Boulia Shire Council 21 Sep 2019

By Josh Fleming with Graham Potter | Friday, September 20, 2019

Josh Fleming’s association with the Birdsville Races is a fascinating story. The now well-established Sky Racing race-caller called the Birdsville Cup for the first time in 1999 as a fourteen-year-old (no, that’s not a misprint). In 2019 he was still doing the calling honours for what Josh calls ‘the best week of the year.’ HRO’s Graham Potter caught up with Josh and asked him to give his personal account of what is truly a unique association with a unique event. Here, Josh’s passion for Birdsville, having already lived and witnessed a large part of the modern-day history of the Birdsville Races first-hand and having loved every minute of it, clearly shines through for all to see. This is Josh Fleming’s Birdsville story.

I was fourteen years of age when I first set eyes on Birdsville in 1999.

They race in September and halfway through that year, in the lead up, they didn’t have a race-caller. They were looking for one and they went to John Wallis, who was the Chief Steward of the area at the time, and he suggested me even though I was obviously very young … so they contacted me. Things started there and that association has now been going for twenty years.

My first ever race-call was at Longreach in December 1998, about nine months before Birdsville. I’d been around the tracks in the bush with John Wallis. He used to take me around all of the tracks out there. I used to practise race-calling. He was a great supporter of mine and took me under his wing. I guess at that stage I didn’t know if I would go on to the stewarding front or calling but he knew how keen I was and he put my name forward for Birdsville.

When I got the call-up, I didn’t know much about Birdsville. I had heard of it but I went there not knowing what to expect. I certainly had no idea then that it would turn into such a long association. I was just very lucky at the time that they went with me because obviously I didn’t have much experience but they elected to go with a kid and there is no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am in my career today without the opportunity they gave me.

I am very, very thankful for what they did for me.

I remember my first call at Birdsville. With the old broadcast tower there you were very visible to the public. You could sort of reach out and touch them really. They were right there in your face a little bit. I remember a lot of people just looking up at me probably thinking who is this little kid just out of nappies.

Then, when I was calling, I’d imagine a lot of them thinking the caller should be older than fourteen, surely. I was getting a few bemused looks … but I did get a lot of good feedback at the end in terms of somebody being so young and having a go.

Afterwards I thought … well, I’ve done one year and maybe for a fourteen-year-old I didn’t do too badly. Upon reflection, all of these years later, the call probably wasn’t that good but it was a great experience.

I kept the job and it probably took a while for some people to get used to somebody so young doing the calling, but that’s a long time ago and I’m probably viewed as being part of the furniture by now.

The event has just got so massive over the twenty-year period that I have been involved. On the telecast front, for example, last year and this year the Birdsville meeting was on Sky. Once upon a time if you flew out of Brisbane into Longreach for the races you would have been out of phone range once you left Longreach and you would have been out of phone range for four or five days. That’s just one of the aspects in which things are hugely different.

The structure of the track is different. When I first went there it was bare bones really. You didn’t have the big shed or the undercover area over the betting ring like you’ve got now. Little bits have been added seemingly all the time as it has grown gradually to become this very big event with its big crowds, increased horse, trainer and rider participation … they literally come from all over now.

It is just so well supported with good reason.

I think we had record acceptances this year but the fields fell away a little bit on the Saturday because we didn’t get quite as many back-ups from the Friday, but it still the usual fascinating couple of days of racing.

Trainers will all tell you that it is a level playing field. No horses are trained there so everyone has got to travel and handle the trip and the conditions … and the dust.

As for the dust, well everybody knows what they are getting themselves into when they go out there. I don’t think people take anything too seriously. Everybody just gets on with it.

It is easy during race-week to forget what a hard country life it is out there. We all love to visit but it wouldn’t be an easy place to live with all of the conditions of heat and wind and dust -storms and, when it does rain it certainly rains … like when we had probably two-thirds of the annual rainfall in a day when we were out there in 2016.

That was probably my second favourite year out there. We got there on the Wednesday and didn’t leave until the Tuesday so we were basically there for the whole week.

We arrived in town the day before the big rain event. It is history now that the roads were closed until the Tuesday and it was a mass exodus out of town heading towards Bedourie and Boulia. It was a longer way home than normal but it was the only road open out of Birdsville. It was still a few more days again after that the Windorah road was eventually opened up.

For participants and visitors alike, the Birdsville races just gets into your blood. It becomes an addiction really. For me it becomes hard to imagine the event going on and me not being there.

