Birdsville Races returns to inland Queensland after two-year COVID hiatus

Thousands of punters, bookies and caravanners have made the long journey to Birdsville to wager on one of the most isolated horse racing events in the country.

The Birdsville races increase the small frontier town on the edge of the Simpson Desert in inland Queensland from its usual population of 115.

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

But it hasn’t stopped adventurers from taking a seemingly endless journey down dirt roads to soak up the atmosphere.

Careers welcome after the 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 his peers over a cold beer.

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

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

The drinks have been flowing both on and off the track, including at the local watering hole in town.

Punters have also taken full advantage of the live music and entertainment.

A smiling woman in denim shorts, gray t-shirt, holding a beer, sits on a wooden bench below a terrace with two other men.
The town’s population increases during the Bridsville races.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

Publican Ben Fullagar said the city 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 gratifying after those tough times to see everyone coming to town,” Fullagar said.

Weekend a ‘success’ despite low turnout

Men and boys in hats standing on a fence under sunny skies and lots of dirt.
This year’s turnout is smaller than previous years, with some 3,000 people flocking to the border city.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

With around 3,000 visitors flocking to the city 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 that 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, colorful hats, holding drinks, raise their fists and pose for a photo.
Attendees have made the most of the live music and entertainment.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

It means that 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] they are worth millions of dollars and really give Birdsville the exposure that will bring people back to inland Queensland in the future,” said Brook.

Horseback rider with the Birdsville sign on an inland dirt track.
More than $200,000 in cash prizes are being offered to trainers during the two-day racing event. (ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“It’s a big company 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 caused some customers to stop making the journey.

Fanfare on and off the pitch

More than $200,000 in prize money is being offered to trainers during the two-day racing event dubbed the “Inside Melbourne Cup.”

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

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

Manzellman said he was taking advantage of the unique moment.

“With Birdsville racing in April this year, it was an opportunity that we took advantage of and hopefully we can get us back in September,” he said.

“I hope luck is 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 chain of light bulbs and a colorful banner, speaks into a microphone.
Fred Brophy’s famous boxing troupe is also on hand to entertain visitors.(ABC Western Qld: Carli Willis)

Punters from across the country have also flocked to the plate to try and beat Fred Brophy’s famous company.

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

Brophy said the smaller crowds didn’t put him off this year.

Crowds sit under a bunting tent as a man in a red silk shirt and jeans talks to a young man in 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 fewer people, the easier it is to walk into that pub and have a beer. That’s pretty good,” he said.

Highlights and challenges for the only cop in town

A police officer is seriously looking at the camera in a hat and stands in front of a house indoors.
Lead Agent Stefan Pursell says the crowds have been good so far.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

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

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

Men in t-shirts and shorts, wearing caps and hats, sitting enjoying a beer in the deep terrace of the pub on a sunny day.
The drinks have been flowing both on and off the track, including at the local watering hole in town.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

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

Birdsville Races takes place from Sunday, April 10 through Monday, April 11.