Find out more about the incredible history of racing in Sydney.
And they're racing...
The first approved race meeting was held in Hyde Park, Sydney in October 1810. Governor Macquarie sanctioned the race and members of the 73rd Regiment raced their horses. The course was marked out 1 ¼ miles in circumference and a grandstand for the ladies of the colony was positioned between Park and Market Streets. The story goes, that the grandstand was positioned in such a way that Mrs Macquarie did not get the sun in her eyes, and this is why we race clockwise in NSW. [Image: Sydney Town 1810, First Race in Australia, Harold Freedman]
The First Turf Club
In March 1825, a group of colonists, including military officers, government officials and free settlers, met at Sir John Jamison’s house on George Street, for the purpose of forming the colony’s first turf club. Called the Sydney Turf Club, they established a membership and in their first year held two race meetings, one at Bellevue and the other at Hyde Park. Unfortunately politics got in the way and the group folded in 1827.
The Sandy Course
While formal organised racing was still in its infancy, match races and training took place on the Sandy Course at Randwick in the early 1830s. The 202 acres of land were surveyed by eminent colonials and Governor Bourke sanctioned the reserve of land for a racecourse. This was the first Randwick. Annual races were held until 1838 when the track had deteriorated to such an extent that it became dangerous for the horses. Racing moved out to Homebush until the formation of the Australian Jockey Club and their return to Randwick in 1860.
Australian Jockey Club
A temporary group by the name of the Australian Race Committee first met in 1840 with the purpose of revitalising the annual subscription races. After several successful race meetings, the group formalised a permanent institution renamed as the Australian Jockey Club (AJC) and met for the first time on 5th January 1842. The governor, Sir Maurice O’Connell, was invited to become patron. He was joined by a secretary / treasurer and four annually elected stewards. Organised Sydney racing had begun.
The Foundation of Randwick under AJC
When AJC began their regular race meetings in the 1840s they used the course at Homebush. However, issues with track conditions and a steep rise in rent sent AJC looking for somewhere else. In 1858, the place chosen was Randwick. Secretary George Rowley called on members to become liable for £50 each to fix the track and build a grandstand. 15 members came forward in support. The first race meeting at Randwick was May 1860. [Image: Foundation of Randwick Document]
The land at Randwick on which the racecourse was situated was crown land and controlled by the NSW Government. The issue with Homebush, apart from the state of the track, was the yearly negotiation of rent and use. At Randwick, the burgeoning AJC had much more security. In 1863, the NSW Government granted to trustees representing AJC an annual rent of “one black peppercorn payable on demand”. So far, this payment has never been collected.
First Sydney Cup
In 1866, AJC introduced a new race called the Sydney Cup, raced over 3200m and possibly as a rival to the Melbourne Cup which had begun a few years earlier. It is now an important autumn carnival fixture. The day of its first running in May 1866 was well attended. The governor came with his entourage and a field of 13 lined up. The race was won by colonial champion Yattendon, in a close run to the finish. The gold cup presented to the winning owners was the first gold cup to be presented as a racing prize in Sydney. The trophy still exists.
The number of race meetings and the responsibilities of AJC were increasing and so T. S. Clibborn was appointed to the staff of AJC in 1873 as the first salaried secretary. Clibborn managed a number of staff including a collector of jockey’s fees, the Registrar of Horses and Keeper of the Stud Book. He managed the trainers at Randwick and set in motion a building program to refresh the grandstand and track. Outside of the club, Clibborn ran a bloodstock agency that he sold to William Inglis & Son in 1905. Clibborn retired in 1910 after 37 years of service.
One Guinea Registration
AJC starts a register to identify the details of all clubs who race under the rules and regulations established by AJC. By 1885, 201 clubs across NSW were registered. A fee of one guinea was charged to cover administrative costs. AJC also managed the approval of race fixtures, making sure races did not clash. Bundles of correspondence attest to the amount of work involved in this process of registration. Racing NSW now manages all the transactions around the registering and identification of clubs.
The first meeting of the Canterbury Park Race Club was held on 19th January 1884, though racing had begun at Canterbury Racecourse in 1871. George Monk was appointed as the Canterbury racecourse caretaker. This position was held by a member of the Monk family until 1955. The Monks also looked after the zoo on course. Containing kangaroos, wallabies, emus, brolgas, curlews, pheasants and kookaburras, the zoo was maintained until the First World War. [Image: Mr George Monk with kangaroo at Canterbury Racecourse, Ian Monk]
Land at Rosehill had been purchased by John Bennett in 1883 with the view to building a racecourse. He set up the Rosehill Racing Club (RRC), which later became the Rosehill Racecourse Company. By 1885 the racecourse at Rosehill was finished, built at a total cost of £17,000. It opened on 18th April to a crowd of 3,000.