For a lot of us who go there every year it is the only time we see each other. That is the big appeal for me. I’ve forged a lot of great friendships there over the years but everybody is busy living their own lives, it's not easy to see them during the course of the year… so it is good to get back there to catch up and to see our mates. Just getting there is also a fun adventure.

For me the over-riding thing is that it has always been about the people because the people make it what it is. You might think the event could be held anywhere but then you look at the town and the area … and it has a kind of mystique about it. It’s a very unique and magical part of the world and one that is most deserving of such a unique event.

I do have a standout of a best personal memory of the actual racing at Birdsville. It has got to be the year that a horse I part-owned won. That was two years ago … a horse called Payback. That was one of the best days I have ever had at the races. I think my commentary of the race stayed professional. There might have been a bit of a celebratory tone to it at the end!

It might only have been a Benchmark 55 at Birdsville but it was a moment that meant a lot. To have a horse run around there was great. To have it win was very special to me.

It is difficult to pinpoint any special memory off the track. I suppose it is the whole vibe … like I keep saying, it is about the people. There are enough activities if you want but just to sit around and listen to the jokes and the yarns and some of the stories that people have to tell … that is just a highlight in itself.

To pick one highlight … I guess the year it rained. On the first night we camped out at the racecourse which we hadn’t done before. That was something that probably wouldn’t mean much to a lot of people but camping trackside was kinda cool. It rained that night … not much then, I think we only got about 5mm or 6mm if that … but to lie there and hear rain on the roof in the outback was pretty special. At the time maybe it wasn’t that great but looking back, it sure was.

This year though was the most special Birdsville trip for me … the most special of the whole lot, no doubt. My wife Gabby and my fourteen-month old daughter Olivia made the trip with me. Gabby had been once before in 2012 but to go out there with both of them was amazing.

It doesn’t seem to have been that long ago when I first made my way out there as a fourteen-year-old and here I was with my own wife and daughter out there … as I say it was very, very special. It meant a lot!

I spoke about the help I received along the way and obviously I couldn’t have done half of what I have achieved without the support of my wife so it was just great seeing her and our beautiful daughter enjoying themselve at Birdsville because it has been such a big part of my life.

Apart from my family, I have never been a part of anything that has an affect on me the way Birdsville has. It’s half an obsession with me now I suppose. To me it is the greatest week of the year.

I don’t count down to it the way I used to because my wife and daughter have now become my obvious focus and who take my attention away from other less important things throughout the year, so Birdsville creeps up on me a bit quickly sometimes … but it still is special, an event like no other really.

Looking back at my career overall, racing and commentating racing is just something I fell in love with.

I think it all started when I was probably about ten years old. I was a kid in Brisbane and I lived with my grandparents along with mum.

My grandfather used to listen to the races all of the time. I listened to that …and then just seeing him have a few bets here and there. I suppose from that process to going to the races for the first time … then doing phantom calls.

The calling was something I just did as a kid. You’d kick a ball in the back yard and I’d call the game, be a player, be the referee and be the commentator. It’s just what I did as a kid.

But it was racing and calling races that had something about it … some sort of mystique and magic!

It is one thing to want to do something as far as your career is concerned … but to be able to actually get to do it.

I feel I am very fortunate indeed!

*Just one final point. Sadly, John Wallis passed away in 2015. I did have the chance to speak at his funeral. He had to be hard to be fair with me when I was younger. It was always good to have someone there to tell me what I had done right and wrong … to guide me.

He was very instrumental in my life and my career. People, by and large, don’t get anywhere without help and he helped me tremendously. As I mentioned, he was the one who boldly suggested Birdsville give me a chance as a commentator as a fourteen-year-old in the first place. I’m forever in his debt … that’s for sure.

You do build up a bit of knowledge over the years and maybe, somewhere along the way, I can pass that on to a youngster coming up the ranks just like John Wallis and senior callers, most notably Alan Thomas, passed their knowledge on to me when I was younger. Maybe I can do that for somebody as well.


*In an article in Queensland Country Life on April 13, 2015, shortly after John Wallis’s passing, his son Peter spoke about his father saying his father loved racing, and in particular the central west, and all the characters that come with it. The article goes on to say …

Peter says one of his father's proudest achievements, was a young boy named Josh Fleming from Barcaldine, who showed a great skill for race calling from the age of 12 years.

"Dad recommended Josh as a race caller to the Betoota and Birdsville race clubs, when he was about 14, and has been calling Birdsville ever since."

Today, Josh Fleming is known nationally calling racing for Sky Channel Racing.

Enough said!

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