Featured Image: A survivor; New Year’s Day Racing at ‘Wallabadah’ south of Tamworth in northern NSW
By Harley Walden
Harley Walden, racing columnist
The story of Australia’s greatest national sport began with an impromptu bush racetrack, the meeting was run by settlers near Windsor in New South Wales in 1805.
As the state of New South Wales expanded it was the early settlers who paved the way and those who followed appropriated tracts of land to make their livelihood.
No town was too small to provide a racetrack however makeshift.
It has been said that, on setting-up a new town or hamlet, the instructions were build a place of prayer, a school and a racetrack, in that order.
Many of these were hastily cleared out of bush land to be used as a racetrack and on occasions, have that track act as a picnic or recreation ground for the town folk.
It was a far-off remote world from what we live in today; people travelled on rough gravel roads and, at times, on tracks cleared through the stringy bark bush, it was in this environment that the horse played a major role.
Evidence of advancing civilization as one Governor wrote to his superiors in London.
By the second half of the century after the land had been taken up and the gold discoveries had brought a population into the bush, horse transport was the means of linking these settlements to the larger cities.
Such was the Australian way of life in the bush.
Even without a course to race on, there seemed no reason not to compete.
Children raced their ponies’ home from school and stockmen their stock horses from the cattle camps to the stock yards.
In fact any type of race created enthusiasm from our predecessors.
Their stories we still treasure today.
Along with the horse came the sport of racing which soon became the focus of social life, sport and entertainment in these scattered communities.
By the end of the first century the racecourse was part of the topography of every town of any size and some of the larger stations laid down their own racecourses their annual or picnic race meetings.
Our own local district, in the past, had many of these courses laid out on private properties.
One would have been Alabama owned by Allan Cooper and then Ray Bowcock, a track were Scone Race Club held its early meetings before moving to White Park.
The races held at Wingen, just north of Scone, would take place on Petwyn Vale a property owned by Mr. F.W. Croaker.
One of the first race meetings held in Murrurundi was on April 2, 1879, it took place on Mr. F. B. Haydon’s property at Blandford.
The Merriwa Cup which is still held once a year had its original course on Brindley Park owned by the Bettington family.
Other smaller settlements close to Scone had their clubs registered; Moonan Flat and Gundy were recognised in January and March of 1896.
The Queen’s Birthday and St Patrick’s Day were popular days to hold a race meeting all over the country and locally the Easter Monday Races at Moobi-Howe’s Paddock April 6, 1896.
Clubs were formed to hold special Annual meetings or a race meeting was put on for such occasions as the end of shearing, the arrival of the railway, or Easter or Christmas holidays.
One such local meeting in days gone bye was held on the famous Belltrees property, home of the White family, to commemorate the conclusion of shearing, and they put through 150,000 sheep in those years.
Although the first race meeting in Scone was held in 1842 by the late 1840s racing had become a well-organised and well-patronised recreational activity in the town.
Interest in the sport enabled a three-day meeting to be held on the 26-27 and 28 December, 1848.
Popularity of the sport continued over the Christmas and New Year holidays, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1887, “In this colony alone no less than 66 fixtures appear, beside numerous meetings in less popular parts”.
In the latter years the popularity never waned if we look at the North and North West Racing Association fixtures for early 1956:
- January 26 – Barradine, Gunnedah, Glen Innes, Denman, Mungidi.
- January 28 – Glen Innes, Camden Park, Coonabarabran. February 2 – Tamworth, Scone.
- February 6, 7, 8 – Armidale Cup Carnival. February 15 Walcha Cup.
Looking back through the old records we come across many racecourses and clubs whose flags no longer fly, lost in as the dust settles and time marches on: Barmedman, Tinonee, Belimpopina, Monaro, Bokhara, Cannonbar, Nettelgo, Moombi, Wombat, Ivanhoe, Murrumburrah, Adelong Crossing, Patrick Plains, Rutherford, Carcoar, Berrima, Clarence Town, Maquarie Fields, Mitchell, Sunny Corner, Lower Manning, Breeza, Reid’s Flat, Tooleybuc.
In the Hunter three of the major towns who race no more are Denman, Singleton and Maitland.
Then there was Currabubula, a small town situated between Tamworth and Werris Creek in northern NSW, where champion Scone horseman Arthur Holman started his sequence of rides that won him a place in the Miller’s Guide.
Holman rode five winners from as many mounts at Currabubula October 12, 1946, continuing at Camden Park, Tamworth October 14, 1946 with another three, a week later at Quirindi adding a further one and a half wins to the total; nine-and-a-half straight.
The lost racecourses were not all in the bush settlements or country courses.
There were racecourses in the cities and larger country towns that no longer exist today.
We will never recapture that part of our racing our ancestors knew, when a trainer set off on the road to walk his horses to the course, when women dressed up in their best, and when the publican put-up his booth in the shade of a gum tree, shared, in most cases by the one and only bookmaker.
What happened to all these racecourses many of whom are now simply traces of the past era, left behind by a few panels of railing, a furlong post or a judge’s box left standing in a paddock?
Many have disappeared from the landscape altogether.
For some their fate was sealed by nature, drought or flood, as was the case of Scone’s neighbouring town Aberdeen.
The Aberdeen Jockey Club was founded in 1898; down through the years suffering a number of setbacks, including three floods, the first in 1913, the second in 1955 and the third that finally ended horse racing in Aberdeen was in February 1971.
Some went out in wartime while many could not withstand the financial hardships of the Depression.
Some were simply part of the larger process of change in the makeup of how racing is run today.
One such club was Denman.
Denman Race Club is thought to have begun racing in the 1890s, although there are reports that in March 1860 the two-day Pickering St Patrick Races were held on the ‘Big Flat’ which was part of Martindale the property owned by Edward White.
In 1905 the racecourse was moved to Denman Park where racing continued until the track was closed in 1976.
The club now conducts its meeting at the Skellatar Park complex at Muswellbrook.
If had not been for some old newspaper cuttings or some frayed race books we might never have known that in the past the starter dropped his flag on a race meeting at Sunny Corner, Piper’s Flat, Nundle and Bimbi or closer to home Woolooma and Cundi’s Flat and Moonan or the meeting that was held at Kars Springs, just west of Scone, in 1925.