Sky Channel's number one thoroughbred racecaller in Queensland is Josh Fleming, pictured here with his wife Gabby. (Photo supplied).
JOSH Fleming is “out in the cold”…..but don’t think for a minute he is feeling the heat as Sky’s No 1 Queensland race caller. It’s just that he and wife Gabby have escaped Brisbane’s summer swelter and storms for a much cooler climes holiday in Canada before he returns to call Australia’s richest raceday – the $10m Magic Millions meeting at the Gold Coast on January 14.
As he takes a break after completing his first year as Sky’s new man in the broadcasting box, taking over 12 months ago when the much revered Alan Thomas hung up his binoculars, 32-year-old Fleming looked back on that period in an interview with JUSTRACING. “It’s been a great year,” he said. “I’ve achieved things I never thought I would, such as calling a Magic Millions and a Stradbroke Handicap for the first time. “On top of that, the Magic Millions had that $10m raceday for the first time, and then there were four Group 1s on the same program on Stradbroke day. It made for a huge year. I feel lucky to have been a part of two big days in Queensland racing history.”
The boy from the Queensland bush has come a mighty long way since cutting his calling teeth in the State’s outback. Though born in Brisbane, he grew up in Barcaldine when his schoolteacher mother Alison was transferred there in 1995. His passion to be a racecaller was hatched when he went to the races at Eagle Farm for the first time – and loved the excitement racing offered. “I started doing phantom calls out of the newspaper when I was about 10 years old,” Fleming explained.
But he says his career probably would not have got off the ground had it not been for a chance meeting one Sunday with a well-known Queensland country racing identity. “I took the Brisbane Sunday Mail to Mum’s school this particular day to look at the strip finishes of where the horses were at the 800m and 400m when they raced in town the previous day, and then did my own phantom calls. Mum had gone up to the school to do some work, and I tagged along, thinking there would be no one else around to hear me.” As luck would have it, then central-western Queensland chief steward John Wallis was walking through the school grounds and heard him calling a phantom race. “John must have thought I was okay, introduced himself and encouraged me to keep doing the phantom calls.” Wallis did more than that. He began taking a young Fleming to Saturday race meetings around the bush so that he could continue to practise his calls and gain further experience.
Then when the regular caller at Longreach fell ill, Wallis got Fleming the gig to call his first meeting at Longreach in December, 1998 at 14 years of age. Fleming remembers the day clearly. “There were six races, and one had nine starters- but it felt like there were 18 when I called it. I still have the tape from the meeting, and occasionally watch it and reminisce a bit.” Wallis was also responsible for getting Fleming the job calling at the famous Birdsville races. “I can’t thank him enough for everything he did for me,” Fleming said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for him.” Wallis passed away in April last year after a 40-year career as a steward in many areas of Queensland, and Fleming didn’t hesitate to accede to an invitation from his family to attend his Brisbane funeral service.
Fleming returned to Brisbane soon after the turn of this century to pursue a broadcasting career, and went to Eagle Farm and Doomben to “practise” alongside Thomas and the late Wayne Wilson.
“The old ABC box that I practised from was for a while where the TV camera was located, but has been moved again to a position on the finishing line,” Fleming said. Wilson was Fleming’s first inspiration to be a caller, having grown up listening to him on radio. Soon after he moved back to Brisbane, he also met Thomas, who took him under his wing and provided valuable advice and encouragement. Thomas, in fact, was MC when Fleming wed Gabby McIntosh at Hamilton Island on December 5, 2010 – exactly 12 years to the day he called his first race meeting at Longreach.
Not surprisingly, he had met his bride to be at a bush race meeting. It wasn’t iconic Birdsville, but another popular annual picnic program at Kooroorinya (the races are run on a dirt track 50km from Prairie on the Muttaburra Road). Fleming hasn’t forgotten his grassroots and enjoys going back to the bush whenever his busy schedule permits. He was back at Birdsville in early September, but the planned Friday-Saturday meetings were washed out by a torrent of spring rain, forcing officials to run 11 races on the Sunday. And Kooroorinya is on again next year, but one of its greatest promoters won’t be able to join in the festivities. “It’s their centenary year, but unfortunately it clashes with one of the big Brisbane winter carnival days, so I won’t be able to get there,” Fleming said.
Fleming not only did the hard yards in the bush, but also in Brisbane to get a start doing what he loved. He got a job with Radio TAB in 2002 reading the morning scratching and announcing tote odds, whilst still practising calling all three codes (thoroughbreds, harness and greyhounds).
Fleming caught trains and buses to Doomben, Eagle Farm and Albion Park on a Tuesday to practice calling the trots. His big break came in September, 2003 when he became Sky’s second John Tapp Scholarship winner, following on from the inaugural winner, Melbourne’s Matthew Hill. Barcaldine certainly was a long way away when he hit Sydney. “It was a real culture shock for sure,” he said. “I had never lived in Sydney, but realised this was an opportunity which probably wouldn’t present itself again.”
When his good friend and mentor Thomas announced his retirement last year, Fleming didn’t have to think twice when offered the chance to replace him. It’s been a hectic 12 months since, and the proud Queenslander, loving being back home, hasn’t missed a beat. He will be back in the broadcasting box on January 7, a week before the Magic Millions meeting. “Gabby and myself will be spending a white Christmas at Canmore at the foot of the Rocky Mountains,” Fleming said.
“We’re told the temperature could get to as low as minus 30 degrees. “But it’s magic to get away for a few weeks and see a different part of the world.” Perhaps not quite as “magic” though as that $10m raceday at the Gold Coast on January 14 when this outstanding young caller will well and truly have come in from the cold!