Machinery and technology have always intimidated me. I did not dare to use a motor-mower until I was in my fifties with sons old enough to help me start it. I bought a mobile phone fifteen years ago and have carried it ever since in the boot of my car. I make a phone call occasionally but have never even learned to store numbers in my machine. My previous car had a facility for playing audio tapes, and I succeeded in mastering it. However, the car that I bought four years ago plays only compact discs. I have a few discs that I listen to occasionally at home but not enough to warrant my struggling to master the thing in my dashboard. I can use the radio in my car but because I live in a remote district I can pick up only a few stations, and their programs fail to interest me. Luckily, I can pick up the station that broadcasts horse-races from all over Australia and even, sometimes, from New Zealand. I still call the station 3UZ, although it acquired a fancy new name some time ago.
Only a few years ago, the Herald Sun published every day the fields and riders for every race-meeting covered by the Victorian TAB. Nowadays, only a few meetings appear in print. No doubt the details of all the other meetings are available on some or another website, but a man who can’t use the cd-player in his car is hardly likely to be able to use computers. And so, when I’m driving on some lonely road in the far west of Victoria and I switch on my car-radio, the names of the horses in the race being described just then are more than likely names that I’ve never seen in print. The course where the race is being run is more than likely in the vast part of Australia where I’ve never been. What, then, do I see in mind while I hear a rapidly spoken report of the changing positions of horses unknown to me in a place I’ve seen only on maps?
Writing has for me at least one advantage over speaking. While I’m writing, I pause often to make sure that the words I’m about to set down are truly accurate. I might have told someone in conversation that I often see in mind, while I’m driving alone, a field of horses approaching a winning-post at Gunnedah or Rockhampton or Northam. But I’m not about to write that I see any such thing. I ought rather to write that a radio broadcast of a horse-race brings to my mind a swarm of vague, blurred images, a few being images of horses with jockeys up but most having no resemblance to horses or jockeys. The images, of course, are accompanied by feelings, some easy to report – such as my willing one or another horse to win – and others difficult indeed to describe.
Perhaps if I were a horseman, I would more easily call to mind the horses themselves while I listen to race-broadcasts. I might even imagine the race from the viewpoint of a jockey with a straining, pounding horse beneath him. The fact is though, that I’ve never sat astride a horse, let alone urged it into a gallop or even a canter. During all the countless hours that I’ve spent on racecourses, I’ve never really looked at a horse. When I recall some of the famous horses that have raced in front of me – Tulloch, Tobin Bronze, Vain, Kingston Town, and the like – I see in mind no images of bays or browns or chestnuts or whatever, with distinctive heads or conformation. Instead, I might recall, for example, the finish of the first race that Tulloch won in Melbourne on Caulfield Cup Day, 1956, or the newspaper pictures of his elderly owner during the weeks when the old fool dithered over Tulloch’s running in the 1957 Melbourne Cup. I would not fail to see an image of Tulloch’s racing colours – red and white striped jacket, black sleeves and cap. I would see also the features of the jockey who often rode Tulloch, Neville Sellwood, the same man who deliberately stopped Tulloch from winning the 1960 Melbourne Cup, just as he stopped the favourite, Yeman, from winning the 1958 Cup. (Of course I can’t prove these claims, but for me they are facts of history.) As well as seeing these things in mind, I would feel yet again the feelings forever bound up with those remembered images. I might even become again for a moment the troubled young man that I was when Tulloch was racing. But I don’t want to go there just now. I’m supposed to be writing about my present self, alone in my car on an empty road and hearing a report of a field of unknown horses on some far-away racecourse.
