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Australia’s pioneering days were an era when a good horse was of great value, meaning one of the most popular forms of sport and recreation was horse racing. Informal gatherings throughout the country saw matches between the pick of station horses and thoroughbreds, and owners were immensely proud of any success that came their way.
The first properly constituted race meeting in Townsville was conducted by the Flinders and Burdekin Race Club in 1866 at Cleveland Park (Garbutt), less than two years after the site of the 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 15 and 17 August in 1866 and featured the Town Plate run over three miles underweight-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.
Cluden heralds boom times
As Townsville continued to grow and prosper, the name of the club was changed to the Townsville Turf Club (TTC) in 1874.
Race meetings were still held at Cleveland Park but the bigger site close to the Cluden railway station was seen as more suitable. The change to Cluden Park 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. Shortly after, a race meeting was organised and proved so successful that the TTC committee decided to relocate its headquarters to Cluden immediately. Although no accurate records exist, the move likely took place 1882 when the TTC’s feature race was still known as the Town Plate (now back to two miles) and taken 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.
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 beyond administration 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. he 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 re-built and it stands today, 100 years later, a National Heritage-listed building.
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 that year stated that a large amount of money was spent in prospecting for water.
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 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 1 minute 47 seconds. 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
In 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 swift however, and in January 1938 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. 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 Coughlan then Harry Plant, Hedui won two Cleveland Bay Handicaps before 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 good shape and set new records in 1947, racing on 34 days for prize money of over 14,000 pounds while membership numbers soared to 248.
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 introduced photo-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.
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 planned to race 53 times during the 1971-72 season but Cyclone Althea on Christmas Eve 1971 had other ideas, causing nine meetings to be lost. The club emerged in relatively good shape, distributing prize money of just over $275,000 for the year while membership numbers soared to 426.
Nothing compares with top class horses and riders contesting good races and the 1972 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.
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.
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 Wonderland Boy.
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-existent 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.
In 1994 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. 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.
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. In 2003 the Townsville Cup offered $100,000 in prize money for the first time.
In February 2019 Townsville recorded one of its worst floods in history. At the time of writing, rehabilitation works of the track and infrastructure were underway, hoping to be complete by June for the Winter Carnival.