A History of the Townsville Turf Club
In Australia’s pioneering days, in an era when a good horse was of great value, it followed that one of the more popular forms of sport and recreation was horse racing.
At innumerable informal gatherings throughout the country, the pick of the station horses were matched against each other and the owners were immensely proud of any success that came their way.
Townsville and district, from the very earliest days, was no exception.
Indeed, the first properly constituted race meeting was conducted by the Flinders and Burdekin Race Club in 1866 at Cleveland Park in the Garbutt area, less than two years after the site of the future city was selected.
The club’s first patron was the Governor of Queensland, Sir George Ferguson Bowen and Townsville’s founder, Robert Towns, was the inaugural president.
The first meeting was a three-day affair from August 15-17, 1866 and featured the Town Plate run over three miles under weight for age conditions.
Although racing at the time was mainly confined to hacks and their owners, the professional men were gradually attracted to the Townsville circuit, bringing some of the state’s best horses – including the crack miler Johnny Smoker – with them.
MOVE TO CLUDEN HERALDS BOOM TIMES
As the then-town of Townsville continued to grow and prosper, the name of the club was changed to the Townsville Turf Club (TTC) in 1874 in keeping with the times.
Race meetings were still held at Cleveland Park but it was deemed in some quarters that an available roomier site situated close to the Cluden railway station would be more suitable.
The mooted change was strongly opposed by a considerable number of committeemen and members of the public but the supporters of the move were not to be denied.
At virtually the sole expense of committeeman AH Rourke, a track was marked out and cleared and a temporary stand was constructed.
A race meeting was organised and proved so successful that the TTCcommittee decided to relocate its headquarters to Cluden immediately. Although no accurate records appear to be in existence, this move probably took place 1882 when the TTC’s feature race was still known as the Town Plate (now back to two miles) andtaken out that year by Mirabeau.
The first Townsville Cup was run at Cluden Park in 1884 and was won by Ellington owned by RF Kelly.
Town Plates and Townsville Cups aside, Mr Rourke was soon reimbursed his personal outlay of 1500 pounds and the club set about erecting a grandstand, press box, stewards box and a totalisator at their new headquarters at a cost of 2500 pounds.
THE J.S. LOVE ERA
In 1887, James Simpson (JS) Love was appointed club secretary, a position he was to hold with distinction for the next 38 years.
His role in putting Townsville racing firmly on the map went far beyondadministration matters however, for JS Love was instrumental in underpinning the North Queensland breeding industry, importing many top class sires from England including Kings Scholar and Chantemerle.
The era also encompassed a period of extensive improvements to the course and facilities despite the best counter-efforts of cyclones and global conflicts.
Unofficial records indicate that the original Cluden Park grandstand was blown away by Cyclone Sigma in 1896. It was rebuilt post-haste only to suffer a similar fate at the hands of Cyclone Leonta in 1903.
Once again the grandstand was immediately re-erected and it stands today, 100 years later, a magnificent National Heritage-listed building providing not only a superb race-viewing vantage point but also a nostalgic link between modern-day racing and those heady, halcyon days of yesteryear.
While the grandstand may have endured a chequered early career, the popularity of the club (and thoroughbred racing in general) continued to grow so rapidly that total prize money distributed in 1887 stood at 2000 pounds. During the mid 1890s, the main race carried a purse of 250 pounds while just 30 years later, in 1917, the six meetings held for the year boasted prize money of 2582 pounds.
The club’s annual report to its members that year stated that ‘a large amount of money was spent in prospecting for water’ with ‘a new site selected by the Government water diviners resulting in a fair supply of water being found on which a well was sunk and an engine erected thereon’.
Meanwhile, North Queensland racing’s premier sprint, the Cleveland Bay Handicap, was run for the first time in 1919 and won by Bushwind.