Many people seem to believe that what passes through their minds is a sort of mental film: a replay of things that have already happened or of things they would like to happen in the future. Perhaps some people do have films running through their minds, but most of the sequences in my mind are more like cartoons or comic-strips or surreal paintings. Often, the sounds of a race-broadcast will cause me to see in mind what I saw during the first years when I heard such sounds. Those were the years from 1944 to 1948, when I lived in a weatherboard cottage in Neale Street, Bendigo. I would have liked, during those years, to sit in the kitchen with my father of a Saturday afternoon and to listen with him to the radio-broadcasts of races from Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley, or Mentone, but both my parents discouraged me from doing so. If they sensed already that their eldest child was on the way to becoming obsessed with horse-racing, then they were absolutely correct. If they sensed that he would one day gamble recklessly, crazily, on horses as his father was often apt to gamble, then his parents were wrong. And if they thought that their banning him from listening to race-broadcasts would take away his interest in horse-racing, then they were likewise wrong. Bendigo was a quiet place in the mid-1940s. Few motor vehicles passed along Neale Street or the nearby McIvor Road. Even halfway down the backyard, among my pretend-landscapes of farms and roads and townships each with a racecourse on its outskirts – even there I could hear as much as I needed to hear of the sounds from the mantel-radio in the kitchen. What I heard were not distinctive words but vocal sounds: a chant or a recitative that began quietly, progressed evenly, rose to a climax, and then subsided again. I had never, of course, seen a horse-race, but I saw every Wednesday the centre pages of the Sporting Globe. That thriving publication was always printed on pink newsprint, which made the dim reproductions of black-and-white photographs even more grey and grainy. The centre pages of the Globe, as everyone called it, were filled with results of the Melbourne race-meeting of the previous Saturday. Around the margins were detailed statistics, and on either side of the central gutter were the pictures that I pored over: two pictures for every race, one of the field at the home-turn and the other of the same field at the winning-post.
The pictures, as I wrote above, were grey and grainy. As well, several of the racecourses of Melbourne were so arranged that the winning post was overshadowed by the grandstand from mid-afternoon onwards. As a result, anyone wanting to see in the Globe the images of the horses themselves had to strain to distinguish them from the murky background. This, however, never troubled me. I learned all that I wanted to learn from the names of the horses, which were clearly printed in upper-case letters in the upper half of each illustration. Each name was enclosed in a boldly outlined rectangle, and from some part of the lower margin of each rectangle a shape like a curved stalactite led down to the head of the horse denoted by the name in the rectangle.
I recall still, nearly seventy years later, some of the first racehorse-names that I read in the Sporting Globe. More than that, I recall the effect on me of my reciting those names in the way that the racing commentators recited them. So strongly do I recall the effects of some names that I am able nowadays to put out of my mind the dictionary meanings of those names and to see the clusters of images that they promoted long ago and to feel the moods connected with the images. I did not know, for example, the dictionary meaning of the word Hiatus or even whether the word was to be found in any dictionary. Whenever I saw the world above the blurred image of a racehorse in the Globe, I saw at once an image of a bird in flight above a deserted seashore or estuary. Not until many years laters did I learn who were the Icene or who was Tamerlane. The word Icene above the blurred image of a racehorse brought to mind a long silver-white robe worn by some notable female personage and the pleasant sound of the train of the robe as it swept across a floor of cream-coloured marble. Tamerlane denoted for me a grassy pathway overhung by rows of tamarisk trees. Many names, of course, failed to impress me or even repelled me. (It seemed to me then, and it seems so still, that most racehorses are poorly named.) I can recall from the 1940s such drab names as Lord Baden, Cheery Boy, and Zezette. The bearers of such names fared badly in my early imaginary races, which were invariably won by horses with appealing names.
I have hardly begun to describe the complexity of what I saw and felt during those imaginary races, so to call them. Vague shapes of horses were in the background, but the foreground included more than names in upper-case letters and the imagery arising from those names. Hovering nearby were shadowy images of persons, most of them males in suits and ties and with grey felt hats low on their brows.
In the 1940s, and for several decades afterwards, most racehorses in Australia were owned by one man alone, and all trainers and jockeys were men. Nowadays, syndicates predominate, many with ten or more members, but I grew up believing that the typical owner of a horse racing n Melbourne was a wealthy businessman or grazier or a medical or legal practitioner. The typical trainer may have lacked the social standing of the owners, his clients, but he looked hardly different, and if he was one of those described by racing journalists as shrewd or astute, he might have been even wealthier than they. Since no well-dressed or wealthy men were to be seen in the back streets of Bendigo, the image-men in my mind would have been derived from illustrations in newspapers. As for the men’s histories or personalities, I seemed to have understood already that these were of little account on a racecourse; an owner or a trainer was defined by the performance of his horses.
