Country races

Travelling from Cairns for perhaps the last race meeting at the country town of Mingela, we detoured at Innisfail and paused at Mena Creek. On one side of the stream was the folly cum tourist resort Paronella Park, where a Spaniard built a castle in the 1890s. On the other is the Mena Creek Hotel, on the eve of its red letter weekend. The publican sponsors an annual hunt for feral pigs; ‘grunter hunters’ flock to the chase.

We passed through Townsville and stayed the night at the splendid Imperial Hotel in Ravenswood. Built a century ago when the gold rush tide reached into these gullies, it then became a ghost town. Now that the extraction of gold has become payable again, Ravenswood has revived. There are corrugated iron cottages here  from the 1860s, air so pure and dry that it is tonic. In the pub, beautiful wood is everywhere, in sideboards, cupboards, staircases, and in an imposing bar feature that looks like an altar piece.

 On the Saturday morning, in no hurry to leave, we eventually set off for Mingela.  It was a testing day for the Mingela Amateur Race Club. Last year it lost all funding from the reconstructed Queensland racing authority. Along with numerous other country race clubs and meetings, Mingela seemed to have met its doom. Club president Dick Pugh decided to spend its reserves to stage what sadly may be the last meeting: ‘We’re just trying to keep the bush atmosphere going’. Seven jockeys turned up, including one who rode in a Lone Ranger mask and some seasoned hoops from Townsville.

Main feature of the day was the Mingela Cup. Forty years ago a running of this event provoked that quintessential Australian racing scandal: the ring-in. The principals were a butcher from Giru (south of Townsville) called Robert Burry and his employee Joy Joyce. The horse in question, running as Hello There, but of dubious lineage, not only won the Mingela Cup but an earlier event on the same card. Unlike scamsters of more recent years, this pair was acquitted. The racecourse was trimmed out with marquees, but held on to the past by its old wooden buildings and corrugated iron toilets. Kids and P&F members from a St Columba Charters Towers catered. There were four bookies, all offering prices predictably and atrociously under the odds. When the horses at last got on the track, 15 minutes late for the first, they raised a dirt storm on the turn.

Racing superstition has it that you should always back the first jockey whom you see when you get to the track. The one we spied, saddle under his arm, was Graham Kliese, who kissed his partner, a lady in red, and went to work. He rode a treble. She was successful too. Parking her XXXX can in its stubby holder on a table otherwise covered in hats she entered the mounting yard and was soon acclaimed winner of Fashions on the Field. In conversation she revealed herself to be the granddaughter of a Townsville trainer and an acerbic judge of some of the jockeys who saddled up at Mingela.

 The first horse goes on to the later races in the spring, the second to the stud. For Mingela the future is unclear, notwithstanding the dedication of all who worked for this meeting, and the vignette of an embattled rural solidarity that poignantly it gave.

 

 

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