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King of Callaghan Park turns into court jester

By Tony McMahon

A horse walks into a bar – I’m sure you have heard the joke with the bartender saying “why the long face”.

Over the years at Rockhampton’s Callaghan Park racecourse pre-dawn, veteran track work rider Wally Welburn reckons he has heard it far too often.

Along with the long-faced horse, there are the blonde jokes, Paddy and Murphy and hundreds more that Wally’s trackwork mate, Mark Unwin, dishes out each morning as they work horses around the track.

“He doesn’t stop,” Welburn jested.

“Never shuts up we talk all the way around. We talk of the old times, the horses, the old trainers and jockeys and the mischief. Mainly jokes though. Sometimes his jokes are so bad I just have to ride away. Even then I can hear him laughing at them. No, it’s all good fun.”

Welburn, 69 who retired after 36 years jockeying in 2001 with about 1500 winners behind him and 13 Rockhampton jockey’s premierships, was the ‘King of Callaghan Park’ in his hey days.

Unwin, 55 or ‘Snow’ as he is better known as, bowed out in 2004 after 23 years race riding.  

With 1200 winners to his credit, Snow may not have earned his great mate Wally’s title of King but without any doubt to this day Unwin is the ‘Prince’ of joke tellers at Callaghan Park.

Seriously though, between them Wally and Mark have a combined tally of 94 years of riding track wort there which will never be matched.

That’s a racing certainty in an era where retired jockeys do just that – retire.

Back to Callaghan Park though.

It’s quite bemusing to be watching horses work down the floodlit straight and hear two riders talking and laughing – voices carry particularly in such open spaces before dawn.

Nine times out of 10, those that are within earshot of Unwin’s jokes will tell you that their laughter is not so much brought on by his gags, but more so by a reaction to his own laughter.

“It started off when I was a kid,” Unwin explained.

“Whenever all the family was together, we made fun of each other and shared jokes. It’s just carried on from there really. My dad (Shorty Unwin) was the same when he was riding here. Always joking. I admit though some of my jokes aren’t all that funny but there is nothing like a good laugh.”

All jokes aside, what makes Welburn and Unwin so dedicated that at their age they still ride arduous track work from such ungodly hours each morning astride feisty thoroughbreds regardless of the weather conditions?

“I’ve been doing it for about 55 years and I enjoy the horses and love educating the babies (two-year-old horses),” Welburn said.

“There is nothing better than jumping on a raw youngster, educating it and finding out you are developing a good product and see them winning. Also, the comradery – the racecourse is an education in itself.”

Unwin, always looking for a laugh reckons riding work helps keep him sane.

“Also riding horses keeps me fit and saves on gym fees. You don’t need to work out at a gym if you ride racehorses each morning,” Unwin quipped looking for a laugh which never eventuated before he obliged himself.

For most sane most folk, the very thought of just getting out of bed each morning at 2.30am is no laughing matter.

Rest assured however, out at Callaghan Park this morning the clatter of the horses’ hooves will at some point be diminished by unbridled laughter.

Is it reactionary to a Snow Unwin joke or just his spontaneous laughter is the question Mark?

IMAGE: It’s seems Mark Unwin’s mount Ginger (right) horse laughs to his joke while Wally and the filly Margo are nonplussed.