A CHANCE assignment at high school, along with surreptitious visits to Canterbury races, put Darren Flindell on the path to broadcasting. He returned to Australia in 2015 after a long period calling races for the Hong Kong Jockey Club and is now a fixture in the thoroughbred world as the voice of Sydney racing.
DARREN Flindell’s timing, like his race commentaries, is impeccable. Towards the end of 2014 when the first sign of the turmoil, which has subsequently wreaked havoc in Hong Kong, started manifesting itself he began having “itchy feet” about returning home to Sydney.
“I could feel the political unrest in Hong Kong developing five years ago,” he said. “The first wave of what has been happening since was evident then and I have my doubts whether Hong Kong will ever again be the place it was. It is all so distressing, it breaks my heart.”
Also, fortuitously, as he was settling back into Sydney the city was about to embark on its most spectacularly successful era since the 1950s, a time when the Golden Slipper Stakes was introduced, Star Kingdom was making his presence felt and Tulloch, Todman, Noholme, Carioca and Wiggle were around.
On September 15, 2015, Winx, who had begun her incredible series of victories in the Queensland Oaks-Gr.1 and Sunshine Coast Guineas-Gr.3, won the ATC Theo Marks-Gr.2. It was the first of the 24 consecutive races she was to win in Sydney during the next three-and-half years and Darren was on hand to call each of them.
“My favourite race calling her was in the Warwick Stakes in August, 2017. That day she missed the start by five lengths and there was a big groan from the crowd. I was helping create the drama at the track
by saying ‘the mare’s missed it’ and you could feel the tension building up as the race went on. Even 50m from the post you weren’t sure whether she’d able to overhaul Foxplay, but she did, to everyone’s relief.”
With four MVRC Cox Plates-Gr.1 and 29 wins to her credit as she began her last campaign at the beginning of this year Darren says he could feel the pressure mounting as she won the ATC Apollo Stakes-Gr.2, Chipping Norton Stakes-Gr.1 and George Ryder Stakes-Gr.1 going into the Queen Elizabeth Stakes-Gr.1.
“I have to say the Queen Elizabeth day is one of the most amazing experiences I have had on a racetrack. The atmosphere prior to the race was extraordinary with the crowd packing every available spot, including being around the fence on Alison Road where the new tramlines are.
“The crowd continued to swell and swell and when I looked down seconds before the start every vantage point was taken and you couldn’t see a blade of grass anywhere. I don’t know whether we will see anything like that again, it was magical and the noise just continued to grow as the race progressed.
“The scenes after the race were so emotional it gave me goose bumps. It was a wonderful journey to have with such a great mare and I was privileged to be part of it.”
While Winx had been continuing on her winning way there were other memorable moments for Darren.
She had extended her sequence to 16 successive wins when on April 1, 2017 the Encosta de Lago gelding Chautauqua produced a blistering finishing burst from last to win the ATC T.J. Smith Stakes-Gr.1 fora third time.
“I think the calling of his last victory in the T.J. Smith is the one that has brought me the most publicity,” he said. “It is probably the most replayed race call of mine outside of the Winx races.”
Winx had another five wins on the board when on October 14, 2017 the Snitzel gelding Redzel took the inaugural running of The Everest, which has proved to be an inspired innovation by racing administrator Peter V’Landys.
“Prior to Winx’s last start the most amazing experience I had at Randwick was that first running of The Everest,” he said. “The course was packed and I’d never heard anything in Sydney like the roar of the crowd when the gates opened. It is quite commonplace in Hong Kong on special occasions, for instance when the gates open for the very last race of the season or at the Chinese New Year meeting.
“That was certainly a highlight and I believe The Everest is fast becoming a flagship race. I have seen quite a transition in the time I have been back so I was lucky to return to Sydney when I did. I am very, very happy to be home.”
It all began for Darren, whose family had “very few gamblers”, during his days at Kingsgrove North High School. With the school being only 5km from Canterbury he and his mates would often slip away from their classes to attend a Wednesday meeting.
It proved to be a successful venture because, more often than not, they would leave the course with quite a few dollars in their pockets. “The mates I had at school had an interest in horse racing through family or for one reason or another, so we’d get out to Canterbury races a fair bit from Year 10 onwards. It seemed so much easier in those days to back winners at big prices.
“We would go with a bank of about $20, which was all we could afford, but we had a knack of finding long priced winners on the card. There were days we’d go with our limited bank and come home with $500 or $1000 between four or five of us. We thought we were millionaires.”
There were some problems associated with their adventures, however, because a number of the part-time teachers at Kingsgrove High would work as bookies’ clerks.
“That made things a bit tricky,” Darren said. “Fortunately back in that era Canterbury on a Wednesday would be quite busy. We’d find out the sections where our teachers were working and go to another section, so we wouldn’t be spotted.”
It was as a 15-year-old that he had his first experience as a caller as part of a project set by a master at Kingsgrove High. “As an English assignment the teacher asked that two people work together to report on either a news or sporting subject. My mate and I decided we would get a tape recorder and call a football game between Cronulla and West Tigers at Leichhardt Oval.
“We produced this biased commentary between us, basically ripping off Greg Hartley and Peter Peters, who were the star commentators on the radio at the time. When we submitted the tape we received 100 per cent, for originality.”
With this first flush of success Darren realised he had a flair for commentating and set his sights on a career in broadcasting which, hopefully, included racing. This led to him undertaking a course at Max Rowley’s Radio and Television School in Liverpool Street.
