By WG (Bill) WHITTAKER
Tabcorp Park Menangle, as a sporting venue, is far more than just a racetrack: it is an institution founded by distinguished pioneers who were farming and racing horses for fun in this glorious, pastoral setting long before Melbourne – for example – was even thought of.
John Macarthur, acknowledged as the father of the Australian sheep/wool industry, became the owner of just about all the land at “MANANGLE” (an aboriginal word to describe a lagoon on the opposite side of the Nepean River), circa 1820.
Prior to John Macarthur’s presence, Mr. Walter Davidson was granted 2000 acres of land in 1805 and it was Davidson who named the property “Manangle” copying the word used by the indigenous Tharawals tribe.
Thomas Taber and his son George were the early farmer/owners of the exact area where the raceway stands today. It was George Taber who built “Menangle House”; the commanding old mansion that stands on the corner of Racecourse Avenue where patrons drive from the main road into the Tabcorp Park Menangle.
Macarthur, the Tabers and all the others of those early times at “Manangle”, would assuredly be in awe of the recent development of Menangle’s magnificent, brand new 1400 metres track, artificially filled so tall down the back that it is clearly high and dry from the nearby , brimming, tree lined Nepean River.
Indeed, it is an engineering masterpiece as far as racetracks goes for the height at the back draws the horses closer to onlookers in the grandstands. It took almost one million tons of virgin soil land fill to raise the track by up to eight metres at the back.
The ghosts of some of the great horses of the past – thoroughbreds and standardbreds alike – who graced Menangle will be envious of modern day racehorses who are primed to compete on this modern, expertly designed (by USA engineers Charles Coon & Sons) racing strip with its sweeping, banked turns; its spacious width and the longest straights imaginable.
It should be recorded for history that the NSW Harness Racing Club executives and many behind the scenes members have put their hearts and souls into this major project.
Given this remarkable new-found spirit of the Club, the Menangle venture should flourish thus taking harness racing to a higher level. The 106 year-old NSW Harness Racing Club is the bedrock institution of this industry/sport in NSW.
It will thrive, with renewed energy, on the firm foundation established by those enterprising people of the past who had the foresight to buy Harold Park in 1911 and Menangle Park in 1952.
Menangle in earlier days when it was a nine furlongs (1800m) galloping track with the first gallops meeting on Thursday August 6, 1914 to the last on Tuesday, November 18, 1941.
Menangle Park was a propriety racing club, owned by a syndicate headed by the renowned Sydney entrepreneur Sir Joynton Smith, who also part owned Sydney’s Victoria Park racetrack which staged racing and trotting meetings, the trots being run on a big, right-handed nine furlongs (1800m) cinders track inside the turf gallops circuit.
Menangle was restricted to 12-to-14 gallops meetings a year and racing was conducted there continuously, mostly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, until 1941. Meetings were held for the full duration of the First World War, though curtailed to only three dates in 1917-18 due to soldiers (Light Horsemen brigades) being trained there.
Menangle Park staged 18 meetings (the most ever in a season) during 1915-16 at the height of the war and seven in 1918-19.
The Second World War resulted in the closure of racing at Menangle in 1941 when the property was utilised by the Royal Australian Airforce and then in 1943 the McKell Labor Government banned propriety racing, a political move that closed Menangle and several other tracks.
Menangle’s resurrection was due to the foresight of the NSW Trotting Club’s 1952 committee headed by the popular Sydney businessman W.J. (Bill) Dunlop who was the driving force behind the Menangle deal of 1952.
Mr Dunlop, his vice-president Mr Alton Cusick and the Club’s treasurer Jim Reeves were men of considerable influence in political, sporting and business circles. Their association with the former NSW Premier and Australian Governor-General Sir William McKell opened a lot of doors for the NSW Trotting Club in those early years of night trotting at Harold Park.
McKell himself who also owned and bred many standardbreds and thoroughbreds in the Goulburn district was on hand that historic day on Saturday afternoon September 26, 1953 to open the new Menangle trotting track, designed by the NSWTC’s track manager Bill Ainsworth whose honorary adviser was the great Harold Park trainer-driver, Sutton McMillan.
I well remember that day working as reporter for the ‘Trotting Recorder’ which described the 832 yards track as the “best in Australia.” And it was.
Major interstate tracks such as the Melbourne Showgrounds (600 metres) and Wayville, 550 metres (Adelaide) were mere apologies for racetracks at that time. There were rumblings that the NSWTC would come a cropper at Menangle in 1953 because the Club banned bookmakers from operating on the trotting events.
There was to be a totalisator monopoly and the Club’s executives were delighted with the $53,268 turnover which they said “exceeded all expectations.”
The radical all tote experiment was, of course, ridiculed by the very strong bookies’ lobby group and criticised by some owner/punters accustomed to knowing, before the start of races, exactly what price they were getting about their horses.
The all-tote experiment lasted exactly 12 months, the Trotting Club noting at the time that, indeed, it was an experiment and they had given it a “fair trial”.
Frank Peterson, a Victoria Park trainer, won the first harness race on the Menangle track with Recovered’s half brother, Peter Bobby who came from 24 yards behind to win the Campbelltown Handicap paying for five shillings (50 cents) three pounds 19 shillings and six pence which was roughly odds of 15-1. There were eight races of full fields of up to 16 starters.
Other winners on opening day were Heather Brigade (Alf Phillis) Babe Grattan (Edgar Kennerley), Wing Commander (Frank Culbert), North Mall (George Hall), Happiness (Jack Watts) and Casawin (Lawrie Moulds).
The Trotting Club’s clever, well-connected publicity officer, Asher Joel (later Sir Asher) and the long serving Secretary Norman Hollier had ensured the day was well publicised and generously advertised. The attendance of 5,247 was outstanding on what was a cold, rainy day.
The Bert Alley trained and driven trotting mare Sandan almost certainly has the distinction of winning from the longest ever handicap at Menangle. This brilliant, record-breaking NZ-bred mare (by U Scott) who used to break at the start because she always wanted to pace away, won a slow class Menangle Trotters Handicap by 30 lengths after starting from 132 yards behind, in November 1955.
The trotting Club committee of 1954 made an unpopular decision by switching Menangle from a standard left-handed circuit to right-handed. The main reason for the change in direction being that the old two-storey timber Members’ stand (built 1914) for the right-handed galloping track was closer to the home-turn than the winning post.
Members complained they were too far from the real action at the finish of races run the left-handed way of going. The winning post was also a heck of a long way from the public grandstand.
The first meeting of the changed direction was Trotters’ Derby day (May 1954) when the crack South Australian trotter Travis Eddy (G. Schluter) won from the Victorian, Way Yonder (Gordon Rothacker) in a desperate finish with Way Yonder lugging to the outside fence in the straight.
The crowd booed the judge’s decision in favour of Travis Eddy there being no photo finish installed at that time and many punters, but not Gordon Rothacker, complained Way Yonder ran off because of the right-handed way of going.
In any event, the Club quickly reverted to conventional left-handed racing after consistent complaints from trainers, drivers and punters aware that some horses were unbalanced on the right-handed turns.
The right-handed way of going didn’t bother that wonderful trotter, Para Rip who won from 60 yards behind for Neville Gath, who drove Para Rip for his then trainer Terry Nolan at Menangle in June 1954.
The Trotting Club started to stage mid-week meetings for the first time at Menangle in 1955 (mostly Tuesday afternoons) and the first night meeting was held in November 1964 when lights were installed. The ribbon of fluorescent lights installed was considered state-of-the-art at the time and received an Australian Award for the Club.
It hasn’t been all highlights, of course, in the pastoral setting at beautiful old Menangle.
One of the saddest days of my life as a racing writer was at Menangle on September 17, 1958 when the champion driver, Arch Egan, was terribly wounded in his fall with the pacer Civic Centre on the turn out of the home straight in the Beginners Handicap won by Comerton Globe (Les Chant) from Gregory John (Maurice Moore) and Jeffrey Belmont (Ossie Ritchie).
Arch Egan died in hospital on September 26 as a result of the head injuries he suffered.
The biggest crowd ever at Menangle was undoubtedly on Sunday afternoon September 30, 1956 when an attendance of an estimated 20,000 people swarmed all over the place at a charity gymkhana.
This is how Len Smith, writing in the Trotting Club’s publication ‘Trotting Life’ reported it:
“An all-time record crowd of more than 20,000 persons attended the Menangle Park Raceway on Sunday, September 30 when the NSW Trotting Club conducted a Gymkhana in aid of the Royal Blind Society of NSW.”
In 1994 when the major redevelopment of Harold Park was to commence, the Menangle Park track was increased in size and modelled to the dimensions of the proposed principal track, however without the steep camber of the turns.
When the metropolitan track was reconstructed the Club moved the Friday night meetings to Menangle Park including the feature race calendar drawing above average crowds to Menangle Park. Many track records were established at these meetings.
After Harold Park was reopened in 1996 the Club effectively closed Menangle Park as a racetrack by transferring all 20 yearly meetings to the inner-city circuit.
The tranquil Tabcorp Park Menangle has remained the training ground for as many as 200 horses until now. In the ensuing year its is expected that as many as 80 meetings will be conducted on the new Menangle Park circuit.
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