riding lessons


Whether or not you like a flutter it’s a lay down misere that the sport of racing is worth many millions of dollars to Melbourne and the state as a whole.

The latest race results show the Spring Racing Carnival delivered a gross economic benefit of $620 million, with 70,799 new hats being the feather on top of the $53.3 million spent in the fashion stakes alone.

Its money that doesn’t stop at milliners, but flows through the community to moteliers, high street restaurants, cafes, shops and trickles through the bowsers of petrol stations.

The lion’s share of revenue was generated by Flemington’s star fixture the Melbourne Cup, with the Caulfield Cup running second and the Cox Plate placing third.

Approaching National Jockey Celebration Day this weekend (August 2) it is sobering to reflect on just how much is riding on the slim shoulders of the 840 jockeys registered in Australia.

More than half of all Australian jockeys earn less than $60,000 a year (that’s before expenses), but come Cup time big corporates think nothing of spending $100,000 plus first-class air tickets to lure an international celebrity A-lister into their marquee for a couple of hours.

Statistics released by the National Jockeys’ Trust (NJT) this week reveal:

Approximately 200 riders are injured each year on Australian racetracks

89% of jockeys will have a fall that requires medical assistance

9% have fallen more than 20 times

Each year 40% of jockeys will have a fall that will prevent them from riding for an

average of five weeks.

Combined with track work there are almost 500 falls annually.

5% of these falls result in career-ending injuries.

In the next 10 years an estimated 10-12 jockey will die and another 50 will suffer career-ending injuries including paraplegia, quadriplegia and severe brain injury.

In the year to December 2013 three Australian registered jockeys – all female – died as a result of race falls – the highest number of jockey deaths in a single year since the NJT was founded.

In the past decade the NJT has provided more than $2 million in assistance to 200 injured jockeys and the families of those who suffered their last and fatal fall.

As NJT spokesperson Tanya Fullarton puts it: “When you think about it, a jockey weighing 50-60kg riding a 550kg thoroughbred at 60kmhp does not allow much margin for error.”

As a member of one of the nation’s most famous jockey families Michelle Payne well understands the odds.

One of eight sibling jockeys (six girls and two boys) who have notched up thousands of wins between them, Payne has been falling from horses since her dad Paddy first plonked her on a grumpy Shetland when she was aged four.

She has suffered a cracked skull, bruised brain, broken wrist, smashed ankle, twice fractured her neck and mostly recently she suffered five fractured vertebrae, a cracked collar bone and several broken ribs in at a country race meeting in 2012.

Payne is thinking of retiring in the next two years. Now 28 she says she “never wanted to ride until she was really old”, but the risk of injury she still tries not to think about.

If you do as a jockey, you’d go mad,” she once said.

This weekend’s race meet (August 2) it’s time for punters, sponsors, fashionistas to put their hands in their pockets for the riders and buy some National Jockeys’ Trust (NJT) merchandise.

The jockeys after all are the ones who make all the money go round.

ode to an old crock


Last week I laid a dear household appliance to rest.

My mother’s old crockpot – an original Monier model in that particular shade of burnt orange that defined the ’70s – was declared unsafe by Mr Tag and Test who had noticed the frayed wiring at the base.

We’d been seeking an explanation for what had been tripping the fuse controlling power to the kitchen.

And, my beloved old crockpot became the No.1 suspect.

As it was marched out into the hard rubbish I was assailed by the fragrant flashback of pot roasts past and a simmering olfactory stew of memories.

The rise in popularity of the electric slow cooker marks a pungently pivotal point in Australia’s social history, when wives and mothers started working outside the home in ever-increasing numbers.

In its own humble way the crockpot with its corny motto “cooks all day while the cook’s away” was an unsung utensil of emancipation.

Indeed it was not long after mum got her Monier that – much to my mortification – she took to riding my purple dragster to her part-time job.

Back then most families still had only one car and mum – like many of her generation – never did learn to drive.

The vision of her pelting down the hill, streamers flying from the handlebars, while the crockpot slowly melted a collection of raw ingredients into dinner was my first, most indelible impression of women’s liberation.

But, for all its years of stolid service, there was one ingredient which never found its way into the thousands of stews and soups ladled out from the trusty crock.

The Brassica rapa or turnip and almost interchangeable Swedish rutabaga are surely the most unlovely of vegetables.

It’s not for nothing that the turnip is the root vegetable of choice for comedians.

They are famously beloved by Baldrick in Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series and, closer to home, were pivotal in the bizarre backstory of a popular ’80s Sydney radio series called Bogdan The Turnip Boy co-written by my very funny brother Tim.

But when it comes to turnips I’m with mum and Marlene Dietrich who did not find them at all amusing.

As a teenager during World War 1, the German-born actress particularly remembered the infamous Turnip Winter when frost destroyed the potato crop and the turnip was all that kept people from starvation.

In her 1962 book Marlene Dietrich’s ABC she recalled: “I was raised almost entirely on turnips and potatoes, but I think that the turnip had more to do with the effect than potatoes.”

It was not altogether helpful to the malnourished population that the turnip is the dieter’s friend, with one-half cup of boiled turnips containing a scant 14 calories.

Personally I would rather eat the cup.

And now, having meandered down this unpalatable path, there’s a mountain of turnips before me and no easy way out, so I turn to Google and find the following attributed to Aristotle.

Erection is chiefly caused by parsnips, artichokes, asparagus, candied ginger and acorns bruised to a powder drunk in muscatel.”

Nope, no help there!

How about a a miracle cure for the common flu?

Late last year it was reported scientists in Japan identified a strain of bacteria in pickled turnip which was found to protect mice from a highly contagious strain of influenza.

