Off to the races
Australian horseracing has its roots dating back to the first colony. It cut across all levels of colonial society and race meetings were important social occasions, in Yamba as elsewhere. The very first meeting was no thoroughbred race, rather just a few locals matching their own horses on Pippi Beach in 1866.
The New Years Day race meeting became an annual event, initially with the Pilot, Captain Francis Freeburn, as the judge of a 6-race programme. Horses had to be “the bona fide property of persons residing within a fifteen mile radius of Wooli”.
Moves to clear and form a racetrack on land to the west of the township, alongside what was a tramway and is now Angourie Road, began in 1889, but difficulty raising funds meant that races continued to be held on the beach for another decade. The new track was a rough bush track with the field of runners only in sight from the turn into the straight. Reportedly there was frequent use of branches as whips on rival horses while out of sight. The Yamba Pony Club held regular meetings up to 1906 but a year later the venue switched back to Pippi Beach.
An attempt to revive the track in 1910 failed but after a public meeting in 1914 to form the Lower Clarence Jockey Club, working bees were organised to clear the overgrown track. This was completed in 1914, creating a racecourse that was just under a mile in length. Heavy rain postponed the first meeting, but it was very successful with some 500 attendees coming down from upriver in the Clarence riverboatand by motor car. Regular race meetings were held, despite war taking horses and men away from the region. A flu epidemic in 1919 caused all large gatherings to be banned, but by the 1920s picnic races were very popular.
The inaugural meeting for Yamba Proprietary Race Club was held in 1931 after up to twenty-six volunteers had again cleared the racecourse. A Race Ball held in the evening ensured it was a prime social occasion.
There were other race tracks at Taloumbi, Lawrence, Maclean and Cowper but the Yamba races had better prize money: £240 for the Yamba Cup held at Christmas, with up to 8 bookmakers on course and 250-300 attendees recorded.
The Depression years saw a severe decline in racing throughout the valley. In 1939 it was reported that the racecourse was bush once more. In the 1940s the Clarence River Jockey Club in Grafton opposed the formation of any new clubs. Country racing became part of a national industry now broadcast on TV as well as national radio to pubs and clubs. Betting was controlled by the TAB and race meets were no longer a social occasion for the local community.
In 1986 Yamba Lions Club cleared the site of the old racecourse for a sporting complex including a new racetrack. The 1989 Yamba Lions Picnic Race Day, “where the thunder on the turf meets the roar of the surf”, was the first race meet for 54 years. There was a fairground and footraces were held in between horse races. In 1993 this event was finally abandoned due to lack of sponsorship and the banning of on-course betting. The sporting complex on Angourie Road continues to be used but since 1996 the Yamba Cup horse race has been held in Grafton.