My image-horse had image-jockeys, of course, but these were mostly inscrutable. The nearest I had come to seeing an actual jockey was my standing beside my father at the Bendigo Showgrounds on a cold evening during the so-called Easter Fair while a few harness horses paraded before the race that was run as part of a program of foot-races and cycling-races and axemen’s contests. My father called out to a driver that he knew, and the man walked his horse to the outside fence, leaned back in his sulky, and exchanged a few words. While the horse and driver were approaching us, my father had told me that the driver was Clarry Long and the horse Great Dalla. Clarry, like many Bendigonians, was of Chinese descent and his mostly expressionless demeanour made him seem to me more self-assured than myself or my father. Clarry was wearing the first set of racing colours that I had seen, and the same weak light from atop the nearby stanchion that made Clarry’s face seem waxen worked also on the satin of his jacket. I have for long surmised that Great Dalla’s colours were brown with pale-blue stars and cap, but such was the play of light on the star-shapes, on that long-ago evening in far-away Bendigo, that I sometimes decide that the stars on the brown background were not pale blue but silver or even mauve or lilac.
The meagre details reported in the previous half-dozen paragraphs all went into the making of the complex imagery that appeared to me whenever I heard from the backyard the sounds of a race-broadcast. At different times while the chanted sounds reached me, I was aware of images of greyish pink horse-shapes, of horse-names in upper-case letters, of spectators looking out anxiously from under hat-brims, of jockeys with mask-like faces and vague-coloured jackets. I was aware too, of course, that much was at stake while these images jostled and vied.
The human voice is a marvellous instrument, and the ear that interprets it is hardly less so. I seem to have learned during my first days as a listener to race-broadcasts that a caller is sometimes able to signal to his listeners, even when the field is a hundred metres or more from the winning post, that one or another horse will almost certainly win. In some such races the likely winner may have broken clear from the rest; in many a race it may be some distance behind the leaders but gaining noticeably. Whatever the situation, the caller is able to utter the relevant name with such emphasis that his listeners are spared any further suspense. In the dusty backyard, I was often unable to make out a single name but still able to detect the emphatic utterance that signalled in advance the result of a race and to hope that the name thus emphasised was what I would have deemed a worthy name.
Driving alone nowadays and hearing reports of the progress of horses unknown to me, I often choose from a number of names the one that most appeals to me I then suppose myself to be one of the owners of the horse so named or to have backed it to win a large sum. Then I listen intently, hoping to hear my chosen name uttered with that certain emphasis that I learned, nearly seventy years ago, to recognise. On one such occasion recently, the invisible horse that I aligned myself with had a name that appealed to me greatly but was always toiling at the rear, to use one of the many stock expressions of race-callers and racing journalists. Even as a dreaming child, I had no wish to be a caller of races. I must have understood that I could never be cool enough or impartial enough during the running of a race to be able to report its developments accurately. And yet, I’ve been for most of my life moved often to hear in mind or to whisper under my breath or even, sometime when alone, to deliver aloud a few phrases or even a single word from a broadcast of some or another race never yet run on earth. I was thus moved on the occasion mentioned above, after the horse with the appealing name had finished among the tail-enders. I was driving at the time on a back road with bitumen wide enough for only one vehicle. I would have felt at liberty to express myself not just once but several times except that I saw from the rear-vision mirror that a huge truck was close behind me. Apparently I had slowed down while I was preoccupied with racing matters, and the driver of the truck was now anxious for me to get back to the speed limit or to pull over into the gravel and to let him pass. I saw just then a signpost ahead on the left and I flicked on my left-side blinker. The road that I turned into was of gravel and overhung with trees. I guessed that it led towards the Little Desert but the paddocks on either side were well grassed and dotted with sheep. I found a place wide enough for a safe U-turn and stopped. I wound down the driver’s side-window. I listened at first to the profound silence. Then I drew a deep breath and cried out once only what I had been urged for some time past to cry out. Then I watched perhaps a dozen sheep on the far side of the fence lift their heads and stare in my direction. I waited until every sheep had resumed its grazing and then I cried out again – not, of course, to the sheep but to the ideal listeners in the ideal world that I first populated nearly seventy years ago when I first heard a disembodied voice cry out with significant emphasis some such name as Something for the Pain.
Note from the author:
This piece of writing is the first section of a book-length work, not yet published, with the title Something for the Pain: A memoir of the turf.