Iconic Birdsville Races a Superhuman Feat for QRIC Stewards
30 August, 2022
13 races, 35 horses, a 1,000km commute, more than 6,000 punters, and two Stewards overseeing it all – the Birdsville Races 140th anniversary is the marathon of Stewarding jobs.
At this weekend’s Birdsville Races, Queensland Racing Integrity Commission (QRIC) Stewards Rion Hitchener and Ben Cooke will be an impressive double act behind the scenes. Without their role overseeing the event’s integrity, no horses would take to the field.
QRIC Senior Steward, Rion Hitchener, will oversee his 12th Birdsville Races in 2022. He has worked as a Steward since age 14 and says Birdsville is one of the most challenging race meetings on the Stewards’ calendar.
While many race meetings are supervised by five Stewards, the remote location of the Birdsville Races means two Stewards oversee the event.
Stewards must be present as a vet inspects every horse that has travelled to the meeting, confirming they are fit to race. As most horses are transported more than 1,000km over unsealed roads to run, animal welfare is top priority for everyone on the ground.
Racing Integrity Commissioner Shane Gillard said that people travel a long way for the meeting, so they want to race as much as possible.
“Many horses race on both days of the meeting, so QRIC Stewards begin taking the vet around at 5:30am on day two, finishing up by 7:30am to ensure every horse is cleared to race for a second time. This year, they might see up to 35 horses in a couple of hours,” Mr Gillard said.
“Now that the Birdsville Races are a televised TAB meeting, the two Stewards must also meet the challenge of running on a TV schedule.
“Thousands of people converge on this small town for one weekend, and many in the community understand what a huge undertaking it is for the Stewards.
“Local families will offer them meals and accommodation. There are people who they see once a year at this event, and it feels like they pick up right where they left off.
“The community really appreciates the great job the Stewards do.”
Departing from Rockhampton, Stewards drive for two days to reach the event. This year, heavy rain in western Queensland means they might have to contend with road closures and increased travel time.
Until four years ago, when mobile phone reception finally became available in the area, the pair of Stewards were entirely on their own in their duties.
Working long hours at the Birdsville Races, they are sometimes required to be ‘Jacks of all trades’ by assisting as photo finish operators, photographers or in other operational roles, as well as fulfilling their usual obligations.
QRIC Stewards are responsible for overseeing the integrity of all three Race Meetings at the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival – the Betoota Races, Birdsville Races and Bedourie Races. They drive approximately 3,000km to attend the events.
Racing Integrity Commissioner Shane Gillard is available for comment by phone.
Media Contact Nicole Rowles 0467 955 412.