BATHURST -- After a horse named Idlesome won the feature race at Bathurst Racecourse, his performance prompted an outpouring of rhetoric in the winner's
circle. The president of the track stepped to a microphone and praised the local bank that had sponsored the event. The president of the bank extolled the high quality of competition that the race had drawn. The winning owner and trainer both told the crowd how delighted they were with this victory.
One might have thought that this was the Melbourne Cup. But Idlesome had just run around a little country track whose infield consists of purple wildflowers and a billboard advertising a local water-drilling service. His purse winnings: $1,680.
Yet the fact that this was a modest quality of racing hardly dampened the enthusiasm of the 900 or so people at the track. It never does. The most popular days at Bathurst are its so-called "picnic races," amateur events so informal that a horse may run two or three times in the same afternoon. People come for the day and pitch tents where they have barbecues and drink champagne. There may be two hours between races so that they don't interfere too much with the partying. Country racing is such a big social occasion in Australia that it is no exaggeration to call it an important part of the nation's culture.
Australia has so much land and so few people that many of its inhabitants have little social life. A day of racing brings people together. "For most country people in the far-west areas, the races are the social highlight of the year," said Richard Lawson, editor of a magazine devoted to country racing. "People will invite weekend guests; there will be dances and parties at night. They may dress up in fancy dress for the races."
There are more than 400 racecourses in Australia, some of which may operate only one day a year, and even locations which are seemingly in the middle of nowhere will have a track. In Engonnia, a town with a population of 12, the races will draw a crowd of 2,000. Visitors fly there in private planes and land them on the backstretch.
The racing conditions at some of these once-a-year tracks may be a bit unconventional. At Tumbarumba, there is such a deep dip in the backstretch that the horses go out of view for an eighth of a mile and, it is said, jockeys have been known to switch horses while they are out of public view. At Tambo Valley, the racecourse is a sheep farm 364 days a year, and bettors traditionally hurl sheep dung at the jockey who comes in last.
Because so many of these country tracks are located in the outback, the weather conditions may be rough too. At Carrathool, the prize for winning a feature race was a cassette player, but while it was on display in the winner's circle, pending the award, it melted. Even so, the fans at Carrathool know better than to pray for rain to cool them off. One year it rained suddenly and turned the grounds into such deep mud that everybody's car was stuck for two days. Of course, that was just an excuse for a prolonged party.
To an American visitor, the most striking thing about Australia's country racing is not its charm and quaintness but the fact that it exists at all. Racing on a small scale doesn't make economic sense; tracks have too much overhead to make money operating only a few days a year, and they can't offer purses that enable owners to make any money, either. In Maryland alone, the landscape used to be dotted by colorful little tracks like Hagerstown, Bel Air, Marlboro, Havre de Grace; all extinct now.
Economic realities work against tracks like Bathurst too. Racing in this town dates to the late 19th century, but for most of this time the sport could exist only because it was run by volunteer workers. The local racing association could afford to provide only the most rudimentary facilities. But when Australia's off-track betting system -- the TAB -- was created in the 1960s, it created unprecedented amounts of wagering and revenue for the racing industry. And the TAB chose to distribute this money in a manner befitting a socialist system: with the well-to-do subsidizing the poor. "Without the TAB, we'd have no racing," conceded Vince Stein, Bathurst's president.
Although the TAB conducts interstate betting on many days of country racing -- the Dec. 24 Bathurst meeting, for example, generated more than $1 million in wagering throughout the state -- the country tracks' contributions to the TAB are a pittance when compared to the big-city tracks. Nevertheless, the TAB puts all of its revenues into a common pot and distributes them according to a complex formula; it also has a special fund for the improvement of track facilities. Last year Bathurst got $200,000 from the TAB; a few years ago it got a $400,000 grant to build a nice little grandstand, with an air-conditioned upper level bar and dining area.
Essentially, the prosperous Sydney race clubs are supporting tracks like Bathurst that can't pay their own way, but they don't seem to mind. Pat Parker, secretary of a club that runs two of the big Sydney tracks, said, "We don't mind subsidizing other thoroughbred tracks. I don't think the whole criteria for everything should be based on finances."
That would be a novel philosophy in many parts of the racing industry, but country racing is so important to Australians that economic considerations run a distant second to the sheer fun of the sport.