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Reputed to be Australia’s third-largest industry, horseracing contributes to the national economy and state government revenues through direct employment and also through primary production, transport, tourism, media, entertainment and gambling.

Early History

South Australia’s first recognised race meeting was held west of the city at Thebarton on New Year’s Day 1838. From 1841 racing continued at a temporary course in the east parklands, but in the early 1850s permanent courses were established in Adelaide’s outer villages, most meetings being held at Lockleys, west of the city. The inaugural running of what became South Australia’s major race, the Adelaide Cup, was at the Thebarton course in 1864. After several attempts, the South Australian Jockey Club (SAJC) was officially formed in 1873.

City racing continued at the parklands, the course being named Victoria Park in 1871. A new track, opened at Morphettville in 1875, became the venue for the Adelaide Cup in May 1876. Parliament always adjourned for Cup Day, which from 1970 became a public holiday. The Adelaide Race Club (ARC), formed in 1881–82, operated from Victoria Park, while the Port Adelaide Racing Club was established in 1890, its Cheltenham course opening in 1895.

In October 1879 South Australia pioneered the use of the manual on‑course totalisator on Australian tracks. Designed to simplify betting, the French-designed system registered bets, calculated dividends and showed the odds for all starters in a race. However the large number of clerks and accountants required to administer the system made it very expensive and inefficient to operate. It was also meant to eradicate on-course bookmakers and betting on credit. The failure of the ‘tote’ to reduce betting and remove bookmakers from racecourses resulted in 1883 legislation banning both from tracks, almost destroying the industry. In 1888 the ‘tote’ was reintroduced and the industry re-established, in 1921 the SAJC introduced the automatic totalisator machine, and bookmakers were permitted back on-course in 1934.

Race meetings, often convened by local publicans, at northern towns such as Salisbury, Gawler, Kapunda, Burra and Tungkillo provided a social outing for South Australians. From the 1870s most small towns in the Mid North established jockey clubs and held races, often on St Patrick’s Day. Picnic race meetings were also held throughout the state, particularly in the north. Convened by local pastoralists, stockmen and their families, some continue, with proceeds benefiting the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The only country meeting to challenge city meetings is the Oakbank Easter Carnival, begun in 1876 and now an important date on many a social calendar. The largest professional sporting fixture in South Australia, up to 80,000 spectators now make the annual trip to the Adelaide Hills.

The other racing code, harness racing, began as informal trotting races for working horses dragging carts or drays. A trotting club was established at Victoria Park racecourse in 1880. During the 1920s light sulkies were introduced to harness racing and the South Australian Trotting Club was formed. The ‘trots’ were held at Jubilee Oval where the University of Adelaide now stands, Thebarton and later at the Wayville showground track close to the city. Harness racing grew into a major industry, and the trots became a feature of every rural agricultural show. In June 1969 daytime racing began at Globe Derby Park, Bolivar, 14 kilometres north of Adelaide, now the metropolitan headquarters of harness racing in South Australia.

TAB Established

Initially recommended by a 1933 royal commission into illegal gambling, an off-course totalisator network (TAB or Totalisator Agency Board) was finally established in South Australia in 1967. Today all South Australian racing is encompassed within a national network regulated by state parliament.

Famous Winners

Two South Australian families are particularly prominent in Australia’s racing industry. Jim Cummings won the 1950 Melbourne Cup with ‘Comic Court’, and his son, J B (Bart) Cummings, has a record 11 Melbourne Cup victories, the last in 1999. The owner/trainer/breeder Colin Hayes, who established his first stables at suburban Semaphore Park and later moved to ‘Lindsay Park’ near Angaston in the Barossa Valley, trained over 5300 winners, including 1980 Melbourne Cup winner Beldale Ball. His son, David, now runs Lindsay Park. Noted South Australian horses include Melbourne Cup winners Rain Lover and Gatum Gatum.

By John Mannion

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 26 July 2015.

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Image: Grandstand and crowds watching a horserace. The twin grandstands are full and race callers and reporters fill up the third stand
Image: Black and white photo of horseracing in progress, crowd behind a fence
Image: Promotional programme for a jockey club's annual meeting
Image: Jockey and his horse at a race track
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