We had just returned from a mid-year escape to Indonesia. The footy club I had been playing for, Federal, were sitting atop the Central Australian Football League ladder. We had four games remaining before finals and I hoped I would be an important part of the team. Prior to the season I had ridden a lot of kilometres and it had proven to be an excellent way to improve endurance without exhausting my legs. With a bye on Saturday, there was a good chance to get some extra fitness in. I got up at 5:30am on Tuesday to ride a quick 40km before Mrs Bugler had to go to work.
Alice Springs is cold in winter. Very cold. The lack of humidity means that the temperature drops below 0°C more often than cities further south. The cold wind seems to rip right to your core. I layered up with tights, woolen socks, shoe covers, base layers, a footy jumper, thick gloves, a skull cap as well as the normal cycling gear. I rolled off in the darkness hoping that the effort would at least partially warm me.
The Stuart Highway wends its way through the hills north of town. From the last buildings in Alice, the blacktop gradually climbs to the high point marker – the highest altitude on the highway between Adelaide and Darwin. The route is popular with cyclists because there are hills and because the road has a wide shoulder giving a buffer between you and the road trains.
I overtook another cyclist on a short pinch, but didn’t recognise him so said hello and quickly rode on. The aim was to get to the high point marker about 20km north of town, before turning back and meeting others at the Bond Springs turn-off at 6:30am. If I was too slow, I either wouldn’t get as far as I wanted or the bunch would leave without me.
After the railway overpass, the road north flattens out and the shoulder disappears. In the last 4km before the high point marker I passed a couple of other cyclists heading south. It was still as black as pitch, but undoubtedly they were my cycling friends I was meeting at the Bond Springs turnoff. I put my head down to ensure I didn’t make them wait long.
At the high point marker, I could see the lights of a vehicle in the distance a long way further north. I turned around knowing that at some point that vehicle would catch me on the road. With numb feet and hands, I again upped the ante not wanting fellow Alice Springs Cycling Club members to wait in the cold. To this point, there was little to distinguish this ride from many others I had done.
I rounded a slight bend and rose out of my saddle to push up a short climb. I estimated I was less than 2km or 4min from Bond Springs. It was almost exactly 6:30am so I was running a couple of minutes late. The road in front of me lit up as the vehicle rounded the corner. I could hear the sound of the engine change as it too climbed the hill. The deep pulse of the engine clearly indicated a truck. I kept my eyes on the white line that delineated the side of the road and focused on keeping as far left as possible without riding on the gravel.
What happened next I have only pieced together retrospectively. I remember seeing the side of the truck out of the corner of my eye. It was only a flash. It was a white truck but appeared yellowy-orange from the glow of the lights and the red dust that commonly stains in these parts. I thought I felt a thump on the back of my helmet, as though someone had reached out the window and slapped me while driving past. But in rapid succession, I felt an almighty hit in my right bum cheek. It was a feeling that went beyond pain.
I was lifted clean off my bike. Despite being clipped in, the force broke a cleat from the base of my shoe and threw me over the handle bars. As I was flying I recall the fear of thinking it was a road train and thinking there could be a lot more hits to come. That fear, like the initial pain, is indescribable. I hit the road and rolled. I scrabbled on the asphalt, trying to find grip and get away from the huge tyres on the four trailers to come.
My next memory is of standing beside the road with one shoe off and the other on watching the red tail lights already 50m down the road. A truck travelling at 110km/h disappears quickly and with little fanfare. My leg and hip were aching but adrenaline was pulsing through me. That it was but a small delivery truck, not a road train, was of only small mercy at the time.
I sat down to relieve the pain in my hip. The pain didn’t relent. I felt my pockets for my phone but my belongings were strewn everywhere and I was in no state to stand and walk. About 1km away I could see a solitary light atop the overpass. A cyclist was coming toward me. I just had to sit and wait.
I’m not bad with pain. I can manage to avert my attention for a finite period of time. The light was getting closer giving me something to focus on. A car went past and I didn’t bother waving them down because the cyclist was still coming. When he arrived, he asked if I was OK. I said no. He asked if I needed an ambulance. I said yes.
My knight in lycra took an amount of time to dismount, lean his bike against a rock, sift through his pocket for a phone, and switch off his tracking app before he called 000. I didn’t think I was bleeding and I didn’t have a head injury. I honestly thought that I might have just fractured a bone. A couple of rudimentary questions from the operator and the ambulance was on its way.
The sun was slowly shedding light on the scene. My new friend Rod chatted to me as he picked up my belongings. He found my phone and I thought I should call Mrs Bugler to let her know that I was going to hospital. The screen was shattered. I called her from Rod’s phone and told her not to worry, I was OK, I had just been knocked off my bike by a truck and I was waiting for an ambulance. To my mind, this was supposed to set her mind at ease. It wasn’t the first thing I under-estimated about the situation.
