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What are the odds? 1 in 22.8 million

by

20 August 2012

How many women do you reckon call horse races around the world? Well, according to Australia’s only female race caller, Victoria Shaw, the answer is three ... maybe five. 

Victoria was invited to call two very special races at the recent Global Arabian Flat Racing Festival held at Moonee Valley. The festival was sponsored by His Highness, Sheikh Mansoor bin Zayed al Nayhan and featured two races of Arabian pure bred horses. There was a big crowd there as Black Caviar was running in the Essendon Mazda Australia Stakes later that meet to score her 17th consecutive win.

One of the races Victoria called – the Her Highness, Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies IFAHR Cup – was an Australian first, as all the jockeys were women. The race had female jockeys from France, Germany, the UAE, Norway, Great Britain, Oman and the Netherlands, most competing in Australia for the first time. Her Highness, Sheikha Fatima is the Chair of the UAE General Women’s Union, promoting the advancement of women throughout the UAE and the world.

For Victoria, this event was full of positive messages about the role of women in sport. The Sheikh and Sheikha spoke of acknowledging their wealth and wanting to share it worldwide though racing. Their generosity of spirit spread to their financial contribution to not only prize money, but to sponsoring the women jockeys to participate in the event. Their joy of the horse and racing created an Australian world first – the promotion of women in a typically male dominated sport. 

But for Victoria, the event was more about horse racing crossing cultural divides and smashing stereotypes. Especially when she watched the UAE jockey ride in her hijab, pursuing her passion of race riding Arabian Horses.

Julia Camm Evans speaks with Victoria Shaw. 

Julia: Congratulations on being the only female race caller in Australia. What an interesting career choice ...

Victoria: I grew up with retired racehorses on our property. But, Collingwood 6-footers rarely get the chance to be a jockey. 

My passion has always been in broadcasting and I was training to be a radio announcer with voice coach Bob Taylor. Bob suggested I join his friend, race legend John Russell during his call of the 1997 Grand National at Flemington. I was hooked. From then on, I would sit in empty broadcasting boxes with my cheap Japanese binoculars, tape recorder and practice calling. 

The first known female race caller in Australia was Pamela Knox, daughter of Sir Errol Knox managing director of the The Argus Newspaper in the 1940s. She was attending the New Year races at Hanging Rock in 1948 and when the race caller arrived a bit ‘tired and emotional’ from the night before, somehow she took over and called the meet. This was the only time she called. 

Fifty years later, at Hanging Rock, I called my first race. 

JC: Horse racing holds an emotional place in our history and culture. Why do you think that is?

VS: White Australian history is all about riding off the sheep, camel and the horses’ back. For years, we had a strong relationship with horses. We relied on them for work, in war and to travel. 

We admire these beautiful, strong animals. 

We see their ears pricked, alert, ready to race and win. There is nothing more exhilarating than watching a 550kg horse sprint at near 80km/h. 

These animals have created something special for all Australians. Dressing up, having a flutter, the office sweep and champagne breakfasts ... we have a public holiday in honour of them! Horse racing has even given us terms and phrases that we know and connect with, ‘the race that stops a nation’, ‘by a nose’ and ‘get out stakes’. 

JC: Race calling must be one of the most ‘extreme, dangerous jobs’ in the world, you have to get it right every time. 

VS: There is no ‘take two’ with what we do. Once it’s said, it’s out there. 

You need split second recall of information, so you have to do your homework. A day or two before a race, I will memorise names, colours and form and commit to memory. Some names are interesting to pronounce and if you or anyone else hasn’t heard of the horse before, you hope you get it right. Other names are simply too clever, or too crude...

There is no time to rehearse, so you need to spend time practising. Use it, or lose it! When I am not calling, I’m practising. In the early days, I was hitting the nearest, empty broadcasting box practising my craft, calling into my tape recorder. I was spending time with number 12, green and yellow with a pink cap while my girlfriends were hitting the town. 

But calling is more than memorising the card and practising. 

Our workplace is unique, and on occasion, dangerous. Race broadcast boxes are often the same size of two toilet cubicles which you have to share with at least three other people in the country. I’ve been in race boxes where the microphone was sticky taped to the wall, moss growing on the inside walls, the old floorboards soaked wet from the rain and climbing rickety wooden ladders to get there. Some Clubs are slow to engage OHS requirements but you have to push all that to one side, trust the environment and call the race – even with your head out the window trying to see the race through the horizontal rain and hail. 

In some states, the races are run in different directions. While that may seem trivial, it does play havoc with your brain [if you haven’t called interstate for a while] and your neck muscles. 

And the pressure doesn’t finish there ... You don’t want to let the punters down. Our audience hangs off every word we say. So yes, we have the potential to cause excitement, anxiety and heart attacks. Fortunes may be won [or lost] and you’re the only one telling the world what’s going on. If your call is broadcast live on radio, you audience automatically jumps to a lazy 1.8 million. 

This is what we are up against – the expectation of delivering a perfect call in range of interesting and challenging circumstances. 

But some of the best callers in Australian racing history have pulled together technical accuracy and sense of occasion with pride and passion. 

The best callers have a presence about them, a command over the English language that is spellbinding. Their diction, intelligence and quick wit captures the moment. 

Greg Miles is a classic example, ‘the Cassidy brothers race around the bend together’ and ‘a champion becomes a legend’ when Makybe Diva won her third Melbourne Cup. It’s this split second use of the English language that contributes to the sporting soundtrack of Australian history. 

There is nothing better than eloquence! 

To have Victoria call a race or MC your Fashions in the Field event, contact her on email: vic.calling@yahoo.com.au

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