Aviary Shake No Fluster For Short-Priced Frenchy at Clifton (Gelding Quits Track To Question Meaning Of Life And Quantum Physics)

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Clifton Cup Horse Races; Clifton Race Track & Recreational Grounds; 26/10/2013

“An animal couldn’t ever really cross over the intellectual divide to understand a concept as oxymoronic as ‘structured play’. Sport, in other words.”

Report by Nicholas Turner

It’s a reasonable drive out to Clifton, and a long one if you manage to take a wrong turn during what’s really a no-brainer trip. Fortunately, the back-route has some good surprises. We might never have scouted the titillating home of the Rosewood Roosters rugby league club, nor caught wind of the Laidley Lions, clubs now indispensable to a 2014 grassroots sports calendar. Nor would we have witnessed a priceless conflation of eras on a hillside pass between Gatton and Clifton; a young girl on horseback, descending along a rocky hillside, both hands occupied by the blurry, gen-y stabbing of an iphone’s face.

Perhaps the only real losers from our detour are the unsuspecting gentlemen at Rosewood’s Rising Sun Hotel, who hit us up for a tip as we pull in to use the toilet wearing our race-going attire. These friendly patrons are granted the express displeasure of joining us in the first of many dodgy backings over a long and expensive afternoon out West. By the time that donkey crosses the line, thankfully, we’re well and truly up the highway.

Somewhere around 1500 people live in the town of Clifton and that many again have come here for the day, but on your way to the track there’s not a soul to be seen. No cars on the road. No shops open. The only suggestion of humanity is a literal one; a no-frills scarecrow pinned to a lamp-post on the main drag. I start to think that somewhere nearby there must be a fifteen-year old babysitter making enough pocket-money on this one afternoon for one hell of a gap-year.

The Clifton Cup raceday is traditionally held on the same afternoon as Melbourne’s rich-and-famous weight-for-age championship, the Cox Plate. There in the city, among celebs and moguls and pollies, the winner of the Plate rides home with around two million dollars. The jockey might pocket two or three hundred thousand. Here at Clifton, on the track that shares real-estate with the historical Wattles rugby league club, the feature race dangles a carrot of precisely $5200.  The winning jockey will take home about as much as the winner of the ‘Fashions On The Field’ contest. Near enough to $500.

As to those fashions, they’re the flair and flavour of the day, and they seem especially out-there this afternoon; bright, textured and feathery. Royal blue is the choice colour, but no one misses the middle-aged lass in all manner of French rose, black and salmon, plus a pair of raucous cockatoo-pink sunglasses that seem to capture the mad spirit of the whole gallery. That the kids’ entertainer, Mrs Cupcake, decked out in an inexplicable clown-suit of the Rainbow Paddlepop schema, is not that far off fitting right in with the femmes of the marquee, is some kind of tribute to the on-course vogue. The exuberance of these dresses, combined with all the natter and cackle of locals getting tipsy on a sunny afternoon – springing up annually as it does from the quiet, camel-brown plains of this dry, flat part of the planet – seems like a sort of technicolour well-spring, a celebration against three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of dust and denim and everyone being so far away. The Cliftonites grab today by the reins.

For the youngsters, these annual country dress-up events have probably lost their overt courtship status in a world where social isolation isn’t quite what it used to be. But the sense that a mating ritual is taking place remains undeniable. The avian young girls are strapped into the ankle-rollers and parade like peacocks in heat. For the colts, this is a chance to slip out of the stiff jeans and holey cotton, shake the mothballs out of dad’s suit, swim in cologne, and show off what’s under the filth and sweat. For some, the strain of formality is real and palpable. But however far out of his comfort zone, not one fellow is too aloof or indignant to disrespect the community decision to smarten; the undeniable effort of formality is always there, though sometimes only in the form of a spit-and-push hairstyle to disguise a matted fringe. Button-down shirts remain tucked in all day, or at least till the races are over and the live band kicks in. At which point, God-knows how raucous it all gets out here in the middle of nothing where you can make all the noise you bloody well wish.

