Australia is world-renowned for producing the very best race-callers with many of the ilk travelling overseas to ply their trade and bring their skills to tracks as diverse as Happy Valley in Hong Kong, Kranji in Singapore and racecourses in the United States and Britain.
Way back in 1977 I began what turned out to be an intermittent two-year ‘career’ as a race-caller. As with a number of things I have done in my life, this was achieved by unconventional means.
I began- and finished- my brief career behind the microphone calling, of all things, quarter-horse races.
Quarter-horses are so called because they are designed to run faster than any thoroughbred over a distance of up to around 440 yards (400 metres), or a quarter of a mile in Imperial measurement terms. After about 400 metres they start to decelerate but are still quite capable of competing up to around half a mile, or 800 metres, or so.
Most races are held down a straight track where possible or, at worst, there will be a single bend.
I was nineteen years old and my school friend Warren Andersen, who was heavily into horse racing, decided to become a racehorse trainer. He was acquainted with a few people involved around the Australian Quarter-Horse Association (AQHA) and figured he might be able to get his foot on the training ladder by getting some old racehorses capable of still running a fast 400 or more metres and competing with them at the few tracks where quarter-horse racing was in its infancy.
While the American quarter-horse was a feature at Australian shows, festivals and rodeos engaging in all the features usually associated with horses at these events, it hadn’t progressed into full-scale racing, unlike in parts of the United States where quarter-horse racing was a major spectator and gambling sport.
The AQHA was in the throes of trying to bring quarter-horse racing in Australia to compete alongside the thoroughbreds, standardbreds (trotting as we called it back then; harness racing as it is now) and greyhound racing.
Yet there was a problem. The people Warren had come to know were not happy with the lack of progress being achieved by the AQHA, and they had split from the main organisation and formed the New South Wales Sprint Racing Association.
This breakaway group was beginning to conduct a show and race meeting at Bossley Park, out in the west of Sydney. The track itself was hardly Royal Randwick or Flemington. A long, straight grass run with railings on either side. The barrier stalls were about the only indication the Bossley Park racetrack was an operational entity.
I used to accompany Warren to the race meetings and show, held on a Sunday afternoon. The ‘races’, such as they were, usually consisted of a single race only, and rarely more than about three or four starters.
After a couple of visits Warren suggested I should bring my binoculars -which I’d had since I was about fourteen years old to watch greyhound racing at Harold Park and Wentworth Park- and see if they would let me do a call of the race.
Given that someone making a bit of ‘noise’ by calling a race through the on-course broadcast system would at least add a little bit of ‘colour’ to the day, it was agreed I could take up the duty as official race-caller. There was no remuneration involved.
It was a pretty easy introduction to the art. My first race call took place on 26 June 1977 and consisted of Warren’s entrant Balgownie Boy and one other horse, whose name I don’t recall. Warren was not only the trainer, he was also light enough in those days to be the jockey as well since he probably only weighed about 60 kilograms wringing wet.
A two-horse race over 400 metres or so should not be a cause for butterflies and trepidation, but I remember being extremely nervous. I was a very shy person compared to my gregarious mate Warren and kept thinking, ‘I hope don’t make a complete balls-up of this.’ Thankfully, no recording of the event is available; indeed I am not aware of any recording of any race which I called in my ‘career’, which at least prevents any chance of me being blackmailed to keep such a thing suppressed.
That first race took all of about twelve seconds to run and in that time I probably mentioned Balgownie Boy’s name twenty times and the other horse maybe six times. My excuse for this is that Warren pretty much led all the way on Balgownie Boy and won fairly easily. Being my first race call I thought I needed to rattle off names as fast as possible, whereas it would really have been better to relax and call the race as if it was going to last forever and I had all the time in the world. This was especially the case with a two-horse race.
Nonetheless, I wasn’t sacked from the task and came back two weeks later for the next meeting and called two races, both of which consisted of small fields of two or three horses only. I still wasn’t very good and after that meeting did not come back again for just over nine months.
I’m not sure why there was a long hiatus, although it may have been because there were ructions within the quarter-horse community and no racing was held, but I’m not sure. It may have been that Warren’s horses weren’t available to race and so we simply didn’t go to the meetings. I was starting to spend more evenings in the local pubs as well, especially on a Saturday night and so getting up early to drive out to western Sydney wasn’t especially enticing.
I do know Balgownie Boy won the CCQHA Racehorse Award for 1977. I think the CCQHA then stood for the County of Cumberland Quarter-Horse Association. Checking the ubiquitous Google in 2017 I note the CCQHA still exists, but it’s now the Central Coast Quarter-Horse Association and therefore not the same grouping.
My latent ‘career’ resumed on Sunday 30 April 1978 when I called the only race held at Bossley Park that afternoon. There was another single race held at the course on 28 May and I called that and then, on June 18, I called the only two races run that day.
By this time Warren had established the Duffy’s Forest Sprint Racing Stables, where he trained Balgownie Boy and a very fast but very temperamental black horse named Flying High who had set a 400-metres track record of 23.3 seconds at the Denman racetrack.
Warren, along with Max Andersen, his father, and myself attended a meeting on 7 July to select a committee to run a breakaway organisation to be called the Sydney Sprint Racing Association, which was to be affiliated with the wider NSW Sprint Racing Association. As it happened, Max, Warren and myself became the ‘committee’. The first meeting of this ‘committee’ took place just four days later, at a house in Fairfield.
Basically, the NSW Sprint Racing Association (NSWSRA) was a breakaway group from the Australian Quarter-Horse Association. It was all a bit Monty Python-esque.
The Sydney Sprint Racing Association could be likened to the Monty Python Life of Brian movie equivalent of the People’s Front of Judaea and not to be confused with the Australian Quarter-Horse Association which represented the despised Judaean People’s Front. No wonder quarter-horse racing never got out of the basement, let alone made it to the ground floor.
