Bong Bong on song for rural Australian racing

Tradtri easily wins the 2014 Bong Bong Cup with jockey Billy Owen. Photo: Jessica Owers.

Since 1886, Bong Bong Picnic Race Club has been operating two hours south of Sydney. It has survived depressions, world wars, and two influenza outbreaks (one human, the other equine). Jessica Owers deserted the city to visit this year’s races, and to find out why Bong Bong is probably Australia’s most famous picnic meeting.

In Australia, the sport of kings has largely settled in the populated cities where the crowds can be found. It started in 1810, when organized racing first occurred at Hyde Park in rough and scrubby Sydney town, then only 22 years old. But around Australia, there are rural clubs that today remain faithful to the social, colonial roots of early horse racing. One such is Bong Bong Picnic Race Club, which hosts a meeting once a year amid the rolling vales of the Southern Highlands, almost two hours south of Sydney.

With its towns Bowral, Moss Vale, and Sutton Forest, the Southern Highlands were the country home of many of New South Wales’s affluent and decorated men in days gone by. Governors-general had homes here, so too politicians and pastoralists. The region was an easy reach by train from Sydney, and, later on, a rousing jaunt by motorcar.

Like much of Australia, racing was an early priority in this district. In 1886, a number of local gentlemen met with an idea to carving out a racecourse. Among them was Pat Throsby, who had settled 1,000 acres on the southern side of the Wingecarribee River, land that was also known as “Bong Bong.” Throsby offered his friends a choice of two sites on his property for their new racecourse, and hence the Bong Bong Picnic Race Club was born.

The exact translation of “Bong Bong” isn’t known. It is an Aboriginal term, sometimes said to mean “the seating part of the human anatomy,” sometimes “many watercourses,” “many frogs,” and also “out of sight.” However, it was a name that stuck. The club’s first meeting occurred in 1887, and its token event became the Bong Bong Cup, which is still run today.

The annual meetings were true to their picnic roots; attended by large groups of riding parties that would set off for the course early in the morning, take their lunch among the ants, and enjoy the local competition before sauntering home in the hot twilight. In later decades, people picnicked next to their motorcars, perched in the long grass with a view to the winning post. Meetings were almost always held in the late spring or summer months, punched by fine Australian weather and the dust, flies, and bushfires that often followed.

In 1929, the Great Depression hit the club, as it did the rest of the world. Racing was wrapped up at Bong Bong, and it stayed that way until 1959. The original site had long been vacated, so the revived club settled on a new tract of grassland a little closer to Bowral along Kangaloon Road. Known as “Wyeera,” the new racecourse was scratched out of the soil around a large mound, the top of which remains the only vantage point for seeing an entire race at Bong Bong from start to finish.

The mound is the reason for many a track story. It is said that as the fields swung away from the home straight, and hence out of sight of the judge that was planted at the winning post, jockeys made merry down the backstretch, barging each other out of the way and swinging their whips, knowing well they were hidden by the hill in the middle. These shenanigans became rare in later years as cameras and motor vehicles made monitoring the races easier, and today, Bong Bong is as officiated a race meeting as Randwick or Flemington.

Still, the races remain faithful to their origins. Picnic meetings around Australia are often unregistered affairs, loosely operating off the rulebooks, and while Bong Bong is stewarded, and nominations and declarations are logged with Racing NSW, the event retains its local feel. The smell of the gum trees is strong, the grass a little rough and burned. Shops in town close early so that folks can head to the track, and on all sides, the mottled green and brown canvas of an Australian rural landscape.

The races are held in November, usually a week or so after the Melbourne Cup. At one stage, Bong Bong was attracting 35,000 people and 200 buses, enormous numbers that were due in part to local affections, but also because the races had become an annual pilgrimage for Sydney drinkers. In 1985, the crowd overwhelmed the local authorities and Bong Bong was shut down until 1992. As a result, the races are now open to only members and their guests.

“We are probably the longest-running picnic meeting in Australia,” said David Goulder, a Southern Highlands local and the chairman of Bong Bong picnic races. “We’ve got the minutes from the club’s first meeting in 1886, and the Bong Bong Cup from 1898. We’re very proud of our races, and in this day and age, it’s not an easy thing to stay afloat for such a long time.”

The reality is that Bong Bong doesn’t survive on its races alone. Each year, the meeting gets around 7,000 people on-course, with a healthy state of sponsorship and mostly voluntary labour, but Goulder admitted that the club has had to be creative with its finances. It offers up the use of its 80 acres to dressage, polo, show events, and caravan clubs passing through. But even this doesn’t guarantee the future of the races.

At this year’s event, alcohol licensing was a problem for the club. Permission to license the meeting was granted only a few days before the event, meaning organisers were shuffling and scrambling until the eleventh hour. Licensing police were in heavy attendance on race day, which, on its own, isn’t a problem. However, Bong Bong will admit that regulation is making it harder and harder for events like this to continue. Apparently, 148 years of history will not guarantee the next 10.

Regardless, this year’s meeting ploughed on with the conviviality it has long been known for. The Bong Bong Cup had 17 nominations for a capacity field of 10, headed by the Gai Waterhouse-trained Rochallor. It’s not usual that a picnic meeting in the sticks would attract a Waterhouse horse, but Rochallor was locally owned, and the Bong Bong Cup has been described as the “Melbourne Cup of the picnics.” In the end, the race was won by Tradtri, a New Zealand-bred gelding with an American pedigree. Rochallor was eased up last.

The rustic simplicity of Bong Bong is a reminder of the earliest traditions of bush racing. There are picnic meetings all over rural Australia, but few are as famous as this one, and even fewer as charming. Perhaps it’s the leisurely jaunt from Sydney that makes it so popular, or the smell of the paperbarks in the car park. Whichever, Bong Bong has more than enough on its populated city cousins.

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