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Col Hodges - Race Calling’s ‘Everywhere Man’

One of the most popular racecallers in New South Wales, Col Hodges, was named in the Queen’s Birthday honours receiving the Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to the horse racing industry.

The timing couldn't have been better with the following article having just appeared in the June 2017 issue of Racing NSW Magazine

COL HODGES - RACE CALLING'S 'EVERYWHERE MAN'

Article: Mark Brassel Pictures: Janian McMillan

RACECALLER COL HODGES IS CONSIDERED A LEGEND AROUND NSW RACETRACKS AND TRAVELS THE GLORIOUS COUNTRYSIDE BROADCASTING HIS CALLS OVER THE AIRWAVES

Lucky Starr sang the 1962 hit “I’ve been everywhere man” but he should have enrolled bush racecaller Col Hodges to record a duet.

Col Hodges drives more than 30,000 kilometres around the state each year attending race meetings held by the 32 race clubs on his schedule.

From Broken Hill in the far west to Enngonia near the ‘roof’ of NSW and across to places such as Lightning Ridge, Gulgong and down to Bedgerabong, Col will drive along with his trusty old Ford Focus.

“I reckon I’ve dodged 10,000 kangaroos, but I have never been late for a race meeting. I looked at the odometer the other day – it’s over 332,000kms! And the roads are not all bitumen,” Hodges remarked. “Many are dirt or gravel.”

Hodges makes the nine-hour trek from his Forbes base to each Broken Hill race meeting and usually drives back the next morning.

“Last year I had to call the Country Championships race at Dubbo so I left after the last race and didn’t get to Cobar until 2am. I put my head down for a few hours then had a further three hours to Dubbo, but I love it.”

Hodges, 67, was raised on a farm near Bogan Gate in Central Western NSW and was schooled at Gunning Gap, a single teacher primary school between Forbes and Bogan Gate.

“There was a total of 15 pupils from year 1 to year 6. I went to primary school at Forbes and called trotting races which I organised involving kids with ropes for harnesses and being ‘driven’ by other kids.” Hodge then attended Forbes High School giving phantom Melbourne Cup calls.

Between the ages of 19 to 49 Hodges was a shearer “of average ability” shearing between 120 and 180 sheep per day.

“I combined shearing with race calling – I’d shear in the morning then head to the races in the afternoon. I sheared around Coonamble and Forbes,” Hodges recalled. “The drive home was the best part but sometimes we’d camp out.

“Mal Johnston’s grandfather, Reg Coles, was the shearer’s cook and Mal’s uncle Les won a Melbourne Cup on Even Stevens having commenced riding at the picnics.”

Until his late teens, Hodges had only been to two race meetings – at Bedgerabong and Bogan Gate – but was fascinated listening to Saturday racecallers: Geoff Mahoney, Ken Howard, Joe Brown, Bert Bryant, Vince Curry and local caller Bobby Gunn.

“Bobby Gunn was a long-time Central West caller and after I had practiced on tape recorders, he gave me my first on-course call in the opening at Gooloogong won by Minibelle. My first full meeting was at Fifield – between Trundle and Tullamore – but all those places are now defunct.

“I started race calling 47 years ago in 1970 and for several years called dogs, trots and gallops but nowadays I concentrate on the gallops. I was a bookie for two years but it all got too much. I call at meetings ranging from Bathurst (east), Broken Hill (far west), Cobar and Louth (west), Cowra (south), Coonamble (north), Enngonia (far north west) – and most points between!

“Naturally I have a soft spot for race meetings in my home town of Forbes – I can walk there! And nearby Bedgerabong picnics was where I was honorary secretary for several years and I’m now a Life Member. But all the race clubs have been very loyal to me.”

In fact, back in 2007 was the only time Col wasn’t at the course: “Equine influenza was a tough time for all in racing and it felt strange not going to the races every week; apart from that I have missed minimal meetings.”

Col’s race calling skills were not limited to NSW and received an invitation to call in Vanuatu (south west Pacific) in the jungle outside Port Vila with the meeting organised for charity following devastating cyclones.

“It became an annual race meeting with stewards from Australia including Terry Bailey, Brett Wright and Reid Sanders, “The course has bamboo rails with spectacular scenery and crowds of about 6,000.

“Starters were a mix of thoroughbreds with a few former New Zealand and Queensland lower grade winners and mixed breeds. But they were tough horses used on the island cattle properties and all ridden by local jockeys.