I imagine there were people who thought quarter-horse racing could be the next big thing and wanted to position themselves to be in the front ranks because of the earning potential and power which could be wielded. So, instead of quarter-horse racing participants uniting behind a single entity, the edifice they were trying to create essentially fell apart because of factionalised infighting.
A truce was called and on 22 July Warren and myself travelled to Dubbo as the delegates from the Sydney Region Sprint Racing Committee for a Sprint Race Club meeting. That meeting agreed to form the Union of NSW Sprint Race Clubs and would include both NSWSRA and AQHA tracks.
I resembled a piece of furniture at that Dubbo meeting. I sat alongside Warren and uttered not a single word during the entire conference. I’m not sure Warren said too much either. I think we both felt well and truly out of our depth. It certainly cured me of ever wanting to be a member of any kind of committee for anything at all.
On 25 July, Warren and I reported on our trip to a meeting of the Sydney Sprint Association and helped in organising what would be a major race meeting to showcase quarter-horse racing, to be held on Saturday 12 August. I was appointed Race Secretary for this meeting, which sounds pretty impressive but really was probably a kick upstairs while a ‘proper’ race-caller was roped in for the historic occasion.
I called my last race at Bossley Park on Sunday 30 July. When the big meeting took place on 12 August it came complete with a printed race-guide which highlighted the runners in each of the first four races, with a fifth event, to be run over 800 metres, to be run as a consolation and managed to misspell my surname, rendering it ‘Stern’ instead of ‘Stearn’. I’m not sure if that was meant to be a subtle hint of some kind.
The meeting was quite successful with Brian Jack, a ‘professional’ race-caller who, I think, used to call greyhounds and harness racing around the Newcastle region, being the race-caller for the day. He was certainly a far better choice than me to be calling a series of races which had more than two or three horses engaged.
After that ‘peak’ I never returned to Bossley Park or was involved in any kind of committee or administration of the sport. This was not because of any problem but simply because I was spending a lot of time getting inebriated in bars with a group of like-minded individuals. I was also busy playing cricket (badly) with a bunch of friends on Sunday afternoons during summer.
Nonetheless, I ended my race-calling career on a high, or low, depending on who was listening, at a place called Black Creek, near Cessnock, on 26 May 1979. By that time I was approaching my twenty-second birthday and it was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be ‘discovered’ as the next big thing behind the microphone.
That meeting at Black Creek consisted of an originally-planned eight races which quickly blew out to become ten when a surfeit of nominations was received. The races were run over distances from 380 to 780 metres on a neat grass track complete with a finishing post which just happened to be sited right next to where I was seated to call the races.
The problem for me as a race-caller was the ‘post’ consisted of the finish line, which I could not see, and propped up with two rather large pieces of timber either side which meant as the field crossed the line there was no way I could see which horse was actually in front unless it had been a clear leader about two strides before it ‘disappeared’ behind the timber frame.
Adding to my woes, I was sitting in such a way the only time I could really see who was leading was as the field left the barriers and raced side-on to me until they came around the bend into the home straight. After that the horses were thundering in a line like the Charge of the Light Brigade and in many of the races that afternoon I had to gauge as best I could which ones were actually in front.
Further complicating matters was that each field was only finalised about twenty minutes before each race was due to start. I was then handed a sheet with the names and numbers of the horses and then I had to try and memorise the colours of the silks worn by the respective jockeys. The only set of silks with which I was familiar belonged to Warren. The rest I had to try and learn as each field got ready in the mounting yard, which was in front of my broadcast position, before they headed off to the barriers.
This was billed as a ‘picnic’ race meeting and so a couple of bookmakers were on hand to take bets from the public.
There was no photo-finish and so the winner and placegetters for each race were decided by the judges who were, naturally enough, on the opposite side of the track to the winning post and had an uninterrupted view as each horse reached the line.
Most fields, as I recall, consisted of at least six runners with a couple of races boasting nine or ten starters. I remember hoping for a few clean breaks where the finishes would be obvious and not so close. The gods of the racetrack rarely granted that wish. Of the ten races, about seven were extremely close finishes with the winner scoring by about a head or a neck.
Given I couldn’t actually see the finish, I had to try and guess which of a clutch of two or three horses which I knew had finished virtually together had won the race. Had I been a little smarter, I should have being saying something like, ‘oh, it’s too close to call, maybe Guano has nudged out Hit The Fan (to make up a couple of names), but we’ll have to leave it to the judges to decide.’ That would have been sensible, but I didn’t do it. Instead, I made an attempt to announce the winning horse at every race, and this caused me some grief at the conclusion of the meeting.
I had just called the last of the ten races when I became the target of abuse by one gambler. This bloke looked up at me and said words to the effect of, ‘I hope you’re bloody right with that last winner ya bastard, you’ve been calling the wrong ones all day!’
I looked down at him, smiled, and replied, ‘No, I’ve got this one right.’ How did I know? Truth is, I didn’t; I was bluffing, exuding a confidence in my prediction, which I had no right to exhibit. Thankfully, the result came up as I had called it, much to my relief and, I imagine, that of the abusive gambler who wandered in the direction of the bookies to collect his winnings and thence, no doubt, to the bar for a few drinks.
And so ended my ‘career’. What really put the nail in the calling coffin was a young lady, of course.
A couple of months after the Black Creek meeting I met a young lady in a bar in Manly, as one does, and started a courtship which excluded much in the way of racing, and certainly put an end to any ideas I had about continuing to pursue the life of a race-caller, which is a tough gig at the best of times.
As for quarter-horse racing in Australia, four decades later it remains an elusive pipedream, although there is talk of it kicking off in parts of Queensland some time in 2017 or beyond.