To be continued…
Ed Dunlop is British ruling class. He went to Eton College. Yearly tuition costs up to $75,000 at Eton College. 19 British Prime Ministers and generations of British aristocracy attended Eton. Dunlop’s father, John, was also a horse trainer. Dunlop the elder served his apprenticeship in the Duke of Norfolk’s stables and went on to train over 3000 winners. John Dunlop played an instrumental role in establishing the influence of Middle Eastern owners in British racing. Ed Dunlop takes his horses all over the world trying to win big races. Australia, France, Dubai, Hong Kong, South Africa, Japan – if there is a big race to be won, Dunlop will be there.
Yoshitada Munakata operates out of Miho Training Center in Japan. The eight artificial training surfaces at Miho are given extra bounce to reduce the strain on horses’ legs. The calming sound of birdsong is piped over the compound by speakers. There is a 60m indoor pool with special fans to dry horses off after their dip. Baroque music is played over the speakers in the pool hall. The state-of-the-art facility includes a dedicated horse hospital. The average horse at Miho is worth around $120,000 while some of the champions are worth over $2,500,000. Safe to say, Munakata is not bringing an average horse to the Melbourne Cup.
Gai Waterhouse is a former model and actress who was born in Scotland. The daughter of leading horse trainer Tommy J. Smith, Gai married now-disgraced bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse. You may have seen their son, Tom, on an ad or two. If you wanted to send your daughter to the same Sydney school as Gai, expect to pay nearly $30,000 a year. After inheriting her father’s stables, and with the assistance of funds from bookmakers, Gai has built an impressive reputation as a trainer. Gai is also an “Australian Living Treasure” as decided by the National Trust.
Aidan O’Brien is a trainer for the Coolmore Stud in Ireland. Despite a modest upbringing in County Wexford, O’Brien is now employed by the world’s largest breeder of thoroughbred racehorses. Coolmore has studs in Ireland, USA and Australia. The USA branch paid nearly US$14,ooo,ooo for the breeding rights to a horse in 2014. With the backing of Coolmore, O’Brien has trained winners in Australia, Ireland, USA, UAE, Italy, Great Britain, Canada and France.
Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is the Emir of Dubai, and is also the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. He is the founder of Godolphin Racing. The wealth of Godolphin is unfathomable. The stable has had a staggering amount of winners – over 3000 in fourteen countries. Godolphin run 3 stables in Australia and 2 in the United Kingdom. These are on top of its main stables in Al Quoz, Dubai. Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s familial wealth is estimated to be in excess of US$4billion.
With their collective wealth, expertise and resources, it is simply amazing that the only Melbourne Cup winner from the aforementioned group is the former actress and model Waterhouse. In 2013, Fiorente saluted in the race, finally rewarding Waterhouse for her years of expenditure and effort. The others, meanwhile, continue to try each year.
The above group arrived at the 2015 Melbourne Cup armed with an impressive quiver of equine speed. Munakata brought pre-race favourite Fame Game. Dunlop brought another favoured horse in Trip To Paris, along with thrice runner-up and crowd favourite Red Cadeaux. After winning the Lexus Stakes on the Saturday prior to the Cup, Waterhouse declared her horse Excess Knowledge would win the big race. Irish Bondi Beach traveled with O’Brien to Australia expecting to be a big chance. Similarly, Godolphin didn’t ship Hartnell from the UK to be an also-ran.
Darren Weir grew up in the Mallee, on the family farm in Berriwillock. He worked for noted Mallee horse-racing luminaries such as Jack Coffey in Birchip and John Castleman in Mildura. Weir worked as a farrier and broke-in horses in Stawell before his business outgrew modest beginnings. He now has three stables – one near Ballarat and two near Warrnambool. In the next week Weir has horses running at races in Swan Hill, Bendigo, Dunkeld, Donald and Echuca.
Michelle Payne is the youngest of 10 children. When Michelle was only a few months old, her mother, Mary, died in a car accident. Father Paddy was left raising the 10 kids on a farm in Miners Rest near Ballarat. As an apprentice in 2004, Michelle fell during a race and fractured her skull. Payne’s older sister, Brigid, tragically died in 2007 as a result of a race fall. Michelle returned to racing to be only the fourth female to ever ride in a Melbourne Cup.
Michelle Payne and Darren Weir work together at the stables in Ballarat. Their story fairytales with the arrival in Ballarat of a New Zealand bay gelding called Prince of Penzance. The horse was good enough in prior races to earn a start in the 2015 Melbourne Cup. Yet few thought it would win and its odds of $101 suggested it didn’t have a chance.
