Dozens of disembodied lights glide through the darkness of Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse. Different colours and flashing sequences aid identification, like lighthouses at sea, for the men who clutch stopwatches in the brightly-lit central viewing tower. It is 5 a.m. on whatever day of the year you choose, and Randwick is going through its daily pre-dawn spasm of activity. For the equine and human residents who crowd the south side of the track, the day will be over by the time commuters come streaming past from the suburbs. Six hundred horses, fifteen minutes from the Opera House, ten from Bondi.
The picturesque illuminations are lights worn on the riders’ helmets.
Turned inwards towards the tower these cousins of the miner’s lamp lend training in the unfloodlit murk a degree of practicality against a backdrop of ever-threatening chaos. The deluxe models even have built-in bleepers to ensure perfect timings in a world where lost, or gained, seconds in a speed trial can cause a real rumpus. The working day is already a couple of hours old, the first flighty animal was climbed aboard at half past four and there may be as many as seven for each rider to put through its paces. No time for a breakfast break between lots here: the exercise track inside the racing turf course closes at 8.15 sharp, and if you sneak your last horse on close to the deadline a groundsman with admirable Antipodean directness will tell you exactly where you stand.
But there are compensations for the gaspingly early start and frantic schedule. The eerie lights of aeroplanes, coming in so low they seem to hang over the course before descending onto Botany Bay’s reclaimed runways, a “straight from the outback” sunrise revealing the soaring skyscrapers just behind the grandstand beside Sydney Cricket Ground - and the fact that on this routine you deserve your first beer well before noon. To see a community so singularly obsessed, so densely packed cheek by jowl, so competitive and keeping such bizarre hours is a sight to make Newmarket seem distracted and diluted. Yet somehow it all works, from the first groggy saddling-up and the repetitive circuits around the dirt track to the endless streams of horses constantly wending their way back and forth between stables and course; and all well before any modern Sydneysider has their first low-fat cappuccino.
Chaos and efficiency mix most potently with the dawn arrival of the professional jockeys who lean casually against the viewing tower, slapping their calves with their whips and conspicuously ignoring the surrounding melee. As ever in the world, they come from two moulds: old, wizen and small or young, pale and ominously tall. A carefully timed deluge of warmed-up horses arrives from every angle and the games begin. Perhaps ten trainers try to sort out pilots for all their work horses without stepping on the toes of rivals and colleagues. It’s a process that works on friendships, past favours, informal commitments and raw ambition. A predatory agent prowls around, the matey friendship belying his Machiavellian dealings, jockeys, keen to avoid looking spare (or desperate), try to juggle options, picking horses which will run soon and might provide that next winner. Gai Waterhouse, daughter of the recently departed legend T.J. Smith, relishes the system. Reaching far out of the tower’s upper windows, she constantly chivvys her horses, staff and jockeys, confident in the knowledge she’s calling the shots, and a certain measure of confusion keeps everyone else on the ball.
With the light finally giving shape to all the half-glimpsed action before dawn, the snatched images of fretting horses, walking carousels and shouted instructions blend into a coherent picture that is Randwick, but the work isn’t over yet. There might be three or more still to ride, each to be tacked up with bright plastic bridles and hard-tightened sursingles. Fall off here, everyone knows about it with rotating orange flashing lights activated across the course to warn the gate men to close up. An escapee from here, after all, is just a short gallop from Harbour Bridge, a scenario that would cause as much hassle as the Olympics are doing at the moment.
Fate permitting, everyone negotiates the busy exercise track which simultaneously entertains slow hackers (on the outside) and serious sprinters (have been known to split either side of a cantering horse to shrieks of high excitement followed by grunted curses). With practised timing, riders cross into the centre and trot around to warm up. Esoteric
instructions, combining metric with miles and furlongs, are issued by the trainer (“On at the mile, 5 and 2.” - Don’t ask). God willing, these are followed to the letter and it’s back for another.
The relative calm of daylight has replaced the mysteries of dark and the ground staff are into their well polished routine, each horse passes through the sand roll and has a complete hose-down. To their great credit, where horses change often and can seem anonymous, the ground staff take great personal care of their horses. In turn, it’s worth taking care of the staff oneself because they’ve got the precious ability to tell one horse from another and so hold the key to instant humiliation if the urge ever takes them. Beat them at darts, act “Stupid Pom” and they soon start tacking up for you. Or perhaps they could see I wasn’t acting.
Then suddenly it’s all over. The course becomes the quiet green oasis Sydney knows. Six hundred exercised horses rest peacefully in their boxes, the yards are swept, the banter fades and the shudder of activity that rocks Randwick every morning has passed off again. If there’s racing here, or at any other local track, it’s only the start of a very long day. If not, it’s time for that beer.