“The school was always a very good inlet for employment in the industry. It resulted in me gaining the little break I needed when I became the ground announcer at the Harold Park and Wentworth Park greyhounds.
“My job was to say ‘the greyhounds are on the track’, then I’d introduce them and make public announcements ‘car ABC123 has its lights left on’ and that sort of thing,” he said. “It was a very minor role but just the initial toe-in-the-door I was looking for to begin with.”
The first “paid job” he had came in 1987 when he was appointed as the commentator at the Moss Vale greyhounds.
“I called the dogs at Moss Vale for the next nine years or so. It was solid work because they typically had 21 races every Saturday with a morning card and an afternoon card.
“It was a very enjoyable day with a strong betting ring although, the bookies would bet about 200% back then. I didn’t realise how much we were being robbed. I also found casual work doing night shifts at 2KY.”
From there, in those early years, Darren started calling the Nowra greyhounds for the TAB, which he said “branched out doing Lithgow trots and Bathurst trots on the TAB as well as other meetings”. He also found employment in the form room and as a journalist at the Greyhound Recorder. That partnership came to an abrupt end when the editor, who was not enthusiastic about him taking time-off to call meetings, one day heard him calling the Richmond trots on course. There followed a stint, in a similar role, at the National Trotguide.
“A lot of what I was doing was casual work,” he said. “I would work at the racetracks, be in prices rooms, be a price assessor, be in the interstate room where you sent prices to other racetracks around the country. Rod Fuller, who was working under Ian Craig at 2KY, helped me out quite a bit in those days.
“If Rod was away I started getting shifts with Ian Craig at the races on the interstate desk doing all the prices for Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. It was all bits and pieces just to keep me going before I reached the stage where I was having so many casual shifts that I was offered full-time employment at 2KY in 1992.”
Four years later Darren was “poached” by Sky Channel where he became responsible for the “Late Mail” program, where he selected best bets for all the harness racing and greyhound meetings being covered.
“That was my break into television and 12 months later when Sky opened up the Home Channel I moved on to that,” he said. “At that point I had to take a backward step from the race calling to concentrate
on the presenting.”
In 1999, two years after the handover by the British to the Chinese, the offer from the Hong Kong Jockey Club to be the English-speaking on course commentator at Sha Tin and Happy Valley came along. “That basically took up most of the next 16 years,” he said.
When Darren arrived the International Race Day was just beginning to really gather momentum as a major event on the international racing calendar.
“I feel I was quite blessed with all the magnificent races I called while I was there. I still think one of the greatest races of all-time was the clash between Fairy King Prawn and Sunline in the Hong Kong Mile at Sha Tin in 2000. Fairy King Prawn, an Australian-bred by Danehill, was the Hong Kong champion and I was fully aware how smart Sunline was. The race was built-up as a clash of two top class horses and an enormous number of people from Australia and New Zealand came up to see the race, which was won in very memorable fashion by Sunline.
“Another favourite of mine came later, in 2014, when Able Friend and Designs on Rome, who were both trained by John Moore, met in the four year-old series leading up to the Hong Kong Derby. Designs on Rome, ridden by Tommy Berry, won the Derby and I would say the clashes of those two stars was a highlight of my career there.”
When Darren landed in the Special Administrative Region John Moore was a dominant force among the trainers, a position he has maintained. He was joined a few years later by John Size.
“In my time in Hong Kong I didn’t see another trainer come to Hong Kong and have such instant success as John Size. He virtually took the place by storm as he went from nothing to becoming a legend. John started with second hand horses who were very low in the ratings and seemed to have limited ability, yet he was able to improve them.
“When something like that happens people, typically, say ‘he must be using something’. You know, though, in an environment like Hong Kong, you can’t get away with anything so, after a while, people realised what a great horse whisperer John is and how well he can train. There was always a strong Australian influence in Hong Kong and it was a pleasure calling the likes of Darren Beadman, Tye Angland, Tommy Berry, Nash Rawiller, Zac Purton and Hugh Bowman.
“I had the privilege of broadcasting the achievements of some of the finest trainers, jockeys and horses in the world while I was in Hong Kong. I returned to Sydney far more experienced and wiser than I left.”
Which was just as well, because he was only back for two days when he had the worst experience of his career. “When Matt Hill was leaving Sky Channel the channel contacted me,” he said. “It was a very interesting period because it is when TVN collapsed, which meant my negotiations with Sky were put on hold because nobody really knew what was going on.
“As it turned out I got the job in early 2015 and made the transfer from Hong Kong to Sydney virtually overnight. I called the Derby at Hong Kong on the Sunday, caught the plane that night and began with
Sky Channel on the Tuesday when I called the trials at Rosehill.
“That proved to be the most stressful episode in my entire life. The horses were coming out about every eight minutes, the lists of runners kept changing, I didn’t know any of the colours and it was 35 degrees celsius in the broadcast box. It proved to be the most intense couple of hours of my whole life.”
The following Saturday, March 21, Sky Thoroughbred Central came into being and broadcast the races previously covered by TVN. By then it was all falling into place for Darren as he described the victory
of the Gai Waterhouse-trained Medaglia d’Oro (USA) colt Vancouver, with Tommy Berry aboard, in the ATC Golden Slipper Stakes-Gr.1 at Rosehill Gardens. Everything has gone along relatively smoothly ever since as Darren has etched his name alongside the likes of Ken Howard, Joe Brown, Bill Collins, Ian Craig and others on the honour roll of Australia’s race callers.