It had the makings of a Melbourne Cup champion, and I had to mop it up

I knew something was up when the delivery van returned to the airport warehouse just a few minutes after departing. A screech of brakes, a puff of smoke, the driver fleeing the vehicle with his hand over his mouth.

A crew of a dozen-or-so freight handlers in the Sydney depot where we emptied the planes, stored the freight until it was released by customs and sent it out for delivery in a fleet of vans, gathered around the Toyota Hiace to see what had caused the driver to abort his mission.

It wasn’t your average parcel.
It wasn’t your average parcel. Credit: iStock

When we opened the rear door, it was immediately clear. Twenty litres of horse sperm – “equine ejaculate”, according to customs documents – was sloshing around the back of the van, a tidal wave of stallion squirt that retreated when the driver accelerated and advanced when he hit the brake.

Some hopeful horse breeder had used a refrigerated canister to import the makings of a Melbourne Cup winner, but the canister had broken, meaning its foul and fetid contents would never even make the knackers’ yard let alone the starting gates.

Despite the smell, I found the situation funny – until I was asked to clean it up. As the most-recent arrival in the team, I was the most expendable. To this day, when I see health workers in full PPE treating COVID-19 patients, I think they’re underdressed compared with what I was wearing when I hosed out that van.

I was 18, had just finished high school and the job at a major international freight company meant I could afford to put myself through flying academy. With penalty rates, one 12-hour shift lugging freight on a Sunday or public holiday was another hour in the logbook.

Underdressed, compared to me.
Underdressed, compared to me. Credit:

For one hour in the sky, I would do almost anything on the ground. Like The Goodies, no job was turned down. I even worked at my high school the week after graduating, where, again, I was the most expendable when the stench of death filled the staff room one morning and the caretaker instructed me to find the source. I had always wanted to kill my maths teacher and wondered if someone had beaten me to it. Like the horse, removing the rotting rodent was a rude awakening to the rigours of work.

Despite the freak show, the only live animal I ever worked with was a crazy bloke from Tamworth who sat next to me and sorted mail at Australia Post’s headquarters on George Street, Sydney, 2000. (I once knew almost every postcode in Australia — a talent that never proved transferable.) Frank would come down from Tamworth (2340) and spend the week sorting mail in Sydney, then return to his family for the weekend.

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Four mail slots at street level led down to four sorting trays in the bowels of the building: business reply, CBD, rest of Australia and international. Each morning, a scramble ensued between sorters for the international chute because that meant you could read postcards all day. Frank, however, used to edit them.

Tourists were in the habit of posting several postcards at once, and since they fluttered down the chute together, we knew they’d been cast by the same correspondent. One Kiwi tourist sent a postcard to his girlfriend, stating that he had seen all the city’s staple sights – Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Bondi Beach – and that he “wished you were here”. But a second missive to a mate bragged of a drunken night out to the Hard Rock Cafe where he’d met a local lass and danced her out of her dress.

What might have been...
What might have been…Credit: Racing Photos

In red pen, as though preparing for a future in teaching, Frank added to the girlfriend’s postcard: “PS: When your cheating boyfriend returns home, ask him about the girl from the Hard Rock Cafe!”

Frank loved nothing more than a flutter on the fillies, so most lunchtimes I accompanied him to the TAB to witness him halve the amount he took back to Tamworth.

One particular Tuesday was Melbourne Cup Day. Frank knew a thing or two about the gee-gees and had already tipped the winners of the Caulfield Cup and the Cox Plate. If his horse came in today, he was in for the trifecta from heaven.

The TAB was packed and as the horses hit the home straight, I realised I’d lost Frank. I turned to see him standing on the bench on which punters placed their bets, naked from the waist up and swinging his shirt frantically like a jockey whipping a horse.“Go you little blue-flame special!” he yelled. “Go you little blue-flame special!”

Frank took $20,000 back to Tamworth that Friday, or at least I hope he did. Over the course of our early careers, we both cleaned up at the races. But I was wearing protective clothing, and he was wearing next to nothing.

Chris Harrison is opinion editor for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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