Goat racers of the outback ride again

A Brisbane lawyer wants to celebrate 'the working man's cow' – and revive one of Australia's lesser-known sports
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The Independent Online

What is it about John de Groot and goats? Why should a probate lawyer in Brisbane want to open the world's first goat museum?

Dr de Groot, it turns out, has had a thing about the cloven-hoofed beasts since he was a child growing up in Barcaldine, a small town in outback Queensland, where he raced a champion goat called Thunder.

For most people Barcaldine, population 1,700, is the site of a famous shearers' strike in 1891 that led to the birth of the Australian Labor Party. But this part of rural Australia, it also emerges, has a tradition of goat racing that goes back nearly a century.

Dr de Groot is trying to raise A$300,000 (£150,000) to establish the museum, incorporating a goat-racing hall of fame, which would be housed at the Workers' Heritage Centre in Barcaldine. He says that goats – known as "the working man's cow" – were a central part of life in rural Australia, particularly during the Depression.

"I think very few people realise the incredible contribution that goats made to the life of outback Australia," he says. "They were relied on as a source of milk and meat. They pulled wagons and carted loads. They were wonderful pets, and a great source of entertainment, through the racing, which reached its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s."

In that era, most people kept a goat in their yard. In the morning, they would open the back gate and the goats would troop off to the town common to feed. At nightfall the animals would return in packs of up to 50, with each goat turning off at the house where it lived.

Barcaldine has traditionally been a goat-racing centre, and Dr de Groot rode Thunder bareback in the late 1950s. (Nowadays people race in a small gig hauled by the animal.) He recently revived the Barcaldine Cup, a local race, and is writing a book, Goat Racing in Australia: The Definitive Guide. The book features "Top Tips for Successful Goat Racing", including "tail trembling" (shaking the goat's tail), "tail rotation" (either clockwise or anti-clockwise), "under-tail tickling" (with a cane), "pebble powering" (placing a sun-warmed pebble under the animal's tail) and "hairy leg syndrome" (pulling the hairs on the goat's leg). All are designed to foster acceleration.

Some competitors have a "home advantage", since goats always pick up speed in the direction of home. Then there is the "companion lure": a goat friend positioned behind the finish line, inspiring the racing goat to run faster. "If you get two goats bleating greetings to each other from the start and finish lines before the race begins, you know you're on to a winner," says Dr de Groot.

The museum – which he hopes will give due recognition to "this noble and very hardy animal" – will display old photographs, footage of races, and possibly a stuffed goat.

Racing clearly runs in the family. Dr de Groot's 12-year-old son, Geoffrey, won the Barcaldine Cup two weeks ago.