King Island Loves the Horses

Jemma Whitehouse-Summers is washing the King Island grocery truck in the street outside her house in ‘the capital’, Currie.

This is Jemma’s business, an available niche because this bountiful but remote rock in western Bass Strait doesn’t have a car wash.

What it does have, amazingly, is a full summer season of horse racing that has survived for 125 years.

The first jockeys were paid in possum skins and still, today, no-one is in it for the money.

King Island Locals having  a bet

It survives despite the isolated population being just over 1,500.

It survives on a love of horses and the innate knowledge that volunteerism is essential here for cultural life.

At day’s end, Jemma and her daughter Jordy head for the wave-smashed British Admiral Beach to gallop and swim her two clerk-of-the-course mounts.

The first race meeting of seven over summer is just four days away and Jemma, Jazz and Mouse have a role to play.

Jemma washes cars as a business

Two-metre waves hammer the shore as nine-year-old Jordy hammers along the sand in the saddle.

It’s a freedom and raw beauty that can be found all along the island’s 93km coastline.

Afterwards, the horses are set loose to roll in the sand and rinse in the shore break. It’s a horsey kind of heaven.

“It’s got to be one of the best places in the world to have horses. We move them around, from backyards in town to a farm. There’s always grass here,” Jemma says.

“There’s not much money in the racing but people put their heart and soul into it. Everyone wants a King Island Cup.”

The first King Island Cup from 1892

Racing part of island’s fabric

At the southern extreme of the island, Peter Bowling pulls the very first King Island Cup off the shelf.

Engraved is the Bowling name and the year 1892. A horse racing club formed just four years after the first land was taken up by settlers.

“Back then, to keep the cup you had to win the race three times, and my Great Uncle Willie won his third in 1903,” Peter says.

“There were so few people living on the island and yet they formed a racing club. They haven’t missed a season since.”

Gallopers corner after the back straight

Peter’s family was the first to take up land on the island in 1888. Horses were essential to survival.

Even as a fourth-generation kid at the huge Surprise Bay property, Peter rode a horse 8km to the closest schoolhouse.

Coveted King Island Cup

On a kitchen shelf near Currie Harbour, two shinier King Island Cups are former trainer Peter Chivers’ pride and joy.

He has also volunteered as steward, vice president, secretary and more for the racing club.

He arrived in 1958 to be a printer for King Island’s newspaper, and like so many has worked numerous jobs to afford “the luxury of life on King Island”.

He is now a retiree — and the island’s funeral director.

Peter Chivers with his new hearse

When asked if he was the local undertaker, he immediately said, “Why? Are you not feeling very well?”

He shows me the island’s new hearse, bought second-hand from a “Tasmanian” funeral home.

He is hopeful the old one might sell to a local King Island surfer to save shipping it off the island.

“If an islander wants to be cremated when they pass, I have to organise the body onto a passenger flight,” he says.

“The planes have enclosed cargo holds so you don’t even know there is a deceased onboard.”

It can sometimes be hard to be a funeral director who knows everyone.

Getting harder to make race day happen

Peter also fears the day might soon come when King Island racing could die.

A race win memento in Jimmy Taylor's stables.

“Go back 30 years and every kid had a pony here. Those young people aren’t here. And it’s only licensed riders, so it gets harder to make it happen.”

Most jockeys now fly in from Victoria. ‘Honest Howie’ Culph, the bookmaker, flies in from Hobart.

He says the King Island Cup meet on New Year’s Day is a bigger day for him than the Hobart or Launceston Cup.

Passion shines through

Even in the pre-dawn glow from his stables, you can see Jimmy Taylor’s embarrassment at the suggestion that he is King Island’s ‘cups king’.

But he has won 11 thoroughbred cups, and in 54 years he has only ever missed two local race meetings.

“Used to be that you got permission from the stewards to ride, but you couldn’t ride races anywhere else,” Jimmy says, as he washes down a horse.

“I started riding in the races here when I was 12. They lied to the stewards about my age.

“Only two years ago I stopped getting my trackwork licence. If you fall off, it doesn’t hurt, but hitting the ground does.”

Sam Batey working in the pre-dawn

He also worries there are not enough young people left to keep the 125-year tradition alive.

One of his stablehands, Samantha Batey, has helped Jimmy since she was 12.

Sam works from pre-dawn with the horses, then teaches at the school.

She gets up around 5am, heads to the stables, rides horses on paddocks, beaches or trails — all before taking charge of her grade 3 and 4 class.

John Rhodes having  a blast despite the rain

A couple of days out from this summer’s first race meeting, a summery east wind blows so hard that life has almost stopped on King island.

Peter the undertaker offers some time-worn local wisdom:

“The east wind, it’s the bloody work of the devil. Cattle won’t do anything, they just lay down and let it fly over them. Babies become querulous. It’s no good to man or beast.”

Locals out in force for race day

When race day finally dawns though, summer has given way to rain and ferocious southerly gusts that will confront visiting jockeys entering the home straight.

Currie Harbour, King Island

For locals, it’s just race day and they’re out in force in suits and sometimes boardshorts, women in fine hats and fascinators.

King Island Racing Club president Audrey Hamer, who also runs the bakery in town, is pleased with the turnout for Eat Your Beef Day, with a program of four gallops and two pacing races.

“I believe we are the only racetrack in Australia that runs both codes on a grass track on the same program,” she says.

“It just wouldn’t be feasible to run them separately, and it keeps it interesting anyway.”

King Island locals party on in  any weather

Everyone pitches in

Keeping dry inside the marquee, local farmer Richard Sutton is one of many islanders who do their bit to help keep racing alive.

“I’ve got a little share in a horse racing in the last, Dashing Devon. There are a few farmers in on it, the trainer, an engineer,” he says.

Linda Payne, in full race-day glitz, says she was likewise there to support the racing and the culture of the island generally.

“We have friends and family who all pitch in to own a horse, pay for feed and vet bills. It’s a great little interest and helps keep this going.”

Jordy Summers and her horse, Jazz, on British Admiral beach

There is no doubting the strength of character and the bond in this community, but even Audrey, the club president, admits there is a battle ahead to maintain this great tradition.

“Some trainers are getting very old, some have already retired,” she says.

“We need the young ones here to understand that you need to be involved in things here or we won’t always have the same special life we do now.”