City Tattersall's Arrives
The name Tattersall’s was much respected in England as the supreme authority in wagering and the epitome of honest dealing. Tattersall’s Club was introduced to Sydney in 1858 and laid down the rules governing wagering and betting. They faced a major challenge in 1895 at a Kensington race meeting when a winning horse was disqualified and second place was given the race. The Paddock bookmakers who were up for big bets refused to pay out. Instead, the bookmakers from the Leger Reserve paid out. They split from Tattersall’s Club and set themselves up as City Tattersall’s.
A Date With Racing
At the beginning of August 1900, the Australian Jockey Club issued the first volume of the “Australian Jockey Club Racing Calendar”. Providing detailed lists of the clubs and people who were registered with the club to race under the rules and regulations of racing, the racing calendar emphasised the control that AJC had over racing in NSW. The racing calendar expanded over the years to include race fixtures, race results, details of suspensions and disqualifications, colours registered, horses registered and, in the modern era, stories about the racing industry.
Harry Houdini made an appearance at Rosehill Racecourse. Watched by thousands, Houdini took off in his biplane and rose to a height of 150 feet. He circled the course before the engine cut out to the horrified gasps of onlookers. Houdini, however, escaped unharmed. Racecourses continued to be locations particularly suited to aviation. [Image: In February 1914, Harry Hawker used Randwick Racecourse for a trial flight].
The Australian Stud Book
Recognising and cataloging the breeding records of thoroughbred racehorses was formalised by the creation of the Australian Stud Book. The first volume appeared in 1878 was published by a Melbourne bloodstock agency William C. Yuille & Company. In 1909, the Victorian Racing Club (VRC) and AJC purchased the Stud Book copyright from Yuille. The Australian Stud Book provided details of broodmares and their breeding records. AJC continued to publish and manage the details of the book until 2014.
Of particular importance to any race is the necessity of keeping time. Early methods of race timing involved a man standing half a mile from the start, setting his watch at the moment the starting bell rang and then stopping when the horses crossed the finishing post. The doubts surrounding this method were removed in the early 1900s when electric chronographs were introduced. AJC purchased this newest technology in 1909 and it was installed at Randwick in 1910. Connected to the starting gates, the timer was automatically begun at the start of the race and then stopped by the judge.
On the Home Front
Despite the declaration of war in 1914, racing continued to draw large crowds as people sought an escape from the world. AJC began offering their support straight away. The committee decreed that unclaimed totalisator dividends and other collected monies would be fed back into the war effort. Over the four years of the war this supported the Bluebirds (a group of nurses working in France outside the official medical detachment – see image), the French government, various Red Cross organisations and relief funds for countries such as Poland and Belgium. The total amount of donations exceeded £80,000.
The Automatic Totalisator Revolutionises Betting
In 1916, the NSW State Government passed a law that allowed for on-course betting through the totalisator. Taking advantage of the legislation, AJC commissioned the construction of the Totalisator Building to house what was then the pinnacle of modern technology – a Julius Totalisator. Invented by Sir George Julius, the tote allowed for the mechanical calculation of odds and payouts depending on what was coming in. It revolutionised betting at the races. The Totalisator Building built in 1917 at Randwick still stands to this day.
In the wake of World War One, the Spanish Flu broke out. Quarantine was enacted to begin with but as it spread further measures were taken with schools and entertainment venues closed. At Randwick, AJC Committee discussed the abandonment of the autumn meeting and the use of buildings on course as a hospital. The Tea House was handed over to the Ministry for Public Health and used for five months as a hospital for those suffering from the flu.
The Golden Age of Racing
The 1920s and 1930s are often termed the ‘golden age of racing’. Racing in 1922 epitomised this era with huge crowds flocking to the racecourses of Sydney. At Randwick during the autumn carnival a capacity crowd estimated to be 90,000 was reached with 498 trams pushed into service to transfer racegoers from Central Station to Randwick. Unfortunately for patrons, a beer strike was called on the same day!
In 1923 the Paddock Stand at Rosehill was destroyed so some of the autumn carnival races were transferred to Randwick Racecourse. The fire and subsequent destruction of the grandstand led to a building program at Rosehill. Under the watchful eye of Theo J. Marks, one half of the architectural firm Robertson and Marks, a new stand was built and the Leger Stand was upgraded. Marks was a well-known punter as well as being Chairman of the Rosehill Racing Club from 1919 to 1941. The designs of Robertson and Marks dominated the racecourses of Sydney.
