Paul Richards chats with author Wayne Peake on his new book, Sydney Racing in the 1970s.

PR: Where did the idea come from?

WP: I worked for News Limited in the 1990s and each lunchtime I’d go downstairs to the library and dig out old copies of the Sportsman. I’d go through the old photo forms and relive the races and horses I’d won or lost on. I took an interest in how big the crowds were and how much money was being bet on the TAB. I started collating the information, then I thought, “No one has ever written a book from the racegoers’ point of view.” All racing books were either by old jockeys, trainers or about horses like Phar Lap or history-related.

At 470 pages, it’s a hefty piece of work. How long did it take you?

I started in 2016 but did the bulk of it the first part of this year in time to get it to the printers in May.

It’s a wide book, almost 1970s-style.

Yeah, (bookie) Rob Waterhouse said to make sure there were plenty of pictures and I think to do them justice it’s better if they’re reproduced as big as possible. Martin King, Mark Bradley and the State Library of NSW were fantastic with their help providing pictures.

There are some fantastic shots.

Thanks. I love the picture on the cover. It’s from Golden Slipper day in 1977, taken from the inside of the track with that big crowd in the background.

When did you start going to the races?

When I was 14, in 1975, I went for the first time and not long after I started going every week. I barely missed a Saturday from then until the late 1980s. In those early days I got the courage to put a bet on with a bookmaker. After looking me up and down he decided to take my dollar. I bet with him for a little while, then I’d ask older people in the ring if they could put a bet on for me with some of the other bookies who were offering better prices. Some said no, but most of them looked after me. I never bothered with the on-course tote, as you couldn’t fool the older ladies behind the counter that you were old enough.

You go into great detail about racegoing in the 1970s.

I was hoping to convey the sheer joy of going to the track on a Saturday. The train to Rosehill was just wonderful. It was like an amusement-park ride, it would go so fast down some of the hills. You’d see the same blokes — it was usually blokes — going each week. Some would have a radio on their ear listening to the previews. Others would be looking at the formguides. Others would just be chatting, but all of us did the same thing. As soon as we approached, we’d all look up and get that first look at the track. There were guys who would have seen Phar Lap race, but they were still fascinated by the sight of the course 40-odd years later.

You also cover some of the food options on track including the “strangely orange battered fillets of anonymous fish” at Rosehill.

Ha ha, yeah I’ve no idea what it was. It was like it had been hit by gamma rays or something. The food at the track in the 1970s wasn’t great. You used to be able to get a good pie at Rosehill though. The best food was the curried sausages under the grandstand on a cold, wet day at Warwick Farm.

And how was the betting ring?

It was just so exciting. People would get knocked sideways as others charged to put a bet on. It was extra special when someone famous like the journalist Bert Lillye or a big punter like Clive Evatt would wander in. Evatt was six foot eight (203cm) and he’d tower over everyone. He’d be dressed immaculately in a dark three-piece suit and Homburg hat and as he headed to a bookie to have a bet, all these people would follow him to see who he was on and get on as well.

You’re clearly a Warwick Farm fan.

I love it. On a sunny day it was like paradise, with the green expanse of lawns and the trees in the background. It wasn’t as good on a wet day, but on a nice day, it was like you were visiting a lovely picnic spot.

I assume you’re unhappy with the lack of good meetings it gets these days.

It’s despicable. I assume a few of the powers that be in the eastern suburbs didn’t want to go there, so they moved all the good races away a few years ago. It’s right in the middle of the biggest growth area in the state in southwest Sydney and they don’t race there on a Saturday. When Kingston Town won the Warwick Stakes there in 1982, they got 22,000. I thought it was going to be saved when they built the Inglis sales complex next door and created the Inglis Millennium (for two-year-olds). They had almost 9000 turn up to that first meeting, then the second year it got postponed to a Wednesday after heavy rain. Of course, turnover was down and no one went, so they moved it to Randwick. It’s got worse since. The final straw was moving the Guy Walter Stakes to Randwick. Guy trained at Warwick Farm and loved the place. He’d be turning in his grave if he found out his race was run somewhere else.

There were no big screens at tracks in the 1970s. Did you watch through a set of binoculars?

No, I didn’t. Binoculars were quite pricy, so only the wealthy had them. You used to be able to hire a set for $20 from the club, but you also had to put up a $50 deposit. One of my mates used to do that, but there was many a time when he’d take them back after the third race because he needed the deposit to bet with. I used to rely on the on-course caller, Geoff Mahoney, until the horses got to the home turn, then you could make out what was happening in the straight.

Doomben hosts the listed Tails Stakes (1600m) this Saturday and you have a chapter on Tails in the book. Where did your love for the two-time Metropolitan Handicap winner (1969, ’70) come from?

My pop was a keen punter and he backed him to win the Rosehill Cup in 1969. Then he won the STC Cup a week later, and Dad backed him again. Then he won the Metropolitan, then went to Melbourne and won the Coongy at Caulfield. Dad was on each time. After Tails won the Hotham Handicap as well, he was considered a good chance in the Melbourne Cup. Dad was promising me a pushbike if Tails won, so I was even more interested. He ended up finishing seventh to Rain Lover, but years later Les Lewis admitted to nobbling not only Big Philou but Tails as well.

How did you feel when you heard?

It was many years later, but I was angry. Tails continued to be a good horse. He won a Doomben Cup and was placed in the Cox Plate (second, 1970) and Melbourne Cup (third, 1971). I’ve tried a few times to get him into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame without any luck. He was much more than a good racehorse, the public just loved him. He started his career in Queensland, so they still had a love for him, as did the people in Sydney. He wasn’t as popular in Melbourne as he never performed as well there. For some reason the commentator Bert Bryant used to make fun of him, which didn’t help. When Tails retired, they got him to canter a lap of Lang Park prior to the Queensland v NSW rugby league game. There were 40,000 people cheering him. He was an amazing horse. He deserves better recognition than a listed 1600-metre race in December.

You also have longer pieces on Gunsynd, Baguette and Imagele, as well as smaller profiles of 250 or so horses.

Yeah, that was the longest part of preparing the book. I went through old copies of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sportsman and knocked up profiles on horses that people would know but had maybe forgotten about. Horses like Sir To Me, Mona’s Joy and Butch Cassidy, who punters loved and hated because their form would fluctuate so much. John Poletti, who trained Sir To Me, could never understand why people would boo his horse, but it was because he’d win one week and run last the next.

Do you have a favourite profile?

Ouroene was a mare who had 124 starts and never won a race, but she finished fifth to Kingston Town in the STC Cup (1981). She was a popular horse of the time. Halyvourgiki was another. He ran a few good races, but I loved a piece I found in the paper before a race in 1970. It said, “Don’t pronounce it, back it.”

Do you still go to the races?

No, I stopped going regularly in the late 1980s, once it started to be easier to watch and bet from home. The last time I went to Warwick Farm was a midweek meeting earlier in the year and you couldn’t get a beer on tap or use cash. The last time I went to Randwick was to see Winx run. It took half an hour to get a drink and you couldn’t pay with cash either. It’s a shame — I still love it, but it isn’t the same going anymore.