By JENNY BARNES, Contributor - The Virtual Form Guide
Hurdle and steeplechase racing was once one of the staples of the raceday program in Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and South Australia. From the history books it appears that the Northern Territory ever introduced the sport and therefore it was never the subject of any 'ban' or otherwise.
Jumps racing was introduced in the schedules of races run by Hunt Clubs in the early 1830s and was soon adopted by the various city race clubs. The early steeplechase courses featured post and rail and log fences, stone walls were common as were water filled ditches and steeplechase courses were added in and around the main racetracks. At the metropolitan racetracks the only recently remaining 'jumping lanes' were at Flemington, Moonee Valley and Oakbank but with the changes announced in Victorian Oakbank may be the sole 'city' track with a specialist jumps course. Several Victorian country tracks such as Warrnambool, Casterton, etc also have jumping courses while the Melbourne metropolitan jumping was scheduled to be concentrated at Sandown after the review in late 2008.
The first of the four jumping states to cease racing over the obstacles was Queensland. In the 1890s the economic downturn & effects of the city flood disaster hit racing hard and while its carnival races had their prizemoney slashed the jumps racing disappeared from the calendar. Racecourses such as Bundamba (Ipswich) and a second course were not used for several years with one raceclub stopping meetings completely for nearly two years. The state racing industry only survived through the programming of small race meetings. The industry picked up again by 1899 but the jumps racing did not and only returned briefly in the mid 1980s when a once a year exhibition hurdle was held. These did not last long due to equipment, horses and jockeys all having to travel from Victoria resulting in small fields with the favourites usually winning by big margins however there were no notable incidents or injuries. Interest soon waned and jumps never returned to Queensland again as although never banned there wasn't the support for the costly exercise.
Western Australia did experiment with a 'Perth Steeplechase' but it was only tried once in 1877 and never again while a hurdle racing did appear on a regular basis in the 1890s it was generally considered that with low prizemoney and small fields it would not be sustainable long term. While it survived early predictions once the depression occurred in the early 1930s the sport slowly declined in stakes and significance and eventually disappeared. Like Queensland it was economics not a ban that ended the sport in that state.
New South Wales tried to keep the jumps races going but as few of the country tracks (aside from courses in the Riverina which were accessible by Victorian trainers) the interest and pool of jumping horses was quite low by the 1920s. And by 1931 the rules allowed a horse that had lost its jockey to be remounted and ridden to the finish by racegoers if it was still possible to claim a placing. There were also allegations of corruption within the jockey ranks and this didn't help the image of jumps racing with the racing public. Various incidents, small fields and the overall poor quality of jumpers in NSW (for the big races the superior Victorian jumpers often came and took the prize from the locals) brought about the end of Steeplechase races in 1931. Hurdle racing continued on until 1941, despite the small fields, when it and midweek racing were suspended due to World War 2. Despite assurances it would return after the war it was never revived. In November 1985 there was an exhibition hurdle race at Rosehill and while it race itself was a success with no incidents like Queensland the interest didn't justify the cost of importing the equipment, horses and jockeys from Victoria and it was consigned to history.
Canberra briefly introduced a once a year hurdle race at its Canberra Cup meeting in the 1980s with the final version won by Cobbler Boy in 1988. The races themselves were incident free but after an after race scandal over the event one year the interest waned and the club went to an all flat race program in 1989.
Finally Tasmania's racing industry started to struggle in the years leading up to jumps racing ceasing in 2007. Track and race club rationalisation was put into place and as jumps racing the previous year consisted of only 19 horses (only 7 were from local stables the rest from Victoria) competing in 6 races. Even the jumps had been imported from Victoria. Again an economic decision - the sport itself was not banned.
The final two remaining states that still at this stage have jumps races are Victoria and South Australia. In Victoria several years ago small yellow jumps were introduced to placate the various protest groups who were extremely vocal in regard to falls at the metropolitan jumps race meetings. While the first season or so the new jumps did show promise and improved the falls statistics unfortunately as many predicted the horses soon learnt they could just gallop over the obstacles at a greater speed by skimming through the forgiving brush. This led to mistakes and ultimately greater chances of race falls and injury. After a review last year many improvements such as raising the angle of the obstacles and ensuring white sighter lines on the takeoff side plus many other recommendations. However racing has been suspended in Victoria after the death of Clearview Bay at Warrnambool.
In South Australia things are a lot different. Aside from the period from June - September last year when the yellow modular jumps were used Adelaide has been using a blue topped hurdle fence which now has the takeoff side with a padded mat that has the white sighter lines painted on. The blue jumps have been used for many years and have resulted in very few falls and it has been rare for injuries to happen. In the SA Grand National Steeplechase held on August 4 2007 at Victoria Park big solid blue topped jumps were used - all horses returned from the race in one piece without injury. Saturday jumps races have only resulted in 3 racing deaths in the last 3 years including the horrific accident on Anzac Day this year. Oakbank has also had a good record over the last few years where despite an occasional fall or dislodged jockeys there have been no serious injuries to horse or rider.
South Australia's greatest worry is that if the industry is shut down in Victoria then the horses and jockeys will not be available to support the local industry and like Tasmania the sport would simply because uneconomic to proceed.
References used for this article - History of Australian Racing Vol 1 & 2, AJC The Principal Club, Australian Horse Racing Jack Pollard and Australian Race Results.