Despite the many and well-publicised foibles of horse racing, the Melbourne Cup still persists in the Australian psyche. Perhaps this has much to do with the image of well-to-do trainers flying business class back to Sydney, Dubai and London plotting their next expensive assault on our great race. All the while, a trainer climbs into his dusty Holden Commodore and drives the 3 hours up the Calder to place the Melbourne Cup on his parents’ mantlepiece at a farm in Berriwillock.
It has been a busy few months for the Bugler. Despite the protestations of Mrs Bugler, the football boots and mouthguard were freighted from down south to Alice Springs. A chance encounter with a neighbour enticed me to train with the Federal Demons and I jogged down during pre-season.
In my spirited defence to Mrs Bugler, my motives were pure. I merely wanted to meet some friends in our new town and I thought playing a couple of games in the Central Australian Football League Bs would be a good way to do it. In retrospect, turning up to pre-season training not long after completing a marathon gave some people the wrong impression of my intentions. Most of the lads, more than 10 years my junior, had enjoyed the summer months as I once did. So the 4km time trial turned into a bit of a farce. What better way to make an impression than by streeting the field?
As pre-season continued, I became a regular attendee. Despite never having seen me play, my new club seemed to over-inflate my abilities. I was a lock for the As. But I also did not know what to expect. I had barely seen a quarter of footy up here and did not know if I would be capable of participating at the standard. There were no pre-season games and we had the bye in round 1. On the Thursday evening prior to our first game in round 2, the coach basically asked me where I wanted to be picked. Not being comfortable with naming my position, I awkwardly tried to describe where I could be of most value considering the players we had. I was named at centre-half forward.
I can’t remember when I have been more nervous before a game. I had never played with any of my team-mates. Some I had barely met. I had never played or seen an entire game of the competition. We were taking on South Alice Springs Kangaroos – last season’s premiers. I was acutely aware of my lack of height to be lining up as a key forward. As I stretched with a team-mate, Trig, we related our fears and worries. He was in the same circumstances as me albeit at centre-half back. But I drew strength from the conversation and the knowledge that one of the beauties of team sport is that we end up being better as individuals due to the support of each other.
The game went as games do. The intensity ebbed and flowed. Each team had good periods and bad. Ultimately the game was decided in the third term when Souths kicked a run of goals and we could not stem the tide. The game was even aside from this but Souths were deserved victors. In hindsight, my nerves were of benefit in that I worked harder to overcome them. I ended up with a few goals and managed to use some of my wiles to catch my direct opponent out a couple of times. While we were disappointed, there was cause for optimism in the Feds camp. Against a strong opponent, we were more than competitive despite our lack of match fitness and team coherence. Moreover, a few new players showed some form.
I can’t remember being as sore following a game of football. My calves were stiff. My groin was aching. My throat was hoarse. A younger me would have recovered in a week, but the next game against Pioneer I could barely run and struggled to pick up the ball below my knees. Early in the game the runner came out asking me to ruck. I had to refuse. Not the best way to impress my new coach. It mattered not as we recorded our first win of the season.
The season continued against Wests but I sat the week out. Young players in the AFL are often “managed”. In the CAFL, this old player “managed” himself. After dominating the competition in the early 2000s, Wests have battled in recent times. We recorded our second win to give us some momentum. I returned to the field against Rovers and was serviceable in the 40 point victory. With only 5 teams in the Premier division, we had played all teams for 3 wins and a loss. We still had to play each team twice more but there was cause for optimism at Feds.
A beauty of small towns is how intertwined lives become. In the city I would play footy against people and literally never see them again. The coach of Souths and I work together. Feds overcame a half-time deficit to beat Souths in our second meeting and I had a hand in the second half turnaround. On Monday morning Talbot was a bit upset when I cheekily asked why he didn’t bother sending someone to stand me. Feds had now beaten all teams in the comp and we were firming as a premiership chance. A week later we torched Pioneer in the wet and installed ourselves safely atop the ladder.
And like that, my season and career are over. I took a couple of games off for a mid-winter break, missing our wins over Wests and Rovers. I returned and thought I should get some fitness in my legs. On a pre-dawn ride I got knocked from my bike. My gluteals were torn from their attachment on my cracked femur. Despite a dream of returning for a finals tilt, my life can no longer be dictated by a football schedule. Instead, my recovery is dictated by a need to pick up after a small boy and a desire to bend over to a baby girl.
This is not quite how I thought it would end. In my mind’s eye I saw Feds on an irresistible charge toward the CAFL premiership with mine one of many hands on the wheel. I was supposed to finish holding a premiership cup with my new teammates and friends. Instead I’m in no man’s land – not quite a spectator but neither am I a participant. I will be the guy who hovers at the fringes of the team. The guy who people hug and high five awkwardly. The difficult reminder that it will all end. And it might all end suddenly and with no romance.