Era ends in 1930s; new beginning in ’59

FICKLE MAID: Flying Handicap winner in 1959 at the revived Bong Bong races.
FICKLE MAID: Flying Handicap winner in 1959 at the revived Bong Bong races.
‘OLDE WORLDE”: The 1959 patrons dressed in the styles of earlier Bong Bong races.

‘OLDE WORLDE”: The 1959 patrons dressed in the styles of earlier Bong Bong races.

1981 CROWD: Aerial photo taken by Leonie Knapman shows the huge crowd and lots of buses at the Bong Bong races. Photos: BDH

1981 CROWD: Aerial photo taken by Leonie Knapman shows the huge crowd and lots of buses at the Bong Bong races. Photos: BDH

Part Three of a 3-part series

At the time of the scandalous “doping” in 1929 that almost put a finish to the grand galloper Bronze Fuze, the Bong Bong Picnic Race Club was struggling to make ends meet.

Adverse conditions caused by the Great Depression were undermining confidence and money was scarce. Even though the club provided only trophies and not cash prizes, times were tough and it could no longer conduct the races at Bong Bong. Its last meeting was held on January 16 and 17, 1930.

The Bong Bong Cup, made of solid gold encased in oak, was won that year by Miss McClarty’s Kinaird, ridden by Frank Bennett.

In order to continue race meetings, a new Bowral Race Club was formed in 1931 and it conducted professional races at the Bong Bong racecourse until the mid-1930s, offering prize money for the winners.

Eventually, in 1937, the original Bong Bong Club was wound up and the racecourse was sub-divided for sale.

THE NAME WAS REVIVED in 1959 when a new Bong Bong Picnic Race Club was formed by a group of district people interested in horse sports and bearing the name of the old club only.

It was announced in the Southern Mail of August 6 that year thus: “During Festival of Flowers Week the Bong Bong Picnic Race Club will be revived after a lapse of almost 30 years.

“The newly formed club will conduct its meeting on the Wyeera property of Mr R. Jackson in Kangaloon Road, opposite the Milton Park intersection”.

It hoped to recapture the country racecourse atmosphere of the original Bong Bong picnic races and decided on Wyeera as the most suitable site for the racecourse.

Wyeera had been used as a training course and, during World War II, sports meetings including horse events were held there for “patriotic” purposes.

A general interest in horse sports had died off during the Depression and the war, but by the early 1950s this interest revived and people began again to buy horses for pleasure - along with a car and horse float. The idea of reinstating the old annual picnic race meetings was often discussed before its revival in 1959.

At Wyeera, an elevated hill standing in the centre served as a natural grandstand with the course designed around the base of the rise. Local people were asked to attire themselves in early century or pre-war dress and to travel to the course in buggy or sulky, if available, and to bring their own hamper luncheons.

The people responded with enthusiasm and the new Bong Bong Picnic Race Club’s first meeting on Saturday, October 24, 1959 was a great success.

The winner of the Bong Bong Cup was Star Hinge, owned by S.V. Kensit.

The Veteran Car Club of Sydney brought a procession of vintage cars to the racecourse and Sydney television viewers were able to watch a direct telecast of the races courtesy of Channel 7.

THERE WAS SOME criticism of the event published in the Sydney Telegraph that portrayed the occasion as nothing like the usual picnic race meeting.

The reporter stated that the 7000 people on the makeshift course were a “motley crew who wore boaters, battered bowlers, black toppers, grandma’s Easter bonnet, crinolines, anything olde worlde” and “there wasn’t a champagne bottle in sight - just warm beer’”

A retraction was published the following day, which went some way to soothe the indignation of the hard-working locals who had coped well with the crowd of 7000 attendees, served cold refreshments from a refrigerated unit and grossed £2500 in takings.

The sour-grapes of the city slickers who scoffed at Bowral’s picnic race day as being nothing like Royal Randwick certainly did nothing to diminish the hordes of people who flocked to the event every year from then on.

By the 1980s Bong Bong was the largest picnic race meeting in the world. At a time when race crowds were generally declining, Bong Bong’s increased to reach almost 35,000 in 1985.

However, these large crowds caused major traffic congestion and unruly behaviour became a problem, so the picnic races were stopped. Then, in 1992, the event was once again revived but under strict crowd control with attendance limited to only members and their guests.

So, by surviving, the Bong Bong Picnic event carries on a tradition begun 125 years ago at the Racecourse Paddock on Throsby land in Moss Vale.

  • This feature compiled by Philip Morton of the BDH&FH Society and Alan Chittick, a member of the Bong Bong Race Club.

This article is sourced from the archives of Berrima District Historical & Family History Society, Bowral Rd, Mittagong. Contribution of information & old photographs welcome. Email bdhsarchives@acenet.com.au; call 4872 2169. Website: berrimadistricthistoricalsociety.org.au