Birdsville Races hit the track after two-year hiatus

Sally Gall
By Sally Gall
Updated April 11 2022 - 7:05am, first published April 10 2022 - 8:00am

Fred Brophy's banging his drum, campsites are springing up along the Diamantina River, and the outlandish suits are making an appearance - the Birdsville Races are on again after two years in recess.

It's a history-making event for the renowned desert track, being the first time it's ever been held in April, thanks to COVID-19.

The organisers made the difficult decision in 2020 to cancel the race meeting dubbed the Melbourne Cup of the outback, when mass gatherings were still restricted, and again in 2021, when more than 85 per cent of ticket holders were from locations unable to travel freely to Queensland.

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Attendees to the 13-race program on Sunday, April 10 and Monday, April 11 are all carrying tickets bearing the September 2021 date that are bound to become collector's items.

Although the 38 degree day was the hottest in living memory for a running of the Birdsville Races, an estimated 3000 punters turned out to tick the race meeting off their bucket list and create plenty of good memories.

One of those was watching apprentice jockey Shae Nielson pick up her first ever race win, one she said she would never forget.

Her win on Rosaraya in the Birdsville Hotel Cup also delivered Barcaldine trainer Todd Austin a winning trainer's double and the first of two $2000 trainer's bonuses awarded on the day.

The other one went to Mackay's John Manzelmann who brought 19 starters to Birdsville, the first time he'd been to the iconic outback track.

"Nowhere else suited this week," he explained, "plus it's a bucket list thing."

As well as training all six runners in the first race on Sunday, a nightmare for racecaller Josh Fleming, and collecting first, second and third prizemoney, he finished off a very successful day with another first, two more seconds and another third placing.

He took four days to travel down from Mackay, stopping at Alpha the first night, with other stops at Jundah and Betoota.

The April event is offering a record combined prize purse of $262,500 across the two days of racing, as well as offering what the club believes is the single biggest trainer bonus in the history of country racing in Queensland.

If a trainer wins both the April and September 2022 TAB Birdsville Cup races, they will receive up to $15,000 in bonuses.

Action on the Simpson Desert track.

Birdsville Race Club vice president Gary Brook said it was great to be back and supported by the thousands who'd travelled to join them at the special edition of the races.

"It was hot, but didn't slow the horses or the fun off the track," he said. "The excitement was palpable among racegoers, trainers and jockeys alike, and - after this weekend - we can look forward to the September 2022 races."

Although for many on the grounds this was the first time they'd been to the Birdsville Races, including at least three 60th birthdays being celebrated, it's the latest of 30-plus years for race starter Larry Lewis.

Fresh off being bumped off a national television appearance thanks to the Prime Minister's announcement of the federal election at the same time, Larry said this meeting had more of a country feel to it.

"I come down to give them a hand - they're only a small group doing it all," he said. "They're like a big family you want to help."

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Larry was first in Birdsville in 1980, helping build the police station with the state Works Department, and loved the vibe then.

"A couple of years later I was working as a barrier attendant in Barcaldine, with John Wallis, and when they had to replace John here in Birdsville, (race club president) David Brook asked who they'd recommend," he said.

"They gave him my name and he said, oh, we know Larry, and that was how I started."

These days he has Kerry Morton from Roseberth Station and Peter Morton, who's managing Pandi Pandi, helping him out.

They're using a refurbished set of barrier stalls from Eagle Farm that was sent out in 2020 and not able to be used until now.

Fred Brophy's legendary boxing tent getting ready for some evening action.

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Sally Gall

Sally Gall

Senior journalist - Queensland Country Life/North Queensland Register

Based at Blackall, CW Qld, where I've raised a family, run Merino sheep and beef cattle, and helped develop a region - its history, tourism, education and communications.

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