Perhaps then this much maligned and ridiculed vegetable could be the next superfood.

Now that would be a turnip for the books.



crowns an anchor


So asparagus crowns seemed like the perfect spur-of-the-moment-just-‘cos thing to buy my dad.

He loves the stuff and, given half a chance, would eat it every day in season, and even pretends not to notice when it’s imported from Peru.

Now, he could grow his own crop in one of those raised garden boxes out the back. They’ve been sitting there empty ever since mum requested we buy them to house herbs she would never grow.

And it might rekindle his interest in the garden, I thought, marvelling at my own brilliance.

Indeed he seemed quite pleased until he started reading the planting instructions on the back.

Do not harvest for two years to allow the crowns to grow strong,” he read.

Now dad is 87.

He’s really not a well man.

He gets his personal papers in order at least once a month – just in case.

Setting the bag of packaged roots down, he looked at me with what I could only describe as pity.

Perhaps, I offered, you could think of it as an insurance policy. You simply cannot die until after the first asparagus harvest!

He smiled slyly.

I’m thinking of other insurance policies,” he said.

How about a 1924 bottle of Royal Brackla to crack open when when I turn 90.”

It only costs like $12,000, but hey – I’m for it – if it works.

The thing is, as much as my dad is missing mum, as much as his poor legs pain him so he can barely walk sometimes, as much as his life has become restricted by his failing body – he doesn’t want to give up.

He still finds joy in music and reading, still takes pleasure in the company of others, still gets fired up enough to write snappy, clever letters to The Age about the mean-spiritedness of Tony Abbott and the neo-cons.

Given my dad’s willingness to embrace life in spite of considerable impediments, I can only wonder at those who feel they have no choice but to let go.

In the past three months three men of my family’s acquaintance have suicided, each of them in completely different stages of life and circumstances, but evidently bound by a common, unshakeable despair.

One, the 55-year-old tradesman who built our deck, killed himself after a violent row with his drug-addicted son. He first calmly wrote cheques for any outstanding accounts to his hardware supplier and sub-contractors, thereby honouring any debts before death.

The second was my brother’s 40-something friend. A man with a lovely daughter, wife, beautiful home and successful business – all the supposed requirements of a good life. You think really, can the decision to end your life be in any way rational in such a case?

Then last week at the local shops I bumped into a neighbour from down the road.

He asked me if I had heard about Liam, his 25-year-old son.

No, I said, expecting he was going to tell me he’d moved interstate, joined the Army, broken his leg falling from a horse, got engaged, anything really except …

He committed suicide on Friday.”

What do you say? What do you say?

He stood there with his arms limp at his side, a picture of abject misery.

There was nothing to be done except give the poor man a hug, which only succeeded in unravelling him completely.

Suicide is not painless.


magic of mushrooms

Mycena sp. MYC5795

* pix by Alison Pouliot

All the recent rain makes me think of the eventual return of sun … and mushrooms.

Who can go past a plate of fresh-picked mushrooms cooked with a little butter, pepper and parsley?

But my faith in fairy rings found in the field was forever trampled when Horse Whisperer author Nicholas Evans accidentally poisoned himself, his wife and his brother-in-law to the point three of them needed new kidneys.

A true story more nightmarish than any international-best seller, caused by simply mistaking deadly webcap mushrooms for tasty ceps.

Perhaps that’s the dichotomy of our relationship with the third kingdom: its so shape-shifting.

One kind of yeast you’ve got candida – another and it’s champagne.

Yet the fungi kingdom with its enormous variety of yeasts, rusts, smuts, mushrooms, moulds, mildews and toadstools includes some of the most ecologically and economically valuable organisms on earth.

People have been relying on fungi since the very first loaf of leavened bread was baked and the first tub of grapes fermented into wine.

It’s fungi that puts the pop into Pol Roger.

And it’s the source of a raft of life-saving drugs including most famously the antibiotic penicillin, as well as providing nutritious food.

Yet for all fungus provides it is woefully neglected, particularly here in Australia, as ecologist and internationally acclaimed environmental photographer, Alison Pouliot, explains.

It might be said Pouliot is on a mission to put the fun into fungi. Her delicate compositions of perfect parasols, plump puffballs and lacy corals are a symphony of the soil.

I have looked at all the Australian legislation – as dry and dreary as it is – around biodiversity and none of it mentions fungi,” she laments.

They are really sort of out of consciousness here, and I think that could be because we don’t have the same sort of cultural connections they have in Europe.

The irony is we actually have way more fungi in Australia than there are in Europe.”

Close to 15,000 species of fungi have been described in Australia, but it is thought this is less than 20 per cent of the picture.

In Australia fungi are generally spoken about as being pathogenic or disease-causing and most money goes toward eliminating them rather than promoting the many benefits.

Yet, fungi is essential.

The tree we see in the backyard, Pouliot says, is really just the tip of the story.

If you imagine putting a stocking on a stick, the mycelium – the underground vegetative part of the fungus – coats the roots and can actually extend the root system of the tree by up to 1000 times.

It solulabises [makes soluble] things like nitrates and phosphates so the tree can absorb them, and in return the tree gives the fungus a feed of sugars, because the fungus can’t photosynthesise.

When we look at, say, a eucalypt, we think ‘oh, it’s a tree’, but it’s not, it’s a relationship.

With truffles it is actually a three-way relationship because you have their connection to the eucalypt, but they can’t disperse their spores unless a wallaby, bettong or some other mammal comes and digs it up, so you have this connection between three kingdoms.

You have the eucalypt that needs the fungus to be able to absorb nutrients, you have the fungus that needs the bettong.

It is this beautiful relationship.”

Fungi are, indeed, our friends.