A Racing Fanfare: The First Call

20 April 2022 Written by Andrew Lemon

The bugle call before each race at Flemington is a familiar sound. But how did it begin, and does it have historic military significance?

It’s “A Day at the Races” – Marx Brothers’ style, 1937:

CHICO: You’re just throwing your money away without a Breeders’ Guide…

GROUCHO: How much is it?

CHICO: One dollar.

GROUCHO:  It’s the last book I’m buying…  [BUGLE FANFARE].  Here’s a $10 bill and shoot the change, will you! They’re going to the post now.

CHICO: I gotta no change.  I’ll have to give you nine more books …. 

Yes, the bugler plays “First Call” or “Call to the Post”: an eight second flourish. They’re going to the post now. It’s the distinctive tune we associate with the horses at Flemington as they prepare to step out onto the track, jockeys in the saddle, heading towards the start of the next big race.

You don’t hear First Call in British racing. The fanfare was a late arrival on Australian racetracks, and it has no direct connection with the Australian military’s own tradition. The fanfare has a military history – but from the United States.

In colonial times at Flemington, a massive bell – now on display near the Phar Lap statue – sounded out a loud warning five minutes before each race, and was rung again as the race started.

Fifty years ago at Flemington the public alert for the forthcoming race was the course broadcaster Joe Brown intoning over the loudspeakers, “Now the horses are leaving the mounting yard on their way to the barrier stalls for the running of race six…” 

By the late 1980s there was a consensus that our racing needed more ceremony. There was a large publicity push. Former VRC Chief Executive Rodney Johnson and Rhett Kirkwood in their history of the club recorded that “a number of bodies joined forces with the government to promote spring racing in Melbourne. This followed a visit to the USA by [Chairman] Peter Armytage who could see benefits for the Victorian racing industry similar to those that arose from the Kentucky Racing Festival.” 

A pre-race bugle call had long been part of the Kentucky Derby razzamatazz before the crowd sang “My Old Kentucky Home”. Back in the era of “A Day at the Races”, a visiting Australian journalist was sure it would never catch on here: “The Kentucky Derby has some associations that would make the Australian public laugh. A herald all dressed up like the armour-bearer of an Eastern potentate blows a bugle to tell the people that the Derby is about to be run, and those who want to see the race rush to seats and other points of vantage.”

Kentucky wasn’t the first with the bugle. At the summer Saratoga races in up-state New York the pre-race bugle fanfare reportedly dates back to the 1860s. No one seems exactly certain when it began.

The original military purpose of the First Call was a flourish shortly before the buglers launched into the Reveille, the army’s wake-up call to the troops. The US Navy also uses First Call. 

At Flemington, First Call is a wake-up call with a difference. It concentrates the mind.