A rich red-dirt heritage

Alicia PereraPilbara News
NWJC committee members are looking forward to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the club, which is the second oldest in WA, over four commemorative race meets this year.
Camera IconNWJC committee members are looking forward to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the club, which is the second oldest in WA, over four commemorative race meets this year. Credit: Pilbara News, Alicia Perera

An unassuming and isolated red dirt racecourse on the outskirts of Roebourne, the Nor West Jockey Club has had no easy road to enduring for a century and a half and carving out a distinct place for itself in WA country racing history.

From this weekend, the small but strong club will be celebrating 150 years of racing as it rounds up on the anniversary of its founding in 1867.

WA’s second-oldest jockey club, after York Jockey Club, and one of only a few red-dirt racecourses in the State, the heritage-listed club has run races every year since its founding with the exception of a few years during the world wars and has often punched above its weight in the racing stakes while retaining close ties to the community.

However, its history has also involved significant changes and a struggle for survival on more than one occasion.

The racecourse started from humble beginnings only four years after European pioneers, including Emma and John Withnell, arrived in the North West, in an effort to bring their British horse racing traditions to remote Australia with them.

The first race meeting planned for April had to be postponed because of a severe food shortage from drought and was not held until August the same year.

Held on mud flats near Cossack, near where the town of Wickham now stands, it featured four races held under WA Turf Club rules with a mare named Miss Georgie winning the major race, the Roebourne Plate, and 15 pounds for her owner.

The track was moved to its current location outside Roebourne in 1890.

With pastoral stations dotting the landscape, the major annual race was a matter of recruiting horses and jockeys from the neighbours but as those neighbours took days to come riding in, it meant the races became a week-long affair, called Roebourne Race Week.

Former NWJC committee member and long-term Karratha Station resident Tish Lees, who attended the races every year she lived in the North West from 1940-1968, still remembers Roebourne Race Weeks with fondness, stretching from a Calcutta or sweeps night on the Friday through to the races themselves and finishing with a grand ball for about 100 guests on Monday.

She said the races were the major annual sporting and social event in the isolation of North West station life and acted as a “community glue”.

“It glued the community together,” she said.

“People came together and got to know each other.”

“The social aspect of it was huge for the station owners. There was no phone contact or anything like that.”

“It was like being on desert island for 12 months.”

“People talked about the races six months after they happened and then they talked about the races for six months on.”

Sherlock, Pyramid and Karratha stations were some of the mainstays of the club and had a healthy sense of competition around the races each year.

The race meets evolved from one to six in time and became more casual, with the ball eventually being abandoned altogether.

The Roebourne club went on to see a fair amount of horse-racing success over the years and attracted some top jockeys, horses, trainers and race callers from around WA.

So avid were some locals about their horse-racing scene, they bred a special type of horse in the early twentieth century, dubbed the Nor West bred thoroughbred, several of which became Perth Cups.

The races were opened up to horses from outside the Pilbara in 1950 which eventually spelt the end for the unique regional breed in the late 1970s.

The club was in danger of closing when the influential Stove family moved on in the 1970s, but scraped together enough support to continue.

More hard times came for the club in the late 1980s when a cyclone caused massive damage to infrastructure, leaving the building in a condemned state and the cost of repairs well into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The committee had to to undergo a large-scale and expensive re-build which, due to a lack of club money, the then-committee took on themselves as guarantors.

They followed that with a large-scale installation of modern facilities and technology including a colour photo finish camera, modern TAB machines and a carpeted members’ lounge to have some of the best facilities of any WA country racing club.

NWJC life member Darryl Rooney, who was the club president at the time, said installing the new infrastructure and getting the club back up and running in a difficult time had been no easy feat.

“When the cyclone took the buildings out the club didn’t have enough money to build the facilities, so ten of us borrowed the money and were guarantors,” he said.

“It would have folded if we hadn’t done it.”

“A lot of people don’t realise the background of (the club) and the money of effort that’s been put in by volunteers and people who have supported it financially as well.”

“It’s had a lot of ups and downs.”

Another controversy was the prospect of moving the race track to Karratha, a proposal to promote patronage and sponsorship and reduce drink-driving which was much-discussed for about a decade until 2004.

A feasibility study into the idea was completed and four or five possible locations considered, despite strong resistance from much of the Roebourne community including a Shire councillor petitioning the track to never be moved from Roebourne in its lifetime, before it was eventually abandoned.

Race meets were reduced from six to four to save club finances in the following years and cyclone damage continued to create extra work for the small committees behind it.

Like other areas of Pilbara social life, attendance numbers —and spending — skyrocketed during the mining boom.

NWJC committee member Terry Milligan remembers numbers of about 7000 at Roebourne Cups during that period, and big money changing hands as cashed-up resource company workers brought their high salaries to spend on meets - injecting up to $100,000 at some Cups.

Numbers and funds have stabilised in the time since, but the community spirit of the Roebourne club remains strong.

NWJC president Kevin Kininmonth✓ said the committee took pride in providing a day of fun and escapism for locals and holding the biggest single day event in the Pilbara with the Roebourne Cup.

“People come from Karratha and surrounds to forget about Karratha for the day,” he said of its modern legacy.

“They get out of there for five or six hours... They come out here to have a great day and hopefully enjoy what goes on and have a few beers and a bet.”

He said the anniversary was “massive achievement” for any WA racing club, and another reason for why the Roebourne club was iconic.

“Hopefully we’ll have another 150 years to come,” he said.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails