Feature Articles

Our Cup runneth over

The Grafton Cup has not only survived a century of challenges, but has thrived to remain one of country NSW’s leading horse racing events.

The Clarence River Jockey Club held its inaugural Grafton Cup in 1910 over a distance of 10 furlongs (2012 metres). The prize money of £150, while relatively modest, was enough to attract visitors from as far as Sydney, Queensland, and Bega. The race was won by Casino-owned Gosine in a time of two minutes 10 seconds, at odds of 8/1.

The Cup quickly established itself as a major race in the next few years, to offer £500 prize money and attract more than 6000 spectators by 1913. It became known as the Melbourne Cup of the North Coast, almost instantly making a name as one of the leading non-metro races. The following year attendance over the two days was recorded at 13,000.

One month later, in August 1914, the Great War broke out in Europe. Despite the war, the July Race Carnival continued successfully over the next few years, while other CRJC races throughout the year suffered financially. Associated social events were also held in Grafton.

The return of troops in 1919 brought with it the influenza virus, which wreaked havoc on the Sydney population, with 2400 deaths in just a few months. The virus was also rampant in Lismore and Glen Innes. Fearing an influx of visitors to the Clarence would bring with it the deadly flu, the 1919 July Race Carnival was postponed to September. Attendance and turnover in September was well down, however, with 1919 turning out to be a bad one financially for the CRJC.

The economic boom of the 1920s quickly revived Grafton’s racing scene, with the Cup returning to its pre-war glory. Meanwhile, on-course bookmakers were faced with the increasing challenge of competing with the newly introduced totaliser betting machines.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Grafton Cup prizemoney hard, halved in 1931 from £1000 to £500. Radio broadcasting of horse racing was introduced, prompting fears more and more people would stay at home rather than attend race meets such as the Grafton Cup. Broadcasting later turned out to be vital to promoting the Cup and the July Carnival.

After running successive years since its inauguration in 1910, the Grafton Cup and the rest of the carnival was cancelled for the first time in 1942, with the onslaught of World War II. The Cup also succumbed to the war in 1943, 44, and 45.

The Grafton Cup returned with great fanfare and support in 1946, attracting more than 6000 punters and 106 bookmakers to the course, with total carnival prizemoney of £2470. Horse racing returned to a period of stability for the CRJC into the 1940s and 50s.

The increasing affluence of Australians in the 1950s led to an increasing number of people taking to the racecourse for the Grafton Cup. In 1951 around 10,000 took to the Grafton track for the Cup, increasing to around 12,000 by 1956. In 1957, record attendance was estimated to exceed the total population of Grafton, the influx of visitors stretching the town’s facilities to breaking point. Visitors found themselves bunking in camp stretchers; jockeys trainers and stable-hands sleeping in barns behind hotels, and private residences.

Cup day attendance slumped in the following few years to around 3500 in the early 60s.

On the evening of 17 June, 1970, fire gutted the members’ stand, just one month before Cup day. The 1970 carnival went ahead with a temporary stand constructed.
A new stand was built by the CRJC for $162,000, including a borrowed $100,000. It was officially opened at the 1972 carnival.

Attendance on Cup day once again grew through the late 60s, to reach 14,000 by the mid-70s. Prize money for the Grafton Cup jumped from $1500 to reach $20,000 in 1978. This was attributed partly to the impact of the TAB, giving greater status to the July Race Carnival by operating the feature races. TAB subsidies also made a great impact to CRJC’s finances. The Grafton Cup also received a sudden surge in interest from radio broadcasters. Commercial sponsorship was introduced to the carnival in the 1960s, growing through the 70s.

The traditional Grafton Cup and Ramornie Handicap half-day holidays survived the 1980s despite protest action by a significant number of stores that chose to ignore the holiday and stay open.
By the 1980s, the concerns about the impact of radio of the 1930s had changed drastically, to see broadcasting as vital to the survival of races such as the Grafton Cup. So when the local station decided to pull horse racing from its schedule, the CRJC reacted with much concern. Still, the station refused to reinstate the racing broadcast. It wasn’t until the Dougherty family bought out the local radio station in 1985 that the Grafton races once again hit the airwaves.

The introduction of Sky Channel in the 1980s boosted the July Race Carnival, broadcasting the races to television screens in TAB agencies and hotels around the nation, increasing betting turnover and subsequent revenue for the CRJC. Consequently, however, Sky Channel led to a drastic reduction in the number of on-course bookmakers.

The Grafton Cup retained its position as country NSW’s richest horse race throughout the 1990s, growing to $165,000 in 1999. It also continued to attract top-quality horses.

Today, current CRJC manager Michael Beattie says the Grafton Cup continues its iconic place in Australia’s horse racing calendar. He said, however, that the local event now competed with the Queensland carnival for the attention of top stables, because the introduction of the Caloundra races meant the two events co-incided.

He said the CRJC now needed to work to establish the Grafton carnival as a viable alternative to QLD, to continue to attract top names to the local races.