Bush horse racing provides a vital social role in rural and remote Australia. It also bolsters local economies through tourism, employment and sponsorship.

Story By Jessica Owers

It’s mid-August, and 85-year-old Jack Mills is watching the weather forecast. He’s worried. In a fortnight he’s due at Innamincka, in the dusty north-eastern corner of South Australia, but the clouds are coming. “In that country, if there comes a big rain you don’t move for a number of days,” he says, and chuckles. “But I don’t know if you can trust the weather bureau.”
Jack is a bush-racing steward, these days based in Robe, SA, but in decades past in places such as Marree, Glendambo and Beltana – rural outposts in the Simpson that had, at one time or another, a race meeting that required a stipendiary steward. He started in Laura, east of Port Pirie, around 1960, and gradually moved into the backcountry. These days he stewards just Innamincka, for one weekend at the end of every August.
Innamincka is 1164 kilometres from Adelaide by sealed road, or just over 1000km via the Strzelecki Track. It services not only its resident population of about 12, plus the local cattle stations, but also the thousands that pass through it on the tourist trail. However, once a year, for a few weeks at the end of winter, the region explodes with activity as the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival gets underway. There’s the Innamincka Picnic Races and, over the Queensland border, Betoota, Birdsville and Bedourie races, all within a 600km catchment. Innamincka enjoys bustling trade from these meetings, with as many as 5000 people descending on Birdsville for what have become Australia’s most iconic bush races. For a good three weeks or more, the road through Innamincka is busy.
The Innamincka Picnic Races date to at least 1910 and are run, to this day, in the same spirit that founded the concept. Australia’s first picnic meeting is said to have occurred in 1855 on the pastoral estate Tirranna, just outside Goulburn, NSW, but the circumstances behind that first meeting are unclear. While some accounts state that it was two young boys, racing their ponies, that carved out the racetrack in Tirranna’s paddocks, it is more likely that the owner of the property, the esteemed pastoralist Dr Andrew Gibson, came up with the idea as a way of bringing local pastoralists together.
The idea became an enormous success in rural Australia. Bullock wagons, sulkies and stock horses ferried racegoers in those days, gradually replaced by rickety motorcars, and eventually modern vehicles and even light aircraft. It brought distant neighbours together and became an important part of Australia’s early social life in the bush.

This Story is from Issue #98

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2015