In 1922, the club spent 141 pounds on permanent improvements, including the starting board and the scratchings board while in 1923 an amount of 47 pounds in railage was refunded to connections of horses from Bowen, Charters Towers, Ayr and Ingham who supported Townsville meetings.
1924 was a big year for expenditure with 1614 pounds outlaid to erect the new stewards lookout stands, ladies lavatory, the mound in front of the grandstand along with major repairs to the grand stand and the totalisator building.
Races decided over distances of two and three miles were no longer in fashion and by 1919 the longest race contested at Cluden was the Townsville Cup of 10 furlongs, or around 2000 metres.
Race distances might have been reduced but racing continued to enjoy the boom times and by 1927 the TTC was staging 17 meetings a year with total prize money of 11,705 pounds on offer.
However, race distances all came alike for jockey Bill ‘Skinny’ Thomas at Cluden on Saturday, 29 June, 1929 when he rode the winners of the seven races on the card, a world record.
Included in his tally was the North Queensland Guineas (1 mile) winner Greengold (owned by HJ Atkinson) which started at 6-4 and carved out the trip in 1min 47secs.
Thomas’s other winners were Own King, Kingsman, Constant Boy, Pageacre, Northern King and Night Flame.
There was no skinny end of the prize for Skinny Thomas on that memorable day.
CRISIS AND RECOVERY
But all good things come to an end – if only temporarily – and by 1936 the TTC was reduced to conducting just nine meetings for the year for total prize money of just 2466 pounds.
Illegal off-course betting was rumoured to be at the core of the problem but, whatever the cause, the club was forced to close down towards the end of the year due to lack of support.
Recovery was immediate, however, and in January 1938 the TTC committee chairman GV Roberts was able to state in his annual report that the club staged 26 meetings in 1937 (comprising 32 race days) and distributed 6293 pounds in prize money.
By May 1942, with the threat of Japanese invasion looming large during Australia’s darkest hours of WW II, Mr Roberts reported that the committee had granted permission to members of the American forces to use a portion of the committee stand and members’ bar while Australian troops occupied the grandstand building and the horse stalls.
The Towers Jockey Club, Burdekin Delta Turf Club and the Herbert River Jockey Club held their annual meetings at Cluden at various times during the war years as their home tracks were also taken over by the military.
And while the TTC acknowledged that the occupation of Cluden by Allied and Australian forces was an inconvenience, the arrangement was looked upon as the club’s contribution to the war effort.
With the war against Japan all but won by 1944, the forces occupying the racecourse eventually vacated the premises in the latter part of that year.
As the 1945 annual report revealed, no rent was charged by the TTC during the occupation period and no compensation was received, the big bonus being that the club was able to continue racing, as usual.
One local galloper that captured the spirit of the times as the war drew to a close was the brilliant sprinter Hedui.
Owned by long-time TTC committeeman Talbot Heatley Snr and trained by firstly Jack Coglan then Harry Plant, Hedui won two Cleveland Bay Handicapsbefore being sent south where he claimed the 1945 Stradbroke Handicap at Eagle Farm. The next year he finished a gallant fourth behind his stablemate, the legendary Bernborough, in the Doomben 10,000.
He also won a host of sprint races in Sydney and Brisbane before returning to Townsville as an aged horse where he won the Newmarket and the North Queensland Cup on the same day.
Hedui – by the 1936 Townsville Cup winner Sternula – was bred by North Queensland Amateur Turf Club stalwart Ted Cunningham Snr at Strathmore, Collinsville.
THE GOLDEN YEARS
The TTC emerged from the war years in surprisingly good shape and wasted no time in setting new records in 1947, racing on 34 days for prize money of over 14,000 pounds while membership numbers soared to 248.
The post-war years, indeed from the 1950s through to the 1970s, represented a golden era in Australian racing and Townsville, for its part, proved no exception.
Some of the country’s top jockeys who rode at Cluden during this time included Neville Sellwood, Ron Hutchinson, George Moore, Russell Maddock, Terry Ramsey and Barry Stein.
