Birdsville Races return to outback Queensland after a two-year-long COVID hiatus

Thousands of punters, books and caravaners have made the long journey out to Birdsville to place a bet at one of the most isolated horseracing events in the country.

The Birdsville Races swells the tiny frontier town on the edge of the Simpson Desert in outback Queensland from its usual population of 115.

It’s the first time the famous event has been held since 2019 after the pandemic induced a two-year-long hiatus.

But it hasn’t stopped the adventurous from making the seemingly endless drive on dirt tracks to soak up the atmosphere.

Races welcomed after pandemic

Paul Whelan traveled more than 2,000 kilometers in a caravan from Bairnsdale, Victoria, to attend the races.

For him, it’s a chance to catch up with mates over a cold one.

Pub with white fence, people standing out the front, sunset in background.
Punters have been making the most out of the reopened iconic Birdsville Hotel.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“My mate came down from Darwin to meet us here… we just wanted to try something different,” he said.

Drinks have been flowing both on and off the track, including at the town’s local watering hole.

Punters have also been making the most of the live music and entertainment.

A smiling woman with denim shorts, gray singlet, holding a beer, sits on a wooden bench under a verandah with two other men.
The town’s population swells during the Bridsville Races.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

Publican Ben Fullagar said the town welcomed the influx of tourism after two years of restricted interstate travel.

“Last year, we only had two states that could access Birdsville, so it’s really rewarding after those difficult times to see everyone rolling into town,” Mr Fullagar said.

Weekend a ‘success’ despite low turnout

Men and boy in hats standing at a fence under a sunny sky and lots of dirt.
This year’s turnout is lower than previous years, with about 3,000 flocking to the frontier town.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

With about 3,000 visitors flocking to the town over a three-day period, this year’s turnout is significantly lower than in previous years.

But Birdsville Race Club vice president Gary Brook said it was to be expected, given the unusual circumstances of the races.

Organizers were forced to cancel the event in 2020 and postpone last year’s race due to COVID restrictions.

A group of men and women in matching blue t-shirts ear colorful hats, holding drinks pump their fists and pose for a photo.
Attendees have been making the most of live music and entertainment.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

It means for the first time in the event’s 140-year history, the races will be held twice in one year – in April and September.

“[The races] are worth millions of dollars and really give Birdsville the exposure that will bring people back to outback Queensland in the future, “Mr Brook said.

Jockey on horse with Birdsville sign on an outback dirt track.
More than $ 200,000 worth of prize money is on offer for trainers during the two-day racing event. (ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“It’s a big undertaking to put on two races, so we won’t be lining up to do it again in the future.”

Concerns about fuel prices and the impacts of flooding in Queensland have meant some punters called quits on making the journey out.

Fanfare on and off the field

More than $ 200,000 worth of prize money is on offer for trainers during the two-day racing event dubbed the “Melbourne Cup of the outback”.

A smiling man in a blue shirt, white jeans, Akubra hat stands with a horse in a stable with other horses around him.
Mackay racehorse trainer John Manzellman says the races have been on his bucket list.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

One of those trying their luck is Mackay racehorse trainer John Manzellman, who journeyed out with 21 horses.

Mr Manzellman said he was taking advantage of the unique timing.

“With the Birdsville Races in April this year, it was an opportunity we seized, and hopefully, we can make it that we can come back in September,” he said.

“Hopefully, the luck runs with us and [we] win a race or two. “

An older man in a red silk shirt and jeans stands on a stage with a string of bulbs and a colorful banner, speaks into a microphone.
Fred Brophy’s famous boxing troupe is also at hand to entertain the visitors.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Punters from across the country have also stepped up to the plate to take their shot at beating Fred Brophy’s famous troupe.

The traveling boxing troupe is considered the last in the country – and possibly the world.

Mr Brophy said he was not put off by the smaller crowds this year.

Crowds sit under a tent with buntings while a man in red silk shirt and jeans talks to a young man with boxing gloves.
Fred Brophy’s traveling boxing troupe is considered to be the last in the country and possibly the world.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

“The less people, the easier it is to walk into that pub and get a beer. That’s pretty good,” he said.

Highlights and challenges for town’s only cop

A police officer looking seriously at camera wearing hat and standing in front of a house in outback setting.
Senior Constable Stefan Pursell says crowds have been well behaved so far.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

Birdsville’s only police officer, Senior Constable Stephan Purcell, said the weekend’s festivals had presented highlights and challenges.

Fourteen officers were called in from Mount Isa to help keep order in the tiny town, but there have been minimal problems.

Men in singlets and shorts, wearing caps and hats, sitting enjoying a beer at the pub’s deep verandah on a sunny day.
Drinks have been flowing both on and off the track, including at the town’s local watering hole.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“It’s dirty, dusty roads to get out here, and I’d like people make sure they take their time and enjoy the scenery and get home safely,” Senior Constable Purcell said.

Birdsville Races runs from Sunday, April 10 to Monday, April 11.

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