Racing, roadies and red dust at Birdsville

More than a century ago, Queenslanders got their racing tips in a newspaper column called “Sporting Gossip by Hermit”.

On November 18, 1882, The Brisbane Courier section briefly described a new race in the outback town of Birdsville.

“We shall probably hear of many more successful gatherings there,” it said.

Hermit was right. The race, which began as a small event for 150 stockmen and horse owners, is celebrating its 140th anniversary this weekend.

Trainers have brought horses from as far as Darwin to compete in the meet with a prize purse of $260,000.

All eyes are on the 1600-metre Birdsville Cup, dubbed the ‘Melbourne Cup of the Outback’, which will go ahead on Saturday after unseasonable rain washed out the opening day on Friday.

The rain has only heightened the sense of adventure for punters, who have travelled thousands of kilometres through the desert on a pilgrimage to Birdsville.

Some stopped in for a beer at the isolated Innamincka Hotel in South Australia, known as an “oasis on the edge of two deserts”, while others paused to bathe in hot springs and mud baths, or camped overnight in outback towns like Bourke, NSW.

Birdsville race club vice president Gary Brook says deep connections are formed in the red dust each year.

“Once you get to Birdsville, everyone is equal,” Brook tells AAP.

“You see people dolled up to the nines sitting next to someone in a shearer’s singlet, stubby shorts and thongs.

“It’s about where you come from, your life, your story and your journey. That’s what makes it special.”

Josh Fleming feels the pull of Birdsville, where he called his first major race at 14.

“At that age, you can get away with being raw and inexperienced, but they stuck with me and I’m forever grateful,” Fleming says.

This is his 19th trip to Birdsville to sit in the caller’s box.

“The starter at Birdsville was the best man at my wedding – it’s always been about the people and the friendships forged out here.”

Other race stalwarts include the Bertalli’s hot chip van, which has been serving greasy carbs to racegoers for decades, and Fred Brophy’s boxing tent, where crowds follow the rallying call of a drum beat marking the start of a tournament.

Overseeing it all is Senior Constable Stephan Pursell, the Birdsville region’s only police officer, who is in charge of a district the size of the United Kingdom.

A few times a year, he is joined by a dozen colleagues from Mount Isa for race days and music festivals.

“I like working here on my own, but it’s always nice to have other police come down,” Pursell says.

“We go down to the pub for a meal before things get hectic.”

He says racegoers tend to be well-behaved.

“Part of the adventure is getting here. It’s a long way to come to be turned around and sent home.”

The Brook family, who are local cattle graziers, have been at the centre of the races for generations.

Club president David Brook recalls his uncle Bob handing him a leather bag filled with racing documents years ago. “That’s how I got the job,” he says.

Gary, David’s son, grew up trackside, and his children will do the same.

“I never missed a race,” he says.

“I’ve got a five-year-old, a four-year-old, and a one-year-old and they will never miss one.

“It’s very much in your blood.”

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