Riding highs and lows since 1867
The vivid red dirt race track of the Nor West Jockey Club is a far cry from the grassy green fields of England often associated with horse racing.
But that didn’t stop Roebourne’s first European settlers building the racecourse in the isolated North West town back in 1867, and working to keep the tradition alive ever since.
Today, the club is the second oldest in WA still running, only outlasted by the York Racecourse.
Roebourne Visitor Centre acting manager Yohanna Kelly said from the beginning of the town’s establishment, race meets and the balls associated with them were “the highlight of the whole year” for residents from all walks of life.
She said the meets were a key part of its sporting and social scenes, and even contributed to politics as it gave councillors an excuse to sit down and discuss the issues of the day.
NWJC life member David Morgan has been a supporter of the club since the late 1980s and continues to represent the club at Country Racing Association WA meetings in Perth.
He was even inspired to write a novel, Mangadoo, based on its history.
He said racing fever had always been a prominent part of life in the North West, from the first race meeting on the Cossack flats, held under WA Turf Club rules in the early 1860s.
Station owners had their own racing colours and even worked to develop a new breed of horse to suit northern conditions.
“They brought broodmares in from elsewhere around Australia and they would try and breed them with race horses,” Mr Morgan said.
“And by the time of the 1880s, 1890s, they got very good at it.
“They developed a horse called the Nor West Bred, which was a horse that was very fast and agile and could easily move around the stony ground. These horses weren’t just for racing, they were also for work.
“They enjoyed quite a lot of success in the 1890s, they would win big races in Perth.”
Mr Morgan said the blood, sweat and tears had paid off in the long run, as the jockey club had carved out a respected place for itself in WA horse racing circles.
Club president Kevin Kininmonth, who has been part of the close-knit committee for about eight years and president for four, said race meets were still some of the biggest social events in the Pilbara, especially Ladies Day and Roebourne Cup Day, which drew about 2000 to 3000 people.
“It’s one of those iconic things to do when you’re in the bush,” he said.
“We race on dirt and everyone gets dirty and dusty and I think that’s part of it.”
Mr Kininmonth said committee members over the years had worked hard to keep the club going despite some difficult times and maintain its authentic country atmosphere. “It’s iconic to the region,” he said. “It’s got a proud history, and we want to keep that history going.
“There’s been rumblings of shifting the track into Karratha by some of the powers that be, but we’ve always managed to hold them at bay. So I can’t see it moving in the foreseeable future.”
The club played host to plenty of characters and local legends.
Successive generations of stationowning families have been part of the club as jockeys, trainers and starters, including the renowned Stove family.
Another legend is the late trainer Ronnie Mitchell, nicknamed Blind Ronnie, who lost sight in one eye from sickness, then the other after a horseriding accident, and lived out at the Wickham stables.
The club’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the years, from almost closing in the 1970s when the heavily involved Stove family moved on, to requiring tens of thousands in funds for a post-cyclone rebuild in the late 1980s, to attracting up to 6000 people for meets during construction of the Burrup.
But Mr Morgan said throughout it all, the appeal of the pindan race course at the back of isolated Roebourne has endured.
“If you want to see a real country race meeting, come to Roebourne,” he said. “It’s red dust, have a few beers, talk to friends. If you could bottle it you’d like to take it everywhere you go.”
“I’ve brought people from (internationally) to Roebourne Cups over the years and they all hold it in very high regard. The race club was always... a team effort and that was the soul behind all these communities and now we’ve got very few of those communities standing. So the message to me is if the race club goes, you’ve lost the heritage. Because you’ll find if you delve into the history of any race club, you’ve got he history of the town.”
Kevin Kinninmonth We race on dirt and everyone gets dirty and dusty and I think that’s part of it.
Horse racing has been a key feature of sporting and social life in Roebourne since the Nor West Jockey Club was established in 1867.
Nor West Jockey Club president Kevin Kininmonth.