Lightning Ridge has always had a reputation as a “wild west” town, a place of characters, where stifling or silly rules are ignored, and the locals proudly admit it is normal to be a bit crazy.
Tourists flock to the Black Opal Capital of the World, expecting it to be a bit different, and they aren’t disappointed. There’s no other place like it. So naturally it follows, that their annual Easter Saturday race meeting has an atmosphere that can only be described as “a big day out in the bush”; where fillies dressed for Flemington yarn at the crowded bar area, with tough bearded miners in shearers singlets and thongs. It’s also a normal sight to see one of those miners produce from a pocket of their opal-dirt caked stubbie shorts, a roll of hundreds at the bookies’ ring, that Melinda Gainsford-Taylor couldn’t jump over – that’s Lightning Ridge.
Mingling with the colourful locals are hundreds of tourists, attracted to not just the races, but the entire weekend of free entertainment and fun, quirky events at the Easter Festival. Where else could you dig for opals in the main street, then literally walk to the racecourse, located right behind the famous enormous Bowlo, hub of entertainment in the west?
To mark the occasion of this year’s 107th race meeting at the ‘Ridge, the race club committee have decided to give free entry and free beer all day, to anyone aged 107 or over. (proof of age will be required) The club’s livewire preso for the past eight years, woolgrower Tony Dowton, 86, has been going to the races there since he arrived in the district in 1960. In those days there were just 27 residents in the phone book, dirt roads, no copper, and a wet hessian bag was put over the kegs at the Diggers Rest pub to keep the beer “cool”. You can only imagine what a lively show the Ridge races was back then!
MERINO MEN BACK ‘RIDGE RACES
Lightning Ridge might be famous for the world’s best opals, but it also produces some of the world’s best quality wool. Merinos thrive on the variety of feed the scrub country and red country just south of Dirranbandi offers.
In this 15-inch rainfall region where a lot of grazing land has disappeared under crops, Merinos are still proving their ability to produce an income during bad droughts. Farmers who have continued to run some sheep as well as growing their crops, freely admit their Merinos have kept them afloat in recent dry years. Three local Merino stud principals are proudly promoting their rams at Lightning Ridge’s once a year day, by digging deep as sponsors.
Charlie Pye, seventh-generation woolgrower from Gingie Stud, Cumborah, sponsors the 1000 metres Gingie Gallop; Max Wilson, Wilgunyah Stud, Dirranbandi, is the major sponsor of Fashions on the Field, and James Morris, Bonanza Stud, Lightning Ridge, sponsors the cash incentive prize for Most Successful Trainer on the Day. Trainers from a huge area of NSW and from over the nearby northern border, are drawn to the ‘Ridge, by the chance of winning the magnificent $15,000 Opal Bracelet, trophy for the feature race Jo Lindsay of Lost Sea Opals also creates and donates beautiful pieces of opal jewellery as trophies for the other five races. The club’s new opal-patterned saddle cloths are a striking addition to this colourful event.
Every Easter Saturday, the ‘Ridge is jumping with fun-seekers from hell west and crooked, enjoying the Easter Festival entertainment, including the races – a quirky event as colourful as the gemstones that hide under Australia’s most unique racetrack. Miners in opal-dirt-caked stubbies and thongs, mingle with maidens resplendent in rigs that would be show-stoppers even at Randwick or Flemington. Hundreds of visiting tourists from both sides of the border and indeed, from all over the world, soak up the Birdsville-style atmosphere. As Race Club President, woolgrower Tony Dowton, and Publicity Officer, author and bush poet Sandy Thorne both say regularly on radio, “Why would you want to be anywhere else on Easter Saturday, but Lightning Ridge, the Hub of the Universe?”
EASTER SATURDAY AT THE ‘RIDGE
It’s 105 years since the first race meeting was held at Lightning Ridge. The Black Opal Capital of the World, now a busy tourist destination, is just over the border from Dirranbandi, or St George.
Even if you’re not interested in horse-racing, it’s worth the drive to Lightning Ridge every Easter, to enjoy a lively and often hilarious variety of free entertainment.
Being part of the three-day Easter Festival, the ‘Ridge Race Club benefits from the huge crowd that visits the town for the Saturday or entire weekend. Many of them, as well as the locals, are hyped up from the wild and crazy, fast and furious events in the main street Saturday morning, and being primed up for even more action, walk to the racetrack, right in the heart of town at high noon, to see the horse-races, or just enjoy the colourful social scene at the bar and food areas. The Birdsville-style atmosphere, with a fun-loving crowd dressed in everything from Flemington-style high fashion, to opal dirt-caked stubbies and thongs, is equally enjoyed by city visitors and locals.
With live music, lunch on the lawn, jumping castles and even a mother’s van, everyone is catered for to have a great afternoon they’ll never forget. Some people even watch the races! By four o’clock, everyone is focussed on the main event, the Dale Bruce Opal Bracelet race, which attracts horses from as far afield as Goondiwindi, Cowra, Tamworth, Dubbo, Orange and Mudgee. Valued at $15,000, the magnificent bracelet is donated by opal miner Aaron Bruce in memory of his father, and crafted by local jeweller Jo Lindsay of Lost Sea Opals. It’s on public display before the race.
When the bookies are packing up and the horses heading for home, it’s a short walk from the racecourse to the Bowls Club and the pub, where live bands play till late. That a designated driver isn’t required, is just one more unique thing about this already-quirky race meeting, which has Australia’s only straight track. Organised fun-lovers take their swags, tents, or campervans, knowing the festival fun’s on from the bull ‘n ’bronc rides Good Friday night, ‘til the Pig Races and Miners Challenge Sunday.
The race club’s publicity officer, author Sandy Thorne, points out that over Easter at least, if not right through the tourist season (“when it’s not bloody hot!”), Lightning Ridge, Black Opal Capital of The World, is definitely also, the Hub of the Universe.
MUMS CATERED FOR AT THE RIDGE RACES
A new addition to the facilities provided at the Lightning Ridge Easter Saturday races, is a caravan where mothers can feed and change their babies.
The van will be situated in the shade next to the jumping castles at the edge of the Spider Brown oval. It will contain chairs, change tables, a fridge, fan and a bin outside for nappies. Chairs outside will allow parents to watch their toddlers or older children on the large and small jumping castles.
“Anyone who has pushed a pram around a racecourse, as I have, will appreciate what a welcome facility this will be.” said publicity officer Sandy Thorne. “Our secretary Belinda Butler, who has also experienced the difficulty of trying to change a baby on a racecourse, has put news of the Mother’s Van up on Facebook and our website, and has received many appreciative comments.”
“Along with the jumping castles, the mechanical bull for big kids at the bar, and the extra Fashions on The Field categories for children and amateur milliners, our race club is ensuring a good day out for everyone. Some of the crowd even watch the races! There’s one race that definitely attracts everyone’s attention, and that’s The Dale Bruce Memorial Opal Bracelet, the main race of the day. Dale’s son Aaron, who donates the fabulous gems, will present the unique trophy to the winning horse’s connections, while Jo Lindsay of Lost Sea Opals, the creator of the bracelet, proudly looks on. Somehow Jo manages to excel herself every year, and everyone is encouraged to take the opportunity to see this year’s magnificent piece, – valued at $15,000 – close-up, when it’s displayed before the race.”