The Warrnambool real estate office had some encouraging listings. It was 1999, and we were in the process of moving back to the US to deal with dead and dying parents. We had sold our Port Melbourne house, and now we were looking for a place to invest the proceeds so it would keep pace with the real estate market until our eventual return. A beach house would have been perfect, but that was out of our price range. Instead, a rental hovel, or even just a plot of land, was more in line with our means. The window display showed three or four such places around $100,000, which is what we had.
An agent, at once handsome and slimy in short-sleeves with slicked-back hair, black rim glasses and – could it be? – a clip-on tie, greeted us as we entered. “Good Morning” I responded, “We’re looking for an investment property to park some money for a few years. You’ve got some promising prospects listed there.”
He gave a grin and looked us over — two middle-aged men in shorts and polo shirts wearing running shoes and sunglasses. “Right, then — we should have a chat…” he suggested, motioning us into a small glass cubicle: a chair for him, stools for us, the Formica counter demarcating his space from ours, fluorescent lighting completing the picture.
“You know, Warrnambool is a small, conservative country town,” he began. “Have you considered that you might be happier elsewhere? Perhaps Port Fairy?”
Suddenly I felt very much like a pregnant black woman in a bank.
“We are familiar with Warrnambool.” I said evenly, not believing my ears. “There are a couple places you’ve got listed we’d like to see.” I pointed to the display windows.
“Oh, those listings? They aren’t up to date. May be under agreement, you know? Even if not, I probably couldn’t get you in to see them today. Need to make appointments, you know? How long are you in town?”
I had not even mentioned how much we wanted to spend. Did he expect us to believe that all the listings were under agreement or unavailable? I was beginning to get the picture.
“We’re here just for the day. We need an appointment to see vacant land?”
“Well, I suppose I could give you the address to do a drive-by — but I’d have to insist you stay off the property until we have permission from the owner.” He started scribbling addresses on a scrap of paper. I realised there was no way we were going to buy anything through this homophobic jerk. I grabbed the paper and we left, shaking our heads.
“What an asshole!” we said in unison as the door slammed behind us.
That was 1999. We did end up buying some land, not from that idiot and not in Warrnambool, but on Cape Bridgewater, an hour’s drive further west, past Portland. We were using the free V/Line tickets to make our annual pilgrimage, checking that our land hadn’t suffered some disaster or malfeasance, like a fire or squatters. Warrnambool is as close to the land as V/Line will take us.
Warrnambool hasn’t changed much since 1999, remaining a small, conservative country town. In fairness, the real estate agents are more asinine than the other residents, although I’ve had no dealings with Warrnamboolian bankers. For a country town, Warrnambool has a lot to offer, which is why we stay here.
Warrnambool is a picturesque place, with a beautiful, long, sandy surf beach wrapped around Lady Bay on the Southern Ocean. The beach has a popular campground adjacent, as well as some resort accommodation, making it a favourite summer holiday spot. Across the street there’s a lush park wrapped around the murkily un-swimmable Lake Pertrobe, full of paddle boats.
As the largest town on Victoria’s western coast, Warrnambool serves as the regional centre for commerce and culture. There’s fair a bit to do, with a museum, many restaurants, nightclubs, several good pubs, the historical replica Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village, whale watching, horse racing, a bicycling rail trail, a cinema, the performing arts centre, some art galleries, and even a bowling alley. It’s a place!
Like any city worth visiting, Warrnambool has its eccentricities. Warrnambool is horse country, hosting the annual mid-week Warrnambool Cup Festival. Unlike the Melbourne Cup (“the race that stops a nation”), the Warrnambool Cup stops little beyond its borders other than animal rights activists who seek to end “jumps racing”. In recent years, greyhound racing got in the cross hairs of these caring folk. They have had some success in getting it outlawed various places around the world. Horse racing involving hurdles has put them off side as well, and in many places it has been banned — notably not Victoria, at least not yet. There even seems a move afoot to ban horse racing altogether as cruel and unconscionable.
I am no animal rights activist, although I oppose cruelty and torture, particularly when perpetrated on humans, but also on horses or dogs or other animals. I do enjoy a punt on a horse now and then. I would be sad to see horse racing banned, but I would not oppose such a ban if a consensus formed that the sport habitually resulted in cruelty. (I have yet to be convinced.)
Having said that, jumps racing is an extraordinary thing. I recall the first steeplechase I watched as one of the most thrilling and horrifying experiences of my life. Massive horses — they use the huge, often older, horses — with tiny jockeys loosely attached, fly through the air over barriers and fences, puddles and ponds. I stood there with my mouth wide open, thinking “This is insane!” I loved it.
The thing is, sometimes the horses, and even the jockeys, come up dead. It is not terribly unusual for a fallen horse to have a curtain drawn around it so a few thousand spectators don’t have to watch it be “put down”. Far more unusually, a jockey may die later in hospital. There’s an ongoing argument as to whether this represents “cruelty”. The jockeys, in theory, know the risks, and these large, older horses would have been glue much earlier if not for jumps racing.
A few years ago, after a race at the Warrnambool Cup Festival, a riled horse jumped a seven foot fence — seven feet! — into the laps of several festival-goers enjoying their bubbly and nibbles in their race day finest. Surprise! As I recall, some poor soul ended with a broken leg. Oh, and the horse was put down.
Whatever happens, jumps racing strikes me as anachronistic, like bullfighting or smoking on airplanes. Almost certainly, it will change or even disappear in my lifetime, and good riddance, perhaps. In the meantime, I plan to enjoy it in utter amazement from time to time. I will stay away from seven foot fences, though.