AJC meets at The Farm
A race meeting at the Warwick Farm site was first held in 1889. It developed as a proprietary club with the land having a number of different owners. In 1922, after a unanimous vote by the members, AJC purchased Warwick Farm from a syndicate of owners. With the course on the fringes of Sydney and crowds hard to come by, the Warwick Farm Racing Club were happy to sell to AJC. After several years of renovations, the new Warwick Farm under the auspices of AJC had its first meeting on 4th April 1925, attended by a crowd of 25,000 [Image: Warwick Farm Opening Day, 4th April 1925]
Race Broadcasting Begins
From April 1925, Farmer’s Broadcasting Service, Radio 2FC Sydney, began to announce the race results without permission from AJC. Impressed by their professionalism and popularity, AJC allowed the station to transmit calls of races from December 1927 for an annual fee. Both at Randwick and Warwick Farm, oncourse facilities for the radio stations were created [Image: “Mick” Ferry – the first racing commentator of Australian radio].
Phar Lap broke his maiden status at Rosehill on 24th April with 17 year-old apprentice Jack Baker in the saddle. He had his first Group 1 win in the Rosehill Guineas not long after that and in spring 1929 Phar Lap won the AJC Derby in record breaking time. Then in 1930 and 1931 he won two Hill Stakes races at Rosehill. [Artwork by Robert Wettenhall].
AJC Schools Jockeys
In 1933, AJC established a school for apprentice jockeys. Colonel W. Farr took on the role of conducting classes, providing the apprentices with lessons not only in racing style, etiquette and equine anatomy but also in reading, writing and arithmetic. In 1941, Professor James Stewart became honorary director, bringing a renewed enthusiasm to the role and greatly increasing the confidence of others in the school and its graduates. Senior jockeys were brought in to pass on their advice and knowledge, and prizes such as the Perkins Cup gave the apprentices recognition of their hard work.
Sydney Turf Club
Under the direction of NSW Premier William McKell, state government legislation created the Sydney Turf Club (STC) in 1943. McKell hand-picked the first board of directors who, with W. W. Hill as the chairman, set about reviewing and dismantling the proprietary and pony race clubs. After much discussion and reporting, the STC purchased Rosehill Racecourse Company and Canterbury Park Racecourse Company. The remaining clubs at Moorefield, Ascot, Kensington, Rosebery and Victoria Park gradually closed.
With the world plunged once again into war, racing was curtailed. As it had during World War 1, AJC pushed profits to patriotic funds. Randwick was partially occupied by the military and some meetings were transferred to Rosehill. Warwick Farm was given over fully to the military, who established barracks and stores on course and throughout the grandstands for the duration of the war. At its end in 1945, extensive renovations had to occur before the course could once again host race meetings from 1952 [Image: Warwick Farm in use by the military, 1944].
The first directors of the STC were chosen to bring a depth of racing knowledge and business acumen to the new club. With the club only three years old, the innovations began. After a series of tests and comparisons, the new photo finish camera was installed at Canterbury Park Racecourse and first used on September 21st 1946. On the same day, the STC replaced the traditional string barrier start with stall-gate barriers which later led to the introduction of the mobile starting barriers. It would take another few years for these innovations to find their way to AJC courses. [Image, Canterbury Photo Finish 1985]
Queen Elizabeth II visits Randwick
Soon after her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II toured the Commonwealth. While in Australia, she visited Randwick Racecourse in February 1954. In honour of her visit, AJC ran the Queen Elizabeth Stakes for the first time. Outside chance Blue Ocean, against some of the greatest gallopers of the day, crossed to win the inaugural race. Ridden by Arthur Podmore, the connections of Blue Ocean had the honour of receiving their trophies from the Queen. [Image: Queen Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh arrive at Randwick, 1954]
Unquestionably the “glamour race” for two-year-olds in Australia, the Golden Slipper was first run in 1957. George Ryder, STC treasurer and inaugural director, came up with the concept of this race. Looking at the gaps in the calendar, Ryder championed a race for two-year-olds. The name came from the response Ryder’s wife gave to the question “what was the perfect present for a two-year-old?” It took many years of discussion and persuasion for the race to become a reality. After the inaugural eight length win by Todman, the race made front-page headlines. In 1995, the inaugural winner of the Golden Slipper was honoured at Rosehill with the unveiling of a life sized bronze statue.
