‘We’ll be back’: Birdsville’s quiet weekend as iconic outback races fall victim to COVID-19
By Letitia Rowlands • Digital Producer
11:39am Sep 4, 2020
Ben Fullagar admits a “had a moment” earlier this week.
“I was sitting out the front having a cup of tea on Wednesday morning and it suddenly hit me,” Mr Fullagar said.
“Wednesday is the day that everyone starts arriving and setting up, and there was nobody here.
Birdsville Hotel General Manager Ben Fullagar outside the Birdsville Hotel yesterday. (Supplied)
“It’s the day where if you have forgotten to order anything it’s too late.”Everything kicks off and you survive on very little sleep for the next five days.”
Mr Fullagar is general manager of the Birdsville Hotel and, in the outback Queensland town, the first weekend in September means just one thing – the Birdsville Races.
Known as the Melbourne Cup of the outback, the 138th Birdsville Races was scheduled to kick-off today – until COVID-19 forced its cancellation.
A much busier Birdsville Hotel this time last year. (Supplied)
The iconic annual event sees the Birdsville community of 115 locals swell to more than 8000 as visitors enjoy the region’s yabby races, street parties and various other events that lead into the big Friday and Saturday race days at the Birdsville Race Track.
More than $200,000 in prize money also attracts horses, trainers and jockeys from around the country to the dusty Simpson Desert course each year.
Mr Fullagar’s hotel normally orders 70 tonnes of alcohol for thirsty Birdsville racegoers, employs a team of 140 to take care of the standing room only crowd, and shuts the kitchen to the public in order to feed exhausted workers.
And they’re off: the dusty Simpson Desert track last September. (Supplied)
This weekend there are just 11 staff working at the hotel and, under COVID-19 restrictions, the kitchen can serve only 100 meals a night.
“It’s certainly very different this year,” Mr Fullagar said.
“It’s a bit strange, but everyone needs to do what is needed to stop the spread of the virus and we understand that.”
Races stalwart Fred Brophy would have been one of the regulars setting up across the road from the hotel on Wednesday morning, as he has for more than 40 years.
Instead he was more than 1400km away in the Queensland town of Cracow, where he runs the local hotel.
Fred Brophy has been bringing his boxing troupe to Birdsville for more than 40 years. (Supplied)
“It’s hard to believe a virus from another country has changed things so much out here in outback Queensland,” Mr Brophy said.
“But it has, and that’s just the way it is.”
Mr Brophy and his world-famous travelling boxing troupe are a major drawcard to many of the thousands who head to Birdsville each September.
Many locals credit “Brophy’s boys” for helping maintain the trouble free atmosphere over the weekend, as any racegoers feeling a bit hot under the collar can take their aggression out in the Mr Brophy’s ring in a controlled and entertaining way.
“Brophy’s boys” are a crowd favourite in Birdsville each year. (Supplied)
“We will be back next year,” Mr Brophy said.
“We are the only ones in the world doing what we do and we will keep doing it as soon as we can.”
Another Birdsville Races regular who is looking forward to returning in 2021 is veteran race caller Josh Fleming.
Mr Fleming has called the race 17 times in the last 20 years – the first time as a 14-year-old in 1999.
Mr Fleming believes the uniqueness of location makes the Birdsville Races like no other meet.
Josh Fleming called his first Birdsville Races in 1999, aged just 14. (Supplied)
“I owe a lot to Birdsville for giving me a start as a teenager and inviting me back each year,” he said.
“It’s not even just about the races, some people don’t even make it to the track, they just enjoy what’s going on in town.
“I’ve made friendships in Birdsville that I will have for my whole life, that’s just the kind of event it is.”
Mr Fullagar is philosophical about the 2020 cancellation, saying the break is giving organisers a chance to “think about how things are done”.
“There really isn’t much of a break usually from the end of one races until we are back organising the next,” he said.
Anything goes at the Birdsville Races. (Supplied)
“This is giving us a chance to step back and have a think about how we can do things differently.
“I have no doubt it will be bigger and better in 2021.”
Chances are, he is right.
The Birdsville Races have only been cancelled once before in its 137-year history – in 2007 when equine flu forced races to stop.
The following year saw the event’s biggest ever turnout.
Locals have no doubt the crowds will be back. (Supplied)
In the meantime, Mr Fullagar is happy to be hosting Australians unable to travel overseas who are using this time to discover the Australian outback for the first time.
“There are definitely some positives that have come from having a quieter period,” he said.
“For instance, I’ve also had people tell me they have been to Birdsville five times, but never been able to get a room at the hotel because it’s been booked out – now is their chance.”
Hopefully the hotel also has room for one familiar face this weekend – Mr Brophy.
“I might make the trip down there anyway to catch up with everyone in town,” Mr Brophy said this week.
It seems some habits just can’t be broken – not even by a worldwide pandemic.