BELOW: The saddling enclosure at an Orara Jockey Club meeting at the former South Course on July 22, 1931. Photo from Atkins family.
BELOW: The saddling enclosure at an Orara Jockey Club meeting at the former South Course on July 22, 1931. Photo from Atkins family. Clarence River Historical Societ

Pioneering families bring racing to South

GRAFTON'S name is synonymous with country racing in the 21st century, but in the 19th and 20th century there was more than one jockey club in the Clarence Valley. While you were likely to find clubs up and down the Clarence River and in our more remote areas, it's the South Grafton Jockey Club that still has its grip on Clarence River racing today.

With the southside town still owning the rights to the second day of racing at our July Racing Carnival, once upon a time South Grafton had its own course and racing was pioneered by families who pushed to make it stand apart from its