A DAY AT THE RACES
Families picnic underneath the trees amid the scent and sizzle of barbecues. Young girls in their best dresses drift through the crowd in pairs.
Fashions come and go but racing has always been about numbers. Any bookmaker worth his salt can calculate the odds faster than a maths professor and conversations in the betting ring revolve around racing's strange numerical codes, ten to one, six to four, or the mysterious 'odds on', while race-goers pass tips to their friends in arithmetical shorthand.
"Have a look at number seven in the third."
"And they're racing!"
The commentator's drone is the quintessential soundtrack to a day at the races, mingled in recent times with the pop of champagne corks, while out on the track the horses are as tightly bunched as a fist and moving smoothly. When they turn out of the back straight and along the far side, the commentator shifts up a gear and by the time they swing into the home straight, punters clutching betting tickets are shouting for their favourites. For a couple of seconds the air is charged with possibility, before the thunder of hooves drowns out the delighted cries of winners, the quiet resignation of losers. It is time to visit the bar, or lean on the fence of the saddling paddock where candidates for the next race are strutting their stuff.
Set amongst the sprawling farmlands of South Australia's mid north, Jamestown Racecourse was top to toe electric yellow on Cup Day. Canola was this year's cereal crop, an inspired choice that, together with a sky of solid blue, accentuated the jockeys' racing silks and turned each race into a shifting kaleidoscope of colours.
"Have saddle, will travel," is how winning jockey Jay Burgess describes her peripatetic career. At Jamestown, Jay had a full race book and the next day was to be the same at Port Lincoln.
Like the hard-working professional jockeys, country racing clubs have to work at filling the stands. Live music attracts young people and alongside the racing there is often a rock band. In keeping with Jamestown's Scottish heritage, the Caledonian Pipes and Drums introduced the first race with tartan kilts swinging.
Thoroughbred Racing SA Chief Executive Officer Ian Hart was enjoying his first visit to Jamestown. "While there are so many people in the community prepared to support country racing," Ian said, "there is no risk of it dying out."
The sport is showing an 8% growth across the state, with the country racetracks leading the way. Closer to Adelaide, Murray Bridge Racing Club has plans to purchase 800 hectares to develop facilities that the Club believes will attract new trainers and breeders and provide a better service for those already in the area.
The 2005 Balaklava Cup drew a record crowd of around 14,000. Stretch limos and tour buses clogged the car park and in the Malaysian Airlines marquee a jazz band belted out Mack the Knife. The atmosphere was of a corporate day out rather than a family picnic, with marquees lining the track from the grandstand almost as far as the eye could see. One or two bookmakers had pitched camp along the course to service the marquee crowd. Hollywood Sid was one such, delving into the trademark big white bag for cash, expertly flipping name cards.
Fashion is full on at Balaklava and on Cup Day the going was tough, with judges Carla Caruso and Cassi Maddern facing a nearly impossible task. With the wind billowing skirts and the crowd leaning forward to check contestants' legs, would-be Trinny and Susannahs in the audience kept up a running commentary.
On the way home from Balaklava, race goers disembarked at the Mallala Football Club for a final top up of beer and bubbles. Inside the clubhouse, Johnny Wonny played electric guitar and the women in hats danced with abandon. By contrast, after the last race at Jamestown kids collected empty soft drink cans, the picnickers packed up their cool boxes and a team of children kicked a football on the track. That night, the Jamestown pubs were packed, their kitchens working at full stretch to turn out steaks and schnitzels. The lighting might have been more subtle, but the mood was relaxed and amiable with country manners much in evidence.
Jeanette Macdonald, Band Manager of the Royal Caledonian Pipes and Drums, said the band members were looking forward to coming back next year. The feel-good buzz of a day at the races and the turnovers on track suggest that they won't be the only ones.