RACE MEET: The iconic Birdsville Races starts on September 1.
RACE MEET: The iconic Birdsville Races starts on September 1. Salty Dingo

Birdsville set to be off and racing

ORGANISERS of outback Queensland's richest two-day horse race meeting - the Birdsville Races - have announced the full race program for this year's event.

Now in its 135th year, the 13-race program offers up a combined $200,000 prize purse, plus a further $12,500 in QTIS (Queensland Thoroughbred Incentive Scheme) bonuses - making it one of the most lucrative and unique outback thoroughbred race experiences in Australia.

The iconic green starters' gates will roll out on September 1 and 2 as more than 7000 racegoers flock to Birdsville for what is billed the 'Melbourne Cup of the Outback'.

A number of race program changes have been made, with several races moving from class-based handicaps to benchmark races, as well as the introduction of a second 1600m race - the $12,500 Benchmark 55 Handicap on September 1.

Traditionally, the 1600m distance has been reserved solely for the Birdsville Cup.

"We believe the changes in the 2017 program will provide greater options for owners and trainers, giving more opportunities for horses suited over longer distances,” Birdsville Race Club vice-president Gary Brook said.

Each year, owners, trainers, jockeys and horses make the long-haul trek to Birdsville, 10,000 kilometres collectively, from places as far away as Darwin, Tamworth and the Sunshine Coast - as well as surrounding towns and regions - via the Simpson Desert Racing Carnival circuit.

The races attract a broad range of trainers and racing identities - from up-and-comers hoping to gain experience in a big country meet, to seasoned veterans who have become annual fixtures in the tiny, remote township.

In recent years, the event has drawn high-profile industry figures escaping the southern winters, including Group 1 trainers Peter Moody, Ciaron Maher and industry icon Arthur Inglis.

As in previous years, the 2017 race program is headlined by the prestigious $35,000 Birdsville Cup (1600m), which takes place on Saturday, September 2.

Four other feature races will offer up big prizemoney across both Friday and Saturday race days, including the $20,000 Open Handicap (1200m), $15,000 Class 1 Handicap (1200m), $15,000 Class 5 Handicap (1200m) and $15,000 Class 2 Handicap (1200m) - the latter of which is worth $22,500 for QTIS fillies.

"Owners, trainers and jockeys who have been bringing horses to Birdsville religiously for more than 20 years will also notice the difference travel-wise due to road upgrades since the last event,” Gary Brook said.

"Driving through the spectacular red Simpson Desert has always been a unique experience with value on its own, but the new-and-improved roads will definitely make the going easier. First-timers will miss some of the hard yards that our more seasoned visitors have endured in previous years. The road upgrades, combined with the program changes, bolsters accessibility for owners, trainers, jockeys and visitors in general.”

Also new in 2017, the winner of the 1600m Betoota Cup on August 26 will receive an exemption from the ballot and secure automatic entry into the Birdsville Cup (if nominated) - the first time this has been awarded in the 135-year history of the Birdsville Races.

"Each year, trainers create their own communities under the gum trees by the Diamantina River, training their charges on the surrounding salt pans and red dessert sands,” Gary Brook said.

"It's a spectacular sight to see the horses kicking up the dust at sun-up and sun-down as trainers work to ensure their charges are race-ready for the first week in September.”

In 2016, the Birdsville Races achieved 121 acceptances to the race-field. History was made when Perth-based jockey Kayla Cross rode to victory on the Heather Lehmann-trained Moore Alpha - the first time an all-female jockey-trainer duo had taken out the Birdsville Cup in 134 years.