Steam trams came to Randwick Racecourse in 1880 solving the transport problems for many years. But as technology evolved, so did forms of transport. In September 1910, the last steam tram ran the Randwick Racecourse route. In its place, the electric tram became the chosen method of transport; it could do the round trip from the Railway in 45 minutes. The Racecourse Specials were to be the largest operations run by the transport department. Again technology ran on and the tram was pushed out by the motor car. On February 1st, 1960, Tram No.1937 became the last tram to run to the racecourse. A Light Rail system adjacent to Royal Randwick opened in 2019 [Image: Trams arriving at Randwick Racecourse, 1920s]
Australian Grand Prix
From 1960 to 1974, Warwick Farm Racecourse was home to a motor racing circuit managed jointly by the Australian Automobile Racing Company (AARC) and AJC. Many enthusiasts made their way out to the course for regular race meetings. Not only did the course host numerous local races but some important international ones too. The Australian Touring Car Championships in 1968 and the Australian Grand Prix in 1963, 1967 and 1971 were all held at Warwick Farm.[Image: Warwick Farm Tasman Championship International Meeting Program, 1968]
Women Break Rank
The debate over women’s role in racing raged for many years. By the 1970s, several female trainers were making names for themselves with ‘Permits to Train’. For example, Mrs Lesley Picken (nee Allsop) trained her first winner in 1972. Then in 1977 Betty Lane was the first female trainer to be granted a No.2 trainer’s licence. Despite her success in the Western Districts it wasn’t until 1982 that she was granted her No.1 trainer’s licence. In 1978 STC Directors “formally resolved that applications from females for full membership would now be considered”. By 1st July 1978, twenty-six women had become full members of the STC. It would take AJC several more years before women were finally elected in 1982.
Change of Season
One of the classic races brought over from England in the early days of racing was the Derby. The Australian Jockey Club Derby is believed to have had its first running in 1861 under the name AJC Randwick Derby Stakes. Slight changes in name makes this ‘first’ debatable but by 1873 it had settled as AJC Derby and a key spring race. In the late 1970s, AJC Derby was moved to autumn to improve the programing and allow entrants further time to mature. The last spring winner was Belmura Lad in 1977 and the first autumn winner in 1979 was Dulcify. [1979 Derby finish, Paul Percival]
A splash of colour at Rosehill
In a colourful tribute to the major races of the STC, two jockey statues were added to either side of the winning post at Rosehill Gardens. After the running of the Golden Slipper Stakes and the H.E. Tancred Stakes the colours of the winning owners are painted onto the jockeys. Remaining there for the rest of the year, they are only changed at the next running of the races. In 1982, the Golden Slipper winner was Marscay and that of the H.E. Tancred Stakes was Prince Majestic.
Female riders take the stage
The early 1980s was an exciting time for female jockeys. In March 1983, Jane Spence became the first female to ride a winner on a Metropolitan course. She achieved this milestone at Canterbury Park, riding Our Fable to win the Very Merry Handicap over 1550m beating Havering by 1 ¾ lengths. A month later at Randwick, Lesley Bellden became the first female to win at Randwick. Bellden won the W. N. Parry-Okeden Handicap over 1200m on Mystic Mahal which had been trained by Mrs J. M. Duke. [Bradley Photographers]
Up and over
In the early days of racing, hurdles and steeplechases were all part of the days’ events to challenge the speed and dexterity of the horses. Over the years, these styles of racing became less popular and were dropped from the racing fixtures. In 1985, in a bid to try something different, the STC reintroduced hurdle racing at Rosehill. The first event was held on 16th November and was won by Brinkworth. Hurdle racing continued in the racing program at Rosehill until 1992. [Image: Brinkworth during the hurdle race at Rosehill, 1985, C. J. Bickley and Son]
As well as hosting great racing, the racecourse at Randwick has provided a space for a number of alternate events. In 1986 Pope John Paul II arrived to celebrate Papal Mass at Randwick Racecourse. An altar was set up in the middle of the course and crowds of the faithful attended, filling the grandstands and all available room on the course. Pope John Paul II returned in 1995 to celebrate the beatification of Mary MacKillop. Again crowds filled the course to celebrate this momentous occasion. [Image: Beatification of May MacKillop, 1995]
Royalty for Randwick
After many years of letters and direct appeals from AJC Committee, Queen Elizabeth II used her visit to Randwick in February 1992 to officially grant AJC the right to call the course Royal Randwick. It was an honour not lightly granted, though an unbroken history of racing, a community focal point and regular royal visits made the racecourse a perfect candidate for the title. A crowd of 25,790 attended Randwick that day, taking in the excitement of the Queen’s presence and spectacular racing that included champion miler Super Impose and jockey Peter Cook.
At the forefront of changing technology throughout its history, Canterbury Park Racecourse saw the advent of telephone betting in 1994. On the 6th July, Chris Downy, the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Racing, placed the first phone bet with prominent rails bookmaker Larry Hawke. The bet was on 8-1 chance, Captivating Dancer in the first event of the day, a two-year-old filly’s handicap. Captivating Dancer finished fifth behind the winner Tiffany’s Choice.
Racing NSW established
Perhaps one of the most significant moments in racing administration was the creation of Racing NSW in June 1996. After a full review of the racing industry, the 1995 Temby Report recommended the formation of a new administrative structure that would be an independent body for the management of racing. By 1998 the details had been finalised and Racing NSW (initially called the NSW Thoroughbred Racing Board) was empowered to run racing in NSW, taking on the regulatory duties previously held by AJC.
Racing under the stars
Discussions around night racing were first raised by the STC in 1951. Though night racing was not financially viable at the time, the idea remained in the Committee’s collective consciousness. By 1996, the idea was becoming more possible. Moonee Valley was planning to conduct night racing, Toowoomba was up and running and twilight meetings were held at Ascot and Belmont in Western Australia. On 23rd September 1999, night racing commenced at Canterbury Park. It continues as part of the summer program today.
Equine Influenza Epidemic
A devastating event that was confirmed in August 2007 was the outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI). Beginning in recreational horses, it spread to thoroughbreds by the end of August and the racing industry was brought to a halt. The spring carnival was cancelled in NSW. Racing resumed in Sydney on December 1st with more than 20,000 spectators in attendance. The Government stepped in with a compensation package across the industry, but the financial and emotional impact was widespread.
World Youth Day
In July 2008 the World Youth Day religious celebrations were held in Sydney. As part of the event, a Papal Mass was planned. With other masses held at Randwick in the past, the 2008 event hoped to replicate their success. The disruption of the previous year meant the racing industry was still recovering but the World Youth Day mass went ahead with racing transferred to Warwick Farm. The event was a huge success with some 400,000 attending both Randwick Racecourse and Centennial Parklands for the final mass.
Australian Turf Club Formed
The discussions relating to the merger of the two big Sydney racing clubs occurred over a long period. Arguments for and against were made but the ultimate decision was to bring together AJC and the STC to form the Australian Turf Club (ATC). The new club formally came into existence on 7th February 2011. The joint strength of the two well-established race clubs brought together the four metropolitan courses – Royal Randwick, Rosehill Gardens, Canterbury Park and Warwick Farm – under one banner.
A legend in her lifetime, Black Caviar (Bel Esprit – Helsinge) began her racing career as a two-year-old in the 2008-2009 season. Her debut win by five lengths and her win in the Blue Sapphire Stakes by six lengths was an indication of things to come. She continued to race and continued to win. In 2012 she stepped out on the international stage, winning the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot by a head. In 2013, at Royal Randwick Racecourse, Black Caviar had her final race in the T. J. Smith Stakes. Her win made her racing record 25 wins from 25 starts [Image: Mark Bradley].
The Grand Finals of Sydney Racing
For the autumn carnival in 2015, Racing NSW introduced the concept of The Championships. Joining together key Group One races of the season – the Doncaster, the ATC Derby, the Queen Elizabeth Stakes and the Sydney Cup, among others – The Championships at Royal Randwick Racecourse became the grand finals of Sydney racing. Across two big weekends, The Championships is the beacon for autumn racing. [Image: The original Doncaster Trophy]
The World's Richest Race on Turf
Further innovations in racing came in 2017 with the creation of a race called The Everest. Run over 1200m the race targets the best thoroughbred sprinters in the world. Prize money of $15 million makes it the richest race in the world on turf. The new format of slot holders buying a place in the 12 horse race, was a great success. Each slot represents a position in the starting gate with the horses running identified closer to the event. The inaugural running on 14th October 2017 was attended by 33,000 with champion sprinter Redzel taking out the prize.
In front of over 43,000 racegoers on the second day of The Championships 2019, champion mare Winx in her final race secured her 33rd consecutive victory – a world record – and her third Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Sired by Street Cry from Vegas Showgirl, Winx galloped firmly into the hearts and minds of the racing public when she began her series of consecutive wins in May 2015. These include 25th Group One races over a variety of distances.
A global Covid-19 epidemic outbreak in early 2020 sadly caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, lockdowns and economic meltdown across the globe. In Australia, racing continued with strict bio-security measures helping to protect 38,000 thoroughbreds and the industry’s 70,000 full-time staff. Both the Longines Golden Slipper (won by Farnan and trainer Gai Waterhouse’s seventh Slipper success) and The Championships were run without crowds for the first-time.