Friday, April 19, 2024

Idyllic racecourse has a shady history

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An exciting new radio play is about to hit the airwaves.

‘Trouble At Towong’ has been written by Carol Lowden and centres on the alleged appearance of Squizzy Taylor at the Towong Cup meeting of 1927.

Carol is a Mansfield writer with ties to the Upper Murray and a particular interest in the Towong races. Her uncles were Mervyn and Archie Whitehead, of The Meadows, and she remembers when Mervyn’s horse, Negombo Star, won the Towong Cup in 1967.

Legend has it that infamous gangster, Squizzy Taylor, masterminded a disturbance at the Towong races in 1927 and while everyone was watching the fracas, made off with the gate takings from the secretary’s office.

Squizzy Taylor’s name was regularly in the Melbourne newspapers at the time. According to true crime history writer, Roy Maloy, Taylor was “arguably Australia’s most prolific criminal in the first half of the 20th century” and “His career in crime saw him committing almost daily crimes of a size and magnitude that would equal the largest singular crime in the whole career of most other crooks. His ability to play the legal system against itself allowed him to serve comparatively little prison time and walk free from a majority of his crimes.”

Apparently, Taylor was known to frequent racecourses and in 1922 was strongly suspected of burning down the Members’ Stand at Caulfield on the morning of the Caulfield Cup.

Taylor died after a gunfight with a rival gangster, John ‘Snowy’ Cutmore, in Melbourne in October 1927.

Although there were some who doubted that Squizzy Taylor was actually at Towong, the rumour persisted and the story grew, with both the Melbourne Herald and the Border Morning Mail producing feature articles.

Two of the oldest members of the Towong Turf Club Committee, Tom Waters and Toby Harris, were interviewed, and while Tom said “We all thought it was a bit of a joke. Half the people at Towong doubted the story but it certainly gave the club a bit of publicity”(Border Morning Mail 9/2/1988). Toby told of his father, Hugh Harris of Hunters Plains, confronting Squizzy and his gang. Evidently, the thugs were camped on the river helping themselves to the Harris turkeys and roasting them over a campfire and burning rails from the fence.

According to Toby, “Dad said he rode down and told Squizzy ‘I don’t mind you knocking off my turkeys but there is no need to knock off the bloody rails to cook them!’ Squizzy just mentioned how dry the place was looking and what a big fire it would make and so Dad hightailed it home.” (Herald 17/3/79)

We may never know the truth but we can still enjoy drinks at Squizzy’s Bar on Towong Cup Day and cheer on our horses as they flash down the straight in the Squizzy Taylor Dash each year.

This year’s Towong Cup, for many the highlight of the year on the social calendar, is especially significant because it marks the hundredth year of the feature race being called the Towong Cup.

From the club’s inception in 1871 until 1924 the main race was variously called the Towong Handicap or the Shire Handicap, with prizemoney being from 20 to 30 sovereigns, exceptionally good stake money for the times. In 1924 the first Towong Cup was run over a distance 1.25 miles (approximately 1800m) and was won by the legendary Tom Burke, which went on to win the next two Towong Cups as well. Bred by well known racing identity William (Billy) Lowden, the horse was by John Pierce’s top sire, Costello, from Billy Lowden’s mare, Exult.

After Billy’s death in 1926, Tom Burke was transferred to Melbourne and continued to win flat races, hurdle races and a steeplechase while being trained by another local horseman who found success in the city, George Murrell.

Long touted as ‘Fhe Flemington of the Bush’, the Towong racecourse draws huge crowds every year to its Cup Day.

In 2008 a racing enthusiast commented “Many tracks have mountains behind them. Others are nestled amongst them. Such natural features contribute to a perfect setting for a race meeting but add a wonderfully maintained grandstand, (built in 1912) to the centre of the picture and you are looking at an idyllic country track.” (Con Marasco, Towong shows why bush racing is hard to beat, Winning Post, 15/3/2008, p.103)

The Winning Post article was written at the height of tumultuous times for the Towong Turf Club, where emotions were running high at the news that its Christmas meeting had been slashed as part of Racing Victoria’s rationalisation of country race meetings. Although a subsequent change of government in Victoria saw a brief reinstatement of Towong’s very popular Christmas meeting, by 2015 the Towong Cup was the only meeting held at Towong each year.

Undaunted, the committee and the community fought on to preserve the race club and to make the Cup meeting a standout success each year. The setting of the iconic grandstand in the shadow of Mt Mittamatite still draws travellers from the Murray Valley Highway and as they approach the racecourse, they are impressed by the many improvements which have been made.

The heritage fence is well underway, extensive white panelling around the carpark and green lawns adds flair to the natural beauty of the course, and the track itself undergoes regular improvements to maintain its excellent condition. Just this year, workers at the course were pleasantly surprised one day when Melbourne tourists were struck by the quality of the “turf”.

Visitors interested in the history of the Towong Turf Cub can read it on a series of illustrated panels along the walkway beneath the grandstand and the famous elm trees, well over a century old now, still offer generous pools of shade.

On Saturday March 9th this year the Towong Cup is definitely still the coolest place to be in more ways than one! (To listen to the radio play go to https://c7.radioboss.fm:18291/stream).

Corryong Courier 22 February 2024

This article appeared in the Corryong Courier, 22 February 2024.

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