“David Baxter from Macquarie Stud was a licensed bookie and came out to field on a meeting. Ironically, a horse that originally came from Orange won the last race and cleaned him out

“It can be a strange place as they’re very religious and believe in Black Magic. One year the word got around that they had put a curse on one of the horses. Can you believe he ran twice and fell both times at the same point near the 700-metres? Then word got out the curse had been lifted and the horse went on to win by ten lengths.

“I returned for the 25th anniversary meeting a few years back but had to give it away due to increasing TAB meeting commitments in my region.”

Hodges’s diversity extends to calling camel races at Forbes every Easter on Good Friday: “I’ve been doing it now for 17 years. The cameleers come from Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and NSW and race for good prizemoney of around $20,000.

“Around 90% of the camels are caught in the wild as there’s millions of them wandering around Australia. It takes the trainers two years to break them in and have them ready for racing. Many of them zig-zag as they race but there are some that run as straight as a die.

“In the past Kym Healey from South Australia was prominent as a camel trainer at Forbes meetings and now trains racehorses and won the Darwin Cup a couple of years ago with Pretty Blonde. The mare won the Alice Springs Cup last month.”

And Col’s quirky activity list rolls on, having ridden in charity pony races and driven pacers for a charity event on the grass at Bathurst Racecourse: “I was beaten a neck by Tony Turnbull, one of the legends of harness in Australia.”

During the past 40 years, Hodges has also knocked out racing articles for regional newspapers and remains a contributor to Racing NSW Magazine and in 2004 was awarded the Racing NSW Country Media Award.

“I’m also a presenter of racing news on ABC and commercial radio [unpaid roles]. I have also worked part-time hosting promotions for Ag’n’Vet Services, a rural supplies business originating in Forbes but now with stores around NSW.”

Hodges said he played a lot of sport before committing to race calling and when pressed, said he won an Australian Sports Medal in 2000.

“I was opening batsman for the under 20s in the Central West cricket rep side and won the under 20s Central West tennis doubles with Neil Smith from Forbes. I loved playing rugby league and am a long-time fan of the Newtown Bluebags.”

Not many realise Col Hodges is the only man in NSW to have called a triple dead-heat for first place: “I was fortunate to call the triple dead-heat in the Imperial Hotel Class 2 Handicap at Cowra on 20 January 1997,” Hodges recalled with precision.

“It was the only triple-dead heat in NSW and the last of only four triple dead-heats officially recorded in Australia; the others were Flemington (1956), Townsville (1985) and Stoney Creek (1987). I still remember it clearly: Sleepers [Dar Lunn], Sir Laucrest [Tracey Bartley] and Churning [Mark Galea]. Bula was a neck away in fourth place.

“Correct weight wasn’t declared for 20 minutes as the head steward Shane Cullen and his panel wanted to make sure of the decision. The following day some high-tech equipment was used to further magnify the photo and that proved the decision was correct.

“There must have been divine intervention or a huge fluke as I had never said it before and have not ever said it since but as they hit the line I called ‘this could be a three-way dead-heat’. Some of the owners and trainers involved still have the race video and the TAB dividends for all the combinations took a big portion of the newspaper page the next day.”

Hodges was proud to rattle off some of the best horses he has called: • Rising Prince: “He won an Improvers Handicap at Forbes and later a Cox Plate for Vince and Deidre Stein from Bathurst” • Sniper’s Bullet: “Trained by Tracey Bartley, he won his first two at Dubbo and later three Group Ones including a Stradbroke” • Tullmax: “Freak; won a maiden on debut at Parkes as a 6yo due to illness when trained by postman Trevor Doulman on Molong Golf Course. Went on to win a Group 1 [George Main Stakes] at Randwick.”

Hodges reflected on the drawbacks of a racecaller’s life: “You can’t just pick and choose the meetings you work at.

“One has to give up a lot – I’ve missed many birthdays and weddings but it’s a job I still love. It might be a different game these days but some of the initiatives in NSW now are fantastic like the Country Championships.

“There is a great feel out here, one I haven’t experienced in years. All the trainers now plan nearly a year ahead to have their horse ready for the qualifying races. And the inaugural NSW Picnic Champion Series; some of the picnic jockeys have come out of the woodwork and want to ride in the $50K final at Dubbo on September 17.

“Blokes like Rodney Robb [Nyngan trainer] said he hasn’t seen it so good in the bush. Graziers were getting rid of their horses when they were doing it tough but Rodney said they’re now calling him to go and buy them a horse. It’s fantastic.”

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