The horses contesting the five race card range from unraced locals to a handful that have run in the city. This is a stop on the Queensland country circuit, so the guide’s full of form based on races from Gatton, Esk, Warwick, Dalby, Toowoomba, and the like. Past head-to-head line-ups among the runners provide the strongest betting data available if you’re not tight with anyone who knows better.

The Cup itself goes to favourite Ellie La Vie, a good-looking smoky that runs chin-up and obviously settles well for her rider. Off the home turn, hopeful in-form runner Trickin joins value bet and early leader Seaza. These two get out in front on the short stretch to the post and look to be the only chances with a hundred to go. But the favourite has been eased in all-too-smartly, and manages to whisk by within a breath of the line, her soot-black nose first to flash in the mirror. It seemed as though the winning jockey knew the straight better, had counted it out stride-for-stride, and ultimately had the faith to believe that the race would not be won before the post. A brave and intelligent ride, worthy of the cheese.

After four hapless punts here and a few equally ill-informed flutters on the city, I decide in desperation to look these things in the eyes. The horses. In behind the stables the final race’s runners are tethered and waiting. I fall for one called Allez Charlie, a handsome gelding with the lean, taut physique and the light-footed stance of a Cuban middle-weight boxer. There’s a brief chance to touch his face before he heads to the mounting yard, and I take it. He doesn’t flinch. The noblest thing about horses – racehorses in particular – is that they don’t talk. Even champions don’t get to brag, nor can they discuss their personal brands, or their opinions on politics. They just stand there and hope you’ve got a carrot in the other hand. But I don’t.

Allez Charlie is no wins from eight starts. I gaze at his awesome hind and wonder why he doesn’t have the edge. He certainly has the motor. I give his ear a little bit of a flick and get his attention, and that’s when I tell him that I know he doesn’t know what’s going on. An animal couldn’t ever really cross over the intellectual divide to understand a concept as oxymoronic as ‘structured play’. Sport, in other words. But I also tell him that there’s good news in all of this. The good news is that no horse, no horse ever, has understood. And so if he, right now, is able to understand what I’m telling him, to grasp this concept and really and truly be the first horse to actually want to win the race – when all the other horses out there are slavishly responding in delay to kicks and whips – then he’ll surely win today. All you’ve got to do, Charlie (I presume to use the familiar title), is want this arbitrary thing we call the win, glory, and all that stuff. And even though I’ve lost everything today and really need some good to come from the last race, I decide not to go too much into explaining to Charlie the concept of betting and how all that works, how it’s the very fact that horses don’t know what they’re doing and can’t explain what they’re feeling that gives this event the eternal variable that enshrines it at the epicentre of sports gambling. That that’s why we people are not as keen to gamble on, say, people racing. He’s already got plenty to think about before the jump.

Charlie does a quick shit then the strapper takes him off to get dressed.

He looks good in the ring. Nervous, but good. This whole epiphany must have taken him by surprise, but I have faith that he’ll digest it before they release the gates. The young strapper leads him around by the bridle, nice and short, keeping him calm. Charlie spots me on the fence on his way past. He gives a raise of the head and a snort. It’s as good as a nod. I have one measly note left and I get behind him. On the nose.



Match Day (Steak) Burger score: 8.0

MD(S)B Price: $6.00

MDB Service Atmosphere (with many thanks to the hard-working Wattles fund-raisers for insights into the club): 8.5

Results: Race 1, Tipsy Tycoon 1, Scotchman 2, Heart‘n Soul 3; Race 2, Darling Be Good 1, Majigal 2, Outback Wrangler 3; Race 3, Chromed 1, Hannibal Ad Portas 2, Cyrano 3; Race 4 (Clifton Cup Open Handicap), Ellie La Vie 1, Trickin 2, Seaza 3; Race 5, Princess Dat 1, Koh Zaim 2, My Lethal Pony 3.

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