Horse racing in Roebourne has been an annual social even since 1867, attracting bookies, jockeys, trainers and spectators from all over Western Australia. The races were originally held on the left hand side of the Cossack Road, before moving to the present course in 1890, with the site named the Nor-West Jockey Club. The race meetings became important social events, with people travelling in from the outlying stations. Most of the accommodation in the town was booked out during the racing period and additional camps were set up between the racetrack and the river. The horses were ridden long distances from the outlying stations, sometimes taking 3-4 days to arrive. It was therefore important to arrive a suitable time before the races began, to allow the horses to be fully rested for the racing events; people often arrived in town up to two weeks before the actual day of the races. Other social events also occurred around race time, including balls, picnics, concerts and religious services. These festivities extended over a week and over the years became known as Roebourne Race Week.
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A rich red-dirt heritage
Alicia Perera | Pilbara News
The racecourse started from humble beginnings only four years after European pioneers, including Emma and John Withnell, arrived in the North West, in an effort to bring their British horse racing traditions to remote Australia with them.
The first race meeting planned for April had to be postponed because of a severe food shortage from drought and was not held until August the same year.
Held on mud flats near Cossack, near where the town of Wickham now stands, it featured four races held under WA Turf Club rules with a mare named Miss Georgie winning the major race, the Roebourne Plate, and 15 pounds for her owner.
The track was moved to its current location outside Roebourne in 1890.
With pastoral stations dotting the landscape, the major annual race was a matter of recruiting horses and jockeys from the neighbours but as those neighbours took days to come riding in, it meant the races became a week-long affair, called Roebourne Race Week.
Photo Credit: Alicia Perera
Tradition set in the town's early history
Horse racing in Roebourne has been an annual social even since 1867, attracting bookies, jockeys, trainers and spectators from all over Western Australia. The first meeting held in the North-West was at Roebourne in 1867, and was to have been on 24 May, but due to a local food shortage, the races were postponed until mid-September. At the time, Roebourne's food supply was brought in by ship and no ships had arrived at Cossack for nine months, so the town was quite desperate.
The race meetings grew to be a real social occasion with people moving into town up to two weeks before the actual day of the races.
Tents were erected and the few women from the stations were extended hospitality at the Withnell's station, where beds were made up in the shearing shed, while others stayed in other public accommodation or with friends. During this time, local squatters made the race meeting their carnival time, with squatters and their families. Aboriginal stockmen and their families arrived in town long before the event so the horses were well prepared and rested. There were no floats or trucks and the horses were ridden hundreds of the miles from the stations, some taking three or four days to arrive.
The races were originally held on the left hand side of the Cossack Road, before moving to the present course in 1890, with the site named the Nor-West Jockey Club.
Eight horses took to the field for the North-West's first horse face meeting, with Mr Mount winning the first prize of four pounds with his horse Fanny, and Mr Cowie winning the second prize of one pound for his horse Glengarry. There were no bookmakers on site, but plenty of unofficial bets were made. After the horse racing was over, a break was called for dinner, followed by a full programme of foot races, hurdles, hammer throwing, putting a stone and rifle shooting. Many Aboriginal people joined in the fun and won prizes, but there were no events for women as they had to occupy themselves minding the children and preparing the food.
The first race meeting ended as all bush meetings did, with a grand race ball in the evening. Supper was served by the ladies and trophies were presented to the winners of the races and the jockeys - in fact almost everyone present received a prize, indicating how small the population was at the time.
Early pioneer Emma Withnell, with her golden hair piled high and wearing a green satin frock, was named "Belle of the Ball', which ended at daylight.
The gaiety lasted a full week and over the years became known as the Roebourne Race Week. The festivities included a picnic on the banks of the Yerra-muk-a-doo pool where goodies of all sorts were washed down by billy tea, with everyone able to enjoy bathing in a pool which was divided by two large rocks - women on one side and men on the other. The following night there was an impromptu concert and on Sunday there was the largest congregation yet to attend divine services.
It is obvious that in spite of the distances many settlers had to travel and the hardships they endured, the pioneers of the North-West made sure their lives were not all work and no play. These early pioneers established a tradition that is still enjoyed by people from all over the State, over 155 years later.