Moving with the times, the TTC began using starting stalls in 1955 and introducedphoto-finish camera facilities in 1959.
The club maintained steady progress until the early 1960s when additional funds became available through distribution of funds by the newly-formed Totalisator Administration Board (TAB).
From 1963 to 1972 prize money increased from $50,600 to $275,600, due largely to TAB distribution which jumped from $7500 to $190,000 in the corresponding period.
By 1965, the betting ring at Cluden had been completely covered at a cost of 14,500 pounds which, along with the acquisition of the teleprinter service, individual speakers for bookmakers, a markets board and correct weight lights, made the ring unique in Australia at the time and, no doubt, the envy of other clubs.
Another highlight of the 1960s for the TTC was the construction of the new $160,000 stand and administration block – the Sir Henry Abel Smith Stand – which was officially opened by the State Treasurer and Minister in Charge of Racing Gordon (later Sir Gordon) Chalk on Townsville Cup day, 1967.
While the progressive 1960s became known as the ‘Halberstater era’ for the TTC under the leadership of Dr Les Halberstater O.B.E. (he served as club president from the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s), the decade also marked the passing of another of the club’s stalwarts and life members Ernest Keiry in January, 1968.
Mr Keiry became a member of the TTC in 1908, was elected to the committee in 1933 and served as vice-president from 1957 until the time of his death, giving 60 years of sterling service to the club.
BREEZING INTO THE SEVENTIES
The TTC had planned to race 53 times during the 1971-72 season but a windy visitor named Cyclone Althea who came calling on Christmas Eve 1971 had other ideas, causing nine meetings to be lost.
Nevertheless, the club emerged from the ‘big blow’ in relatively good shape, distributing prize money of just over $275,000 for the year while membership numbers soared to 426.
The issue of race book prices reared its head in the early part of the decade when a small group of members called on the committee to lower the cost from 30c to 20c.
Their thinking was that the Brisbane clubs’ race books were being sold for just 15c at the time and were of better quality while a reduction in price would also see more books sold. The club treasurer ended the debate when he told the dissenters that the TTC was in the process of producing a ‘far superior type of race book that would be introduced from next Saturday’. End of argument.
Nothing compares with top class horses and riders contesting good racesand the1972 Townsville Guineas threw up a pearler when the judge couldn’t separate Gay James (Paul Gordy) and Kobe Park (Bill Bethel).
The Guineas form proved impeccable when the dynamic Gay James brought up his 14th consecutive win in the Cleveland Bay Handicap the following year while Kobe Park went on to annex the 1974 Townsville Cup.
In a radical move, the 1975 Winter Racing Carnival was brought forward to a mid-June time slot in 1975 for financial reasons but the switch was short-lived and by 1977 the status quo had been restored.
The TTC secured a loan of $125,000 from the TAB Development Fund that year to upgrade the old grandstand and the main public car park and to improve the watering system. New starting stalls were purchased and the old stalls were sold to the Ewan Race Club at ‘a satisfactory price’.
MIXED FORTUNES IN THE 1980s-90s
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, hard times had descended on the TTC – indeed, on most provincial and country clubs – as the anomalies in the formula used by the government for the distribution of TAB profits bit deep.
Race day crowds were also on the wane at the majority of the state’s tracks and from March to May, 1980 the TTC was forced to reduce prize money to stay liquid and contain the deficit for the year’s operation.
The introduction of Gold Lotto in 1981 put further strain on TAB distribution but the club managed to turn an operating of loss of $21,000 in 1979-80 into a $2100 profit in the next financial year.
During the 1982-83 season, a number two grass training track and a new sand track were formed and an automatic watering system was installed to water both the course proper and the training track.
In early 1984, the computerized totalisator system which had been operational at the course for three years was finally linked up to the TAB network, giving punters the option of betting on the ‘giddy goat’ or with the bookmakers on all southern and local events.
