mind blowing, with planes all over the strip, buses and people everywhere.
“It’s a good old-fashioned country carnival.”
Graham said betting at Birdsville changed over the years, as technology and infrastructure at the track has improved.
“I remember in the old days, when they had one payphone and you’d queue up with your 20 cents to get information on a horse and form a market,” he recalled.
“When I first started, we’d all be flipping through the Australian racing calendar; sitting around for a couple of weeks, going through the books.
In 1990, the central body responsible for the Birdsville Races renamed the Diamantina Amateur Race Club the Birdsville Race Club.
Larry Lewis, a firefighter from Dalby, walked all the way to Birdsville in 1992 and became the longstanding starter of the Birdsville Races. He lined up again in 2022.
“Birdsville Race Club President David Brook was asking the senior steward at the time whom he’d recommend and, since I’d started one or two country meets,I got the nod,” recalled Larry.
“I’ve been coming back ever since.”
Larry said he always has to be on the ball, because at Birdsville, trainers and owners have often travelled more than a 1000km to get there. Larry notes the racing has improved a lot over the years, which makes his job a little easier.
“My main concern is just keeping everyone safe,” he emphasised.
“That means our racing club volunteers, the jockeys and the horses too.”
In 1993, the now legendary bush jockey, Keith Ballard, began a multi-decade affinity between his family and the outback carnival that continues today. In 2022 he was Australia’s oldest jockey and was planning to ride again in the September’s Birdsville Cup.
Keith, who has raced for over 50 years, has ridden in more than 15 Birdsville Races – as recently as 2019 when he rode in the Birdsville Cup. He took out the Birdsville Cup in 2009 on Equitant.
Keith’s wife, Denise, and son, Dan, also have a strong connection to the Birdsville Races, with Denise having trained many of the Birdsville starters that both Keith and Dan have ridden over the years. Dan, a former Queensland Country’s Premier Jockey, has ridden in the Birdsville Cup several times.
The Ballard family was inducted into the Queensland Racing Hall of Fame In 2021. After missing the postponed 2021 event, held in April 2022, all three intended a grand return to the Birdsville Races in September 2022, with father and son both planning to ride horses that ex-jockey Denise had trained.
The Birdsville Races were broadcast live on television for the first time on Sky Channel, in 1995 and are now an annual TV fixture.
In 1999, Josh Fleming, now a Sky Racing caller, called his first of 19 consecutive Birdsville Races… at the age of 14.
Leading up to the Birdsville Races, Josh had called only a handful of country race meetings around the central-west Queensland region under the guidance of the late John Wallis, a Queensland Racing stalwart, who spent four decades as a steward. Wallis had noticed Josh’s ability after hearing him do a phantom call out of the Sunday newspaper form guide.
“It was about six months out from the Birdsville Races that year and they didn’t have a caller,” Fleming reminisced.
“They went looking for a caller and John said he knew this kid who was going okay and that he should be given a go.
“I walked away from my first Birdsville Races and thought: ‘Oh well, at least I did one’, and I didn’t think I’d be back again.”
In 2022 Fleming chalked up his 20th Birdsville Races call. After nearly two decades of attending the Races, Josh said it is the friends he has made that keep him coming back. An example is that the best man at Josh’s wedding was long-time Birdsville Races starter Larry Lewis.
“It’s all about the people, the friendships I’ve forged here over the years,” John said. “We are not here for a long time but a good time.”
Tanya Parry became the first female trainer to win the prestigious Birdsville Cup, in 2001, paving the way for several female successes at the Races since. Tanya remained a trainer in 2022.
In 2003, Rebecca Kerwin became the first female jockey to win the Birdsville Cup. Rebecca rated her winning ride on Marauding Lass as one of the toughest in her career:
“I always wanted to win the Birdsville Cup and I never thought I’d actually get it,” she said.
“I remember it was quite dry out there that weekend, but I’d had some success with the horse in Toowoomba.
“I think she was the oldest mare in the race, but she was a tough, bigger horse and I knew I had to go early, as it can get quite tough on the way out.”
In 2007, the Birdsville Races were called off, because of equine flu and in 2010, the Birdsville Cup was cancelled due to rain.
A once-in-70-year, 55mm September deluge hit Birdsville in the days preceding the 2016 Races, turning the iconic red Birdsville racetrack into sludge and forcing the closure of all roads to the township. The Diamantina Shire Council worked around the clock in a herculean effort to clear the track and ensure the Races weren’t a washout.
The Races were condensed into a ‘Super Sunday’ program, combining 11 highlight races from the originally scheduled Friday and Saturday competitions. The revised program made for Australia’s biggest single thoroughbred race day of the year, outstripping Melbourne Cup day.
History was made again, when the Birdsville Cup was taken out for the first time by a female trainer and jockey combination. Moore Alpha, trained by Heather Lehmann, was ridden to victory by Darwin jockey Kayla Cross.
In 2018, indigenous model and cancer survivor Venessa Harris became the first ever female ambassador for the Birdsville Races. Not only was Venessa born in the region, but her grandparents live in Birdsville and her grandfather, Kevin (Spinny) Monaghan and uncle, David (Ted) Monaghan, have ridden in the Birdsville Cup.
Along with many other events, the Birdsville Races were cancelled due to Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021. The 2021 Races were postponed until April 2022, creating an historic double race meeting in 2022.
The April 2022 Birdsville Races offered a record combined prize-purse of $262,500 across two days of racing, as well as what is believed to be the single biggest trainer bonus in the history of Country racing in Queensland.
Barcaldine (QLD) trainer Todd Austin comfortably won the iconic 1600m TAB Birdsville Cup with thoroughbred Echo Point, ridden by female jockey Brooke Richardson (Barcaldine, QLD). In doing so, Austin nabbed his third Birdsville Cup victory and became the most successful Birdsville Cup trainer since 2000; with three of the last eight Birdsville Cup wins.
September 2022 Races
Despite persistent heavy rain the Birdsville population of just 115 residents once again swelledto thousands for the 140th anniversary edition of the Birdsville Races.
The carnival featured a changed race program over two days, plus a bumper program of unique outback entertainment and activities including Fashions on the Field, outdoor film and live music, cocktail parties, pub festivities and Fred Brophy’s famous travelling boxing troupe.
Television personality Sammie O’Brien returned as ambassador for the 2022 Birdsville Races and trainers who contested both the April and September Races bagged some of the biggest bonuses in the history of Country racing in Queensland.
The Birdsville Races are supported by the Queensland Government, through Tourism and Events Queensland and features on the It’s Live! in Queensland events calendar.
More info on the Birdsville Races at www.birdsvilleraces.com.