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April 18, 2011

SPOOKED BY SPIRIT OF VANUATU’S RACEDAY



David Ellis

WHEN a group of expatriate Aussies in Vanuatu's capital Port Vila decided  that life without a racetrack just wasn't the same as back home, they decided if they couldn't get to a racetrack, they'd get a racetrack to them.

So they went in search of a bit of land on which a handful of work horses from their coconut and cocoa plantations could race around a temporary track one Saturday afternoon, while they and their mates enjoyed a flutter.

And so became Port Vila Kiwanis Club Charity Cup Day, a now-annual race meeting that, 25 years later, is like no other, attracting 10,000 world-wide spectators.

The pioneers of this event laid-out their first racetrack on a local cattle property.  The day before they shoo-ed the cows away, used bamboo to make everything from the rails to the temporary toilets, and borrowed a pile of discarded builder's scaffolding to construct the appropriately named Berocca Stand.

That first meeting in 1986 was a huge success, and next day, while assessing wins, losses and hang-overs, all the bamboo structures were burnt to the ground, the Berocca Stand dismantled and the cows brought home to graze.

The track site has changed a few times since then, and is now permanently located near the Vila abattoirs – which may be an incentive for horses and riders.

The first few years of the Port Vila Cup race meeting could best be described as chaotic: in 1988 the cruise ship Fairstar arrived in town and disgorged 1200 passengers, most of whom headed for the racetrack for some heavy betting and heavier drinking, totally overwhelming officials, bookies and bars.

So the organisers asked the Australian Jockey Club in Sydney if it could lend some stewards to get some semblance of order into the 1989 event. Chief Steward, John Schreck himself flew up with a couple of off-siders, Terry Bailey and Brett Wright.


It was the start of something big for Bailey, who these days is top steward in Victoria and responsible for everything going right for the Melbourne Cup.

The names of the horses that turn out for Vila's big race day show that much thought goes into readying them from their plantation work to once-a-year racetrack gallopers: Westpac Folly, Boots, Buck, Donkey, Equus, Just A Gigolo, Lick Lick, Neddy and Roots are just some of them.
          
Schreck and company found that one horse that would race in Port Vila in 1989 was named Fine Cotton. But it wasn't the Fine Cotton of infamous Brisbane 1984 ring-in fame. This Fine Cotton finished last in a field of six in its first 1989 race, and last behind six others later in the afternoon.

And it ran twice because there aren't enough horses and jockeys to create fresh fields for all the day's scheduled races: the same nags and hoops take part in several races, simply changing their names from race to race.

And the formal race day history shows that even officials haven't been immune from self-induced disasters, including on one occasion "the judges, thinking that their job would be easier than the previous year, got so drunk the visiting Australian stewards had to assist their decisions..."

And after a horse named Spook won a couple of races another year, some of the superstitious local Ni-Vanuatu spectators were so convinced the hopeless hack really had been spooked to run fast enough to win, they said they were fearful to return to the track again.
 
To ease those fears a local medicine man has been brought in every year since to "sweep" the track of evil spirits.
          
But even he got too much into the spirit one year, drinking so much kava he could have been charged with seriously over-acting... it was the only year Spook didn't win.   

And then there's presentation dais decorum. Some years back, thirty Australian country football club members attended the Vila Cup, and their somewhat over-exuberant president hijacked the presentation ceremony to present a club jumper to Vanuatu's President, who was doing the day's honours.  

"You are the Big Chief of 140,000 Vanuatuans," the Aussie slurred. "I'm the Big Chief of 30 drunks."
        
Not surprisingly he's never been invited back.


(Footnote: This year's Port Vila Charity Cup will be held on Saturday, July 16.)

 

 

PHOTO CAPTIONS:

 

[] THEY'RE racing – Vanuatu's annual Port Vila race day is like no other.

[] BECAUSE there aren't always enough horses for all the afternoon's races,

   horses and jockeys sometimes race several times under different names.

[] ALL dressed up for the day.

[] AUSTRALIAN Jockey Club stewards "on loan" for the earliest races enjoy a

   break in the "Stewards Room" – the back of a station sedan: (l to r) Terry 

   Bailey now Melbourne Cup Chief Steward, Brett Wright and Col Hodges

   Who still calls races on Sky Racing.

[] THE original aptly-named Berocca Stand.

 

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