FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
Bernie Pramberg Courier Mail 25th April
Punters and practitioners of the turf are a hardy lot and their resilience shone during the dark days of World War II.
RACING TO VICTORY: US forces lodging at Camp Ascot during World War II, and (below) Thoroughbred Racing History Association president Peter Howard.
Within three weeks of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Brisbane racetracks at Eagle Farm and Doomben were transformed into army camps housing thousands of American troops.
More than 30,000 racegoers attended a race meeting at Eagle Farm on the day before the US base at Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese.
They could never have envisaged it would be four and a half years until the next meeting at the Farm.
Virtually overnight, the military took over the two racetracks. Sentries were on duty at the gates and nobody was allowed in.
With the tracks closed, trainers walked their horses to Albion Park for trackwork.
Horse floats could not be used because of Government restrictions on fuel.
Albion Park, the saucershaped sand track with a circumference of 1200m and universally known as “the Creek’’, suddenly became the epicentre of Queensland racing.
Peter Howard, a former long-serving Courier-Mail journalist and columnist, this week presented an insight into racing during the war in a talk presented by the Thoroughbred Racing History Association.
Howard, president of the TRHA, paid respect to servicemen for whom Camp Ascot and Camp Doomben were staging camps before going into action against enemy forces from 1942-45.
“Sadly, US servicemen and Australian Diggers lost their lives in battles to Australia’s north and in the Pacific after spending time in these camps,’’ he said.
Howard’s presentation combined history with colourful anecdotes so typical of the racing game.
One story involved Brisbane trainer, the late Des McGee, who was a boy at the time and was allowed access to the camps by sentries.
“An American soldier gave Des 10 shillings to go down Racecourse Road to buy some sandwiches,’’ Howard said.
“Des came back with the sandwiches which cost four shillings and the Yank told him to keep the change.
“Des showed enterprise beyond his years and raced back to the shop, bought a loaf of bread and a Windsor sausage and made his own pile of sandwiches. He cleared three and a half quid that first day.’’ Although there were calls for racing to be suspended, the overwhelming view was it should continue for several reasons, not the least to boost public morale. Dr Glen McCabe, who attended Howard’s mid-week address, was a medical student and then casualty officer for Brisbane hospitals during the war years.
He later came to appreciate that racing at the Creek helped stimulate and maintain morale during those tough times.
Another who attended the talk at Eagle Farm was Darcy Maddock, son of the legendary Queensland jockey Russell Maddock.
Darcy told how the jockey enlisted in the army but he was so light the recoil from his rifle sent him reeling backwards.
Russell was deployed and trained as a cook.
Another jockey of the time, Noel McGrowdie, tried to enlist early and was extremely keen to join the army and go to war but was rejected on medical grounds.
He was shattered but colleagues nicknamed him “Digger”.
The nickname stuck and “Digger” McGrowdie became known as the Cups King and won the 1957 Melbourne Cup.
Weekly race meetings at Albion Park from 1942-45 drew crowds of 30,000 and top gallopers of the time including Auction, Repshot and High Rank were idolised.
Auction, who carried as much as 12st 6lb (69.5kg) to victory at the Creek, was a particular favourite of the American troops.
Race clubs throughout Queensland, both city and country, supported the war effort with the Queensland Turf Club providing the Government with an interest-free loan of £5000, equivalent to more than $1 million today.
Albion Park was prone to king tides from Breakfast Creek when water backed up in drains, flooding parts of the course, including the betting rings.
Howard related a story of an Aussie soldier striding through ankle-deep water in the betting ring with a meat pie in one hand, rain flowing off his slouch hat, flooding the back of his greatcoat.
Undeterred, he scanned the bookies’ boards, studied the odds and took a bite from his pie before making a bet.
An American general, watching from the members’ grandstand turned to his Australian host: “Colonel,’’ he said.
“Give me a battalion of men like that and I will win this goddamn war in no time.’’