I sigh when I realise the paradox of the novel nestled in my handbag for this Labour Day long weekend’s reading. It’s Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler and here I am in Victoria’s High Country for the annual Hinnomunjie Picnic Races. A hard-core habitual gambler, Dostoyevsky wagered he could write The Gambler in a month, whilst in the middle of writing Crime and Punishment, to pay off gambling debts. I wonder if Dostoyevsky has a message for me.
Snuggled within the Alpine National Park high in the Australian Alps, the picturesque Hinnomunjie racecourse, established in 1876, hosts one of Victoria’s longest running race meetings. It’s a 425 kilometre drive from Melbourne to Omeo, the pioneering mountain town famous for its gold mining history – and then another twenty clicks further to reach ‘the Track’ on Benambra’s fringe.
Exiting Melbourne, the route to Hinnomunjie hugs the highway and climbs, weaving its way along the Great Alpine Road. Forests of slender eucalypts flank the road. Here, bushfires wreaked havoc at summer’s end; now, fluorescent green growth sprouts from charcoal trunks. The black bitumen snakes on through undulating farmland, its painted white line a ribbon unfurling the kilometres. Pocket-sized hamlets blink past. Hay bales, haysheds, barbed-wire fencing. Windmills, water tanks, a white horse and a herd of black cows. Sheep. More sheep.
Beware of Falling Rocks. Slippery When Wet. Kangaroos Next 2km.
Signs flicker past, stark against escarpments of yellow clay and red gravel and get swallowed in the mauve mist of valleys feathered in cloud.
Mt Hopeless. Honeymoon Track. Haunted Stream.
The poetry of the place names evokes a softness that rubs up hard against the aged, wrinkled land. Old Gippsland; harsh, exacting.
One notice, ‘Road closure may apply beyond Omeo due to snow’, gives hope I’m nearing the last town before the racecourse. I coast into sleepy Omeo, its wide main street lined with heritage goldfields-era buildings – in the mid-1800s, European and Chinese gold-seekers flooded these parts to find their fortune. Ravenous from the early start, I seek out the town’s famed vanilla slices. A masterstroke. Sweet custard oozes between crisp flaky pastry. With a flourish of an icing-sugar dusted hand, the baker waves directions, ‘That way to the track, love. You can’t miss it.’
The Benambra road meanders on. I wonder whether I’ve missed a turn. Accustomed to gridlock around city racetracks, I’m puzzled – where are the racegoers? Only a lone sign welcomes me – No petrol before Mitta Mitta. I wind down the car window and the silence seems to sing. On the horizon, the mighty bulk of the Great Dividing Range sprawls.
I’m pulling out my High Plains map when I glimpse a horse-float. I let it pass and tag behind up a corrugated track. At a paddock gate a high-heeled vision of glamour appears. She’s laced with pearls, lipsticked scarlet, and selling race-books. I park amongst mud-plastered Fords, late-model Holdens and world-weary utes. Beyond, in front of a panorama of low rolling hills, the racetrack nestles. Above, the sky is powder blue.
The PA crackles, ‘Welcome to the 134th Omeo District Racing Clubs.’
I step aside for a couple of blokes wrestling the world’s biggest orange Esky into position under a straggly silver wattle, a trail of ice blocks tracing their path. A gauzy yellow Gippsland sun shimmers overhead and I’m glad for my straw hat despite its rather loud shade of fuchsia that screams ‘city’. There are Akubras, terry-towelling bucket hats and millinery masterpieces that could grace a Melbourne Cup catwalk. One chap’s maroon baseball cap matches his stubby-holder.
Scrambling for my race-book, I find my fingers around The Gambler instead. What would Dostoyevsky say, the first race ready to go, and not a wager on it?
It’s a six-race program and the on-course bookies are camped under vintage-striped beach umbrellas in the betting ring, their bulky white bookmaker’s bags strapped over their shoulders, their laptop computers propped on card-tables. Could they look any more Australian with their walk-shorts and tanned legs; their sun-weathered brows and earnest concentration?
Business is brisk. Punters pore over the form-guide and peer at the bookies’ odds, debating where the best running is – on the rails or out wide? There’s no city grandstand, no ticketed Member’s Enclosure, no live action on an electronic screen. Old friends embrace, backs are thumped, laughter warbles in the alpine air. The encircling hills, daubed bottle-green, brace like some theatrical prop dropped into the landscape for dramatic effect.
On the lawn, atop tartan rugs, girls in strappy sundresses arrange platters of cheese and strawberries. Between races, chaps in checked flannelette shirts surround the mounting yard studying the steeds in search of a thoroughbred in form. They remind me of Dostoyevsky’s gamblers, ‘ordinary people trying their luck’, ‘deeply serious’ and ‘deferential’, hoping for a ‘miracle’. Here in the Hinnomunjie sunshine, a cast of Dostoyevskian characters have assembled for the meet.
On a makeshift stage, children parade for junior Fashions on the Field – ‘Little Colt’ and ‘Filly’ are crowned, and with sash abreast, grin with pride. Sausages sputter on a barbecue hotplate where a man in a striped apron turns meat with tongs. Seduced by the siren call of wafting sausages, I order.
‘My mate’s the butcher, is the meat as good as ’e says it is?’ asks a fellow in a faded olive t-shirt emblazoned Mr Jihad.
