He was there where I met him 3 weeks ago, under the Morton Bay Fig tree studying the race form. “How are you “old mate” I said, shaking hands. We both don’t do the full on blackfella handshake. Clasping each other hands and making a common fist, thumbs locked together in symbolism. It was something we did not grow up with. It was just a gentle touching of the hands in acknowledgement of each other, fondness and company for each other.
Nor is it the full on hand shake, trying to see who can give the firmest hand shake. You know the “my hand shake is stronger than yours’ one, that the pundits tell you is what makes the man and not the wet fish poncy hand shake. That’s another white fella interpretation of how we should present ourselves in company. Anything less is dismissed as being of low character and even shifty.
Hello “Bunjie” he said, looking up from under his old sweat and dust stained ringer’s hat. I noticed a hole was beginning to wear at the top from years of handling. There was no black red and yellow paraphernalia on this old hat. There was no need for old mate to over-identify with the Aboriginal colors. Everyone knew he was a blackfella.
He loved that old hat, the polished RM Williams boots, and the RM Williams plain blue shirt. He wore the same rig every Saturday when he went for a beer and a bet on the horses. I was thinking as a young man coming to town off the station, dressed up like that; he would have been so proud and would have felt just it. Even after a hard life working the stations of the gulf country he could still hold his own in any company.
What’s happening “old mate”? I said. What are you making favorite today? Ah he said, they are all donkeys racing these days. The racing game like everything else is just a business. You cant get betting odds like the old days. These days the big punting syndicates back every horse in the race. They do the percentages. When the odds come up on a race everything is between 2 and 6 to one. What hope has the punter got? Mugs we are for supporting the industry. I like me bet of a Saturday and me beer, a lot of old timers have given it away he said.
Mugs like me roll up and have to take multiples to try and win a quid. One time you could bet something each way and get your money back, not today the odds are not there. There are all of these fancy betting formulas now to suite the big punters. Racing has been exploited, the game is not the same. I haven’t had a decent win since Frank won the cup. You mean Gala Supreme and Frank Reys? I said.
Yeah he said, pausing for a minute to reflect. At that moment a young Murri fella going by said “hello unc” we both nodded. Old mate looked at me and said. I hate that. I know he was being respectful. I feel like saying. I’m not your “Unc”, or you “Bro”, or your “Cuz” or “Bruz”. We both laughed. He was just feeling a bit grumpy. You know he said, I like the Koori mob in Victoria. They call each other “Butter Boy”or “jambi.” It has a nice feel and respect to it. Archie Roach sings a song about it ‘Looking for Butter Boy’. Good old Arch.
Well he said, lets go and have a coffee. Now tell me that story of your big win on Frank, I said. Well he said, I worked out on the station with his brother Stevie. He was head stockman on stations in the Gulf. He could ride too, he could ride a horse, our Stevie, buck jumpers didn’t matter. We would get them after the horse breaker, they would still buck but Stevie would jump on them and settle them down. He rode as an amateur here in Cairns and on the Tablelands. I remember he won the Cairns Amateur Cup. Lot of people would not know that. Yeah Stevie Reys, I remember him like it was yesterday. We had great times when we were droving cattle.
All those Reys boys could ride, they learnt from their mother. But Frank was a better rider, he was a real professional. He started riding here in Cairns, went to Brisbane and Sydney, ended up riding for Gordon Shelly before he went to Melbourne. He rode for a lot of great trainers like Alf Sands, Angus Armanasco and Ray Hutchins in Melbourne. I used to always back him, lot of us up here used to back him. He always gave us a good run and we used to win plenty.
We sat down for our coffee. I remember that day when Frank won the Cup. I remember where I was, just like people remember where they were when Armstrong landed on the moon. I won a lot of money that day, enough to pay off my house and buy a car. He looked down at his watch, mumbled under his breath quickly downed his coffee and said “see you Butter Boy”. Catch me next time and I will tell you the story, about an Aboriginal kid from Cairns winning the Melbourne Cup. There is a donkey in the first at Flemington. It would be a certainty if Frankie was riding. Darby McCarthy was the only other jockey that could hold a candle to Frank. Take it easy “Butter”. We shook hands in the usual gentle way and he left.