Monday, August 17, 2009

Showtime 1 - The Culture of Racing

I was sorting through my Australian Outback photo files the other day when I came upon these ones from the annual Noorama Picnic Races that I attended in 2008. Noorama is miles from anywhere. You probably won’t even find it on a map – it is after all, little more than the recreational centre that was formed in the mid-1900s as a meeting place for the farming community’s sporting and social activities. Yet in the South West Queensland outback, Noorama is legendary. The district dates back to the 1880s and has a rich pastoral history; and the Noorama Picnic Race Club is the jewel in the region’s social crown. Formed in 1964, it held its first race meeting on May 14th 1966 with 43 horses competing for A$365 worth of trophies. It was a huge hit and today people still travel hundreds of kilometres to attend the three-day event. Forty-two years on, the 2008 five-event programme offered prize money in excess of A$31,000 and the feature race – the Noorama Cup – was worth A$7,900.
Located on Noorama Station, almost one hundred kilometres southeast of the tiny outback town of Cunnamulla, Noorama is isolated. It took me 14 hours to get there from Christchurch and I flew most of the way - via Brisbane followed by a two-hour flight to Charleville, a two-hour drive to Cunnamulla (where I was given a hot pink jackaroo hat for the occasion) and another two-hour drive further south to Noorama. By the time I arrived it was just after 5pm on a Friday night and I felt as though I had been to London and back. My pink jackaroo hat was on a nasty lean, I was dusty, over-heated, tired and wondering what I had let myself in for. The race track was all but deserted, there wasn’t a horse in sight and I was still pondering the mystery of why the plane’s flight attendant had given such detailed lifejacket instructions - given that we were flying over a vast, shrivelled outback landscape and the chances of our crashing into water seemed highly improbable.
My outback hosts were kindly. They propped me up in a chair with a bottle of water, trying for their part to digest the fact that they had landed themselves a non-drinking, non-smoking Kiwi journalist who didn’t eat meat and had never attended a race meeting in her life. Noorama promised to be a learning curve for us all. And so it was. My first lesson the Friday night Calcutta – the pre-race horse auction - kicked off around 6pm just as I began thinking about sleep. Locals arrived in a steady stream of dust and congregated around the bar in the biggest marquee. Everyone was primed for action, the barbecue was fired up and the auctioneer started the bids. And that’s all I remember of my first night at Noorama. I fell asleep to the pleasant drone of outback hilarity and the sizzle of gigantic steaks.
By 11am the next day, it was 28-degrees and the first horse floats were pulling up to the open-air stables. Horses were being hosed down, brushed and fitted with nose-bags; track preparations were underway; the First Aid team had arrived; the bookies were setting up; and the first fancy hats were bobbing among the growing crowd. The energy was infectious. Ladies in their race-day finery banded together, swigging champagne and preparing the members’ pre-race cocktails and treats. Men strutted around the grounds clutching beer cans and brushing flies from their Akubras. Jockeys gave the track a pre-race check; and kids of all ages ran free and wild.
Later, as the horses turned for the straight, locals in fancy race-day outfits leaned over the rails cheering for their favourites. Glasses of champagne spilt over, hearts pounded, fists pumped the air and the loud speaker was drowned out by hooves thundering down the dirt track. It was a dramatic scene set against enormous cloud-filled skies and parched red dirt that hadn’t seen rain for seven years; and as the locals yelled and cheered in 35-degree autumn heat, I thought how similar race meetings were the world over. And now, with spring in the air here in Christchurch, racing fans are already thinking about the annual New Zealand Cup and Show Week in November – a crazy extravaganza of six major horse racing events, fashion awards, international rodeo events, the Royal New Zealand Show and more. This year, New Zealand Cup and Show Week runs from November 7-14 and you can find out more about how we do the whole race-day thing here in Christchurch by checking out And this year, my appetite whetted by my Noorama race day experiences, I'll be checking out everything the Christchurch week of racing festivities has to offer!

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