Cluden Park gained national recognition on two occasions in 1985, firstly on 23 February when the much-travelled galloper Picnic In The Park won his twentieth consecutive race there to break a long-standing Australian record.
A little over three months later on June 1 - and for just the second time in Australian racing history to that point – a triple dead-heat for first was semaphored when the judge couldn’t separate Angular (Bill Cullen Jnr), Apollo’s Flame (Peter Warren) and Plenty of Spirit (Gilly Farrell) in the Kissing Point Open Handicap (1000m).
While the first triple dead-heat had been recorded almost 30 years earlier in the 1956 Hotham Handicap at Flemington (Fighting Force, Ark Royal and Pandie Sun), similar results soon followed Cluden’s brush with history at Stony Creek (Vic) on January 23, 1987 and at Cowra (NSW) on January 20, 1997.
All four of these classic moments of the Australian turf have been immortalized in photograph and name at Cluden’s popular Triple Dead-Heat Bar.
In 1987, after three of the driest years on record in Townsville, an amount of $500,000 was made available from the government’s Racing Department Fund for the development of a water treatment plant adjacent to the members’ car park. The beauty of the plant was that it was able to reclaim sufficient water to allow up to 37mm per week to be sprayed from the irrigation system, allowing the tracks and the lawned areas to be kept up to the mark
The year also saw prize money climb over the magical $1 million mark for the first time although this milestone was offset to some degree by an alarming decline in the number of bookmakers plying their trade in the Cluden ring and the ever-dwindling race day crowds.
Cluden joined the ‘$100,000 club’ in May, 1991 when the TTC hosted the inaugural $100,000 Parry Nissan Great Northern Two Year Old race restricted to horses sold at the 1990 Sunstate Yearling Sale and won by Margin.
The Sunstate Yearling Sale was perhaps the most significant development for racing in Townsville in modern times, with the sale providing over 100 new horses each year to the North Queensland Racing Industry. Up until this time, two year old racing had been virtually non-existant in Townsville, but by promoting a yearling sale and connecting it to North Queensland’s richest race, two year old racing became viable and accessible to all Northern racing participants.
But amidst the euphoria these were hard times for the TTC what with the ongoing battle with the TAB over its controversial distribution formula and the closure of the track for major works from early November, 1991 to mid-January, 1992.
By 1994, the future direction of racing in Townsville was flagged when the TTC staged seven Friday full-TAB meetings beamed nationwide by SKY Channel while the “no racing on public holidays” policy remained firmly in place.
Major problems with the state of the course proper continued however, forcing a four month closure from January to late April, 1995.
The new sand training track was welcomed by the majority of trainers until the first storm in October 1996 turned large patches of sand into slurry and hoof holes failed to drain, a messy business in more ways than one and a very trying time for owners, trainers and the Committee.
The Queensland Principal Club took control of the rectification works shortly afterwards but when no action had been taken by that quarter – and with the 1998 Winter Carnival looming – The TTC opted to spend $120,000 of its 1997/98 training track subsidy to upgrade the quality of the sand which resulted in a much improved training facility.
Increased TAB funding and continued support from the Club’s many sponsors meant that no race at Cluden was worth under $10,000 on Townsville Cup Day 1997.
Townsville Cup Day itself continues to break records, and a crowd of almost 12,000 people saw Party King make history in 2002 by becoming the first horse to win the Townsville Cup three years in succession.
With Townsville Cup Day firmly entrenched as Townsville’s biggest social event, the Townsville Turf Club announced that in 2003 the Townsville Cup would offer $100,000 in prizemoney for the first time.
Prizemoney levels across the board are at a healthy level and it is a proven fact that owners and trainers will travel when the “prize is right” and worthy of the trip, no matter what the distance.
In a sense, in much the same spirit as those resolute old timers who travelled on horseback or Shank’s pony and by rail, road and sea to patronize those very earliest meetings at the Townsville Turf Club’s very own Cluden Park Racecourse.