Yes Mr Jihad, the meat is good.
There’s a cracking line-up for the blue ribbon event, the Hinnomunjie Cup. Hot tips abound. ‘The grey can’t be beaten,’ chest-beats one of the local miners.
It seems it can. Champion Chestnut, tinctured true to its name, brings home the Cup, and departs the winner’s enclosure for a blood sample in a makeshift swabbing stall, the hand-painted letters scrawled on weatherboards as if by a child. My horse, carefully selected for its name, Abitofun, finishes fourth. No fun at all, really.
‘He raced bloody green,’ rants a burly farmer as he tosses his betting slips on the ground. I see the miner hunched in despair, shaking his head. I wonder if the three of us have a dodgy punting gene. Dostoyevsky chuckles across the centuries.
After the Cup, cellophane-sealed lollies fly through the air – not from a plane as in previous years but from the race-caller’s tower. Kids wait below, hands outstretched. In the queue snaking back from the ladies’ toilets a chiffon-frocked matron confides in a whisper that last year, the Meet was cancelled mid-program when a Tecnam Ultralight doing the fly-over lolly drop got a wheel caught in a power line and crashed in flames near the home turn. Her hand is cupped to her mouth like a villain in a pantomime. ‘Punter’s luck, all escaped,’ she breathes.
Clowns and magicians wander amongst the eight-hundred-strong crowd, twisting balloons into astonishing shapes for an audience of trailing youngsters. An inflated sausage-dog creation pops in the crisp mountain air, and a grey gelding rears in the adjacent mounting yard. Nearby, the Services Club is selling hot doughnuts, four for a dollar, possibly the best value bet of the day. Between races, wooden hobby horses compete on the track, kids at the reins. Paper planes soar, flutter and death-dive into the hoof-churned turf.
The foot-races are contested as if lives depend on it. Men jostle hip and shoulder as they sprint down the straight where minutes before, horses have thundered. One bloke grapples another in a crash tackle better suited to a footy final. Another pulls a hamstring and writhes in agony.
In the girls’ race the judges forget to drop the finish-ribbon and nearly decapitate the leader. Next heat the kids run the length before the starter has said ‘Go.’ They return to the start, red-faced, to re-race. The winner punches the air.
‘You weren’t fast enough,’ a father says to his breathless eight-year-old.
Cumulus clouds bank against cobalt blue. The beauty of the backdrop is wasted on us. The fifth race is off and running. Joy Street starts awkwardly bumping the barrier, yet brings my best result for the day. Third. Or last, depending how you look at it; it’s a three-horse race, after all. I collect the grand dividend of two dollars. Two dollars – or two roubles, as Dostoyevsky’s ghost would surely vouch – won’t make my fortune.
The ale is flowing, and they’re three deep at Dave’s Bar, named after a much-loved local killed in a car accident up-country. A girl perches on a stool rubbing her blistered feet, her crimson stilettos swinging from her wrist like bangles. There’s a buzz around the bar. Word spreads that a freak storm is devastating faraway Melbourne. Thunder, lightning, hailstones the size of golf balls.
‘Races are off at Flemington,’ someone shouts.
‘Lucky you’re here. Now what’ll it be? A beer or a brolly?’
Onstage, the open Fashions on the Field are pulling an audience. Wolf-whistles drown out the PA. I see Mr Jihad and the butcher line up to contest Mr Dapper. When it’s the women’s turn, Lady of the Day is won by the Master of Ceremony’s sister from Lismore.
‘Don’t worry, love,’ I hear a chap comfort his girlfriend. ‘Remember when you won Miss Showgirl?’
The last race is announced. I sack my strategy of choosing by name and go for colours. For me it’s the ‘lucky last’, the get-out stakes. I feel I’ve become a Dostoyevskian bit player, an amalgam of Alexei, Granny and Polina Alexandrovna, up one minute, down the next – my crumpled form-guide a fulcrum for my seesawing emotions.
Against a backdrop of smoke-blue eucalypts, the horses round the circuit. When the whips crack at the winning post, my horse is last. The favourite takes the prize and the crowd roars. I hear a bookie mutter, ‘The favourite’s belted us.’
‘Yeah mate,’ replies his penciller. ‘We’re gunna cop a hiding.’
Another Hinnomunjie Picnic Race Meeting comes to a close, as one hundred and thirty-three have done before. I pull my purse from my handbag – it’s lighter, but there’s enough cash to follow the race-crowd to Benambra Hotel to hear the band Yesteryear. Maybe they’ll play Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’. Or in salute to my punting, a reverent rendition of Grateful Dead’s ‘The Loser’.
The publican has offered the hotel lawn to put down a swag or pitch a tent. I’m down but not out, as Dostoyevsky was more than once. But I haven’t pawned jewellery as he did with his wife’s heirlooms. Nor borrowed money and feuded with my best friend as the great writer did with Turgenev. Dostoyevsky chased his losses, whether stone broke and in debt, or flush with money. I like the exhilaration of the punt, but I’m not a slave to it.
Dusk drops over Hinnomunjie and bathes it in shadow. I hear a bookmaker say the Tambo Valley Races are at nearby Swift’s Creek this coming Monday, Labour Day. Here in the High Country, that’s two more sleeps.
Time enough to finish the novella.