Colonial New Englanders were horse mad.
While many New Englanders did not own horses, relying instead on shanks’ pony or later bicycles for daily transport, horses were everywhere. They pulled drays, sulkies and coaches, were used for personal transport and to round up stock.
The Australian climate and lack of alternative entertainments encouraged interest in sport. Horse racing quickly became an addiction. The horses were readily available, while racing provided not only spectacle, but also facilitated two great Australian passions, gambling and drinking!
The first organised horse race in Armidale took place in 1842, just three years after the city’s foundation and the year before the first race meetings in South Australia or Queensland.
Most little settlements from the upper Hunter to the gold fields of the upper Clarence quickly acquired a race track.
Those first race tracks were pretty rough and ready affairs, with horses racing along Armidale’s dust tracks or on small flat spaces in mountainous regions. However, if you are going to have sport, you must have rules.
The Australian Racing Committee was formed in Sydney in May 1840 to set standards for racing in the colony, becoming the Australian Jockey Club in January 1842. As a consequence, the formal race trappings that we know today spread quite quickly, with judges, stewards, clerks, handicappers, starters and, of course, the obligatory Hon Sec and Treasurer!
Those early race meetings were major social events. They could run for several days, offered substantial prize money, and attracted people from considerable distances.
With time, several streams emerged.
There was flat racing provided through organised clubs such as the Armidale Jockey Club. Jump racing began in Sydney in 1832, but never attracted the same level of support. Then there was picnic racing.
While some of those early race meetings were quite highly organised, they featured amateur riders and local horses. There was a picnic feel to many of the smaller meetings, leading to the term picnic races.
As racing became more professional in the later 1800s, amateurs and pony racers were largely excluded. The popularity of country picnic races boomed as keen amateur racers took to the country circuits. Picnic races became organised events, with their own circuits featuring grass fed horses.
In Armidale, the picnic races became a long standing annual tradition. much favoured by country people. The day began with a Calcutta auction, then the races and finally a ball. It was a chance for people to meet and have some fun.
Picnic racing has been in sad decline. While they still exist in some places, the 2013-2014 NSW racing calendar does not list a single New England event. An era has ended.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 3 July 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013