Good on you Bill!

How a stubborn teacher prompted a day at the races 4 November 2017


BAGHDAD Note, a grey five-year-old ridden by Midge Didham, won the 1970 Melbourne Cup at 25/1.

It was an era when the radio was the medium for immediate knowledge of the winner. Not then live television coverage of the whole day or any of the modern trappings.

I am told the race was on radio but I didn’t hear it. Seated in a classroom at Guildford Grammar School, I was as expectant as any student awaiting the broadcast which the school hierarchy had generously allowed to be played through existing speakers in every classroom.

However, we hadn’t counted on Bill Burbidge, a nicotine-fingered, podgy rowing coach who happened to be teaching maths to me at that moment.

“We don’t need any of this,” said Mr Burbidge and turned the volume to 0.

In those days, the Melbourne Cup was run at 11.40am Perth time and maths was the period before lunch.

Incensed, I waited out the 20 minutes until the bell rang, went to my locker, put my straw boater hat into my bag and walked from the school. Across East Parade to East Guildford railway station and the next train out of there. 

No Melbourne Cup? Who were they kidding? More correctly, who was Bill kidding?

I don’t know how I got to Ascot racecourse because the train stops nowhere near there but I do remember spending the afternoon in the Leger, the free section of the course, located as tradition had it, a furlong (200 metres) from the winning post. I put my school bag under Scurra McKee’s bookie stand and enjoyed the moment.

Early pundits spotting a boy in a school uniform spending a school afternoon at a racetrack would have been spot on predicting here was a young man destined for a life on the turf. 

I have always remembered that Acello, trained by Mick Sheehy and ridden by J. J Miller won the main event. However, a check of the records shows Red Crescent (trained by Reg Treffone and most often ridden by Keith Mifflin) won the 1970 Prince of Wales Stakes, a race usually run at Ascot on Melbourne Cup day.

Either the race was different or my memory is shot. Favourite backers would be on the latter.

I am told 20,000 people will be at Ascot this Melbourne Cup day but life was far different then. 

In 1970 this was just a normal day at the races, the precursor of the city midweek meeting, introduced in the ensuing decade.

No marquees, no (more than usual) glamorously-attired ladies; no men wearing dresses or tuxedo tops above board shorts and thongs. 

West Australians (except for Bill Burbidge) have always taken the national view that the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops a nation but it was a much-less celebrated event then, apart from the race itself.

Which brings me to the question of where do these 20,000 potential racegoers work? What businesses become less effective for at least half the day as party food, drinks on ice and sweeps are organised for their staff?

The State is long overdue for declaring this day a public holiday.

We are all expected to move forward with life. Things change and we are expected to change with it. So my argument is this: Why doesn’t Melbourne Cup Day replace one of the other holidays West Australians have come to expect?

Who, for example, under 70 cares about the Queen’s Birthday? Do we still have to celebrate Labour Day? Is WA Day that important?

More controversially, there are many in our society who want to change Australia Day, believing it celebrates an invasion rather than the founding of a modern country? 

Make Melbourne Cup Day the new Australia Day and people can have a legal day off.

HOOFNOTE: The following year, Silver Knight won the Melbourne Cup and an even more liberal atmosphere reigned at Guildford Grammar. I took it upon myself to run a school-wide sweep. When early sales were slow I boosted the pot by buying several tickets under the nom-de-plume ‘Nunapar’ (a horse trained by Morrie Davison which I had backed when it won). I wasn’t too enthusiastic when ‘Nunapar’ drew Silver Knight, nor were the other ticket holders after it won. Fortunately, one of the masters, drama teacher Tony Howes, drew the third horse so the sweep was sanctioned and deemed legit.

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