As City Tattersalls Club works with NSW Health to track Covid-19 cases linked to its popular inner-city fitness centre. The virus has interrupted celebrations for the 125th anniversary since struggle-street St Leger bookies met to form a second Sydney bookmakers Club in 1895.
The three-day foundation meeting in 1895 was in stark contrast to the events of 2020, which from March to June forced City Tattersalls, along with Clubs across Australia, to close its doors for the first time in 125 years.
Now a Sydney institution and one of the few Clubs still occupying purpose-built inner-city premises, its foundation in 1895, split the Sydney bookmaking fraternity for 50 years.
The foundation meeting of 25 bookies, promoted from the battling St Leger ring to the lucrative paddock in May 1895, had begun on August 30 and was adjourned before it voted to establish City Tattersalls Club on the 2nd of September, a rival to the establishment Tattersalls Club, founded in 1858.
Tattersalls Club, then closely linked to the Australian Jockey Club, was considered elitist and interventionist by more down-at-heel owners, trainers and bookies. Tensions had simmered for several years before a call on the last race at Kensington Pony Track on April 25, 1895 – 20 years before the date became Anzac Day, infuriated members of Tattersalls Club.
Most punters had already left the track when outsider Merry Girl, ridden by W. Cock and winner of the last at Kensington Pony Track, was disqualified on a fine Thursday afternoon.
Well-heeled Paddock bookmakers, facing a hit to their takings, refused to pay on favourite Pearl Power, the newly declared race winner, and were banned from fielding at Kensington.
Struggling St Leger bookmakers were called as replacements. These events at Kensington on April 25, 1895, were hotly debated in NSW racing for a decade. Within days the ruling pitted trackside battlers and their bookies against the industry’s perceived elite at the Australian Jockey Club and Sydney Tattersalls Club.
St Leger bookies formed their own association and in September met to establish their own social club, City Tattersalls, promoted as an “everyman’s club” to rival Tattersalls Club.
The Merry Girl-Pearl Powder event conjures a lost era of NSW racing when pony races competed with official thoroughbred events to fill a race program hindered by a shortage of quality stock.
Emerging from five years of harsh economic depression, enthusiastic turf-goers crowded several suburban tracks for events run every day but Sunday. Random vacant blocks and designated athletic fields were co-opted as race-tracks, with equally varied race regulations.
Kensington Pony Track, now the Village Green at the University of NSW, was one of a dozen privately operated proprietary pony tracks, such as Canterbury, Moorebank and Rosehill. Rosehill Racing Club initiated Kensington Race Club in 1889 when Rosehill was briefly deregistered after it defied an AJC ruling on race dates.
In his book Sydney’s Pony Racecourses, author Wayne Peake speculates that the sight of flags waving above Kensington’s grandstand, “clearly visible from the edifices at Randwick, caused consternation to AJC secretary T. S. (Tom) Clibborn and a succession of committeemen”. Peake also noted “debonair” Rosehill manager George Rowley had been as popular as the AJC”s “dour and unaccommodating” Clibborn was unpopular.
As pony racing cut into attendances at AJC events, disputes between the AJC and pony racing clubs escalated. In 1893 the AJC tried to ban pony jockeys and owners from thoroughbred events, which encouraged pony tracks to break away from the AJC.
Kensington race club under Rowley’s guidance earned praise in the 1890s when prominent racehorse owner S.R. Kennedy opined: “There is no club in the world that carries on its affairs better than Kensington.” Rowley died suddenly in 1894, replaced by Patrick O’Mara. The Referee newspaper in 1897 described O’Mara as “one of the youngest and at the same time one of the most capable and enterprising of our racing club secretaries”.
But there was trouble at Kensington in March 1895, when several bookmakers were charged under the Betting Suppression Act with using the Leger Reserve for betting purposes.
Pony races also used young, poorly trained, poorly paid jockeys, who were easy targets for unscrupulous owners and trainers. Riding conditions on small, poorly designed tracks with uneven surfaces and sharp turns also exposed pony jockeys to higher risks than their AJC counterparts.
While pony and hack races offered discounted prize money, race results were widely published in newspapers.
The Kensington dispute began when Pearl Powder’s owner-trainer Hugh Roarty lodged a protest after noticing Merry Girl’s jockey W. Cock weigh-in with his whip. This left Cock overweight, but carrying a whip onto the scales was forbidden under Kensington rules.
The Truth newspaper reported “Cock had declared 1lb over but came in 2lb over. Stewards had to disqualify Merry Girl and award the race to Pearl Powder.”
O’Mara added the insult of insisting paddock bookmakers, most also members of Tattersalls Club, pay upon second-place winner and favourite, Pearl Powder.
On May 31, the Evening News reported “Strike of bookmakers”, continuing: “Before racing commenced, much excitement was caused by the committee of the club calling upon the bookmakers to pay the money won in the Pearl Powder-Merry Girl case to backers of Pearl Powder.
“Members of Tattersall’s Club who had made bets on the disputed race refused to pay and were at once ordered out of\ the ground. Other members of Tattersall’s present in the paddock then struck, closing their books. The Kensington Committee at once took steps to prevent inconvenience to their patrons by calling in the bookmakers from the Leger.”
In an understated observation, “Umpire” commented in the Referee newspaper that “the Pearl Powder-Merry Girl matter has stirred up a lot of ill-feeling that will not disappear for a time”.
City Tattersalls Club celebrates its 125th anniversary on September 2, 2020.
“This is a picture of Kensington Racecourse in 1896, a year after the famous Merry Girl/Pearl Powder race, it is not hard to imagine that some of these gentlemen are part of the original Members of City Tattersalls Club.”
Photo attributed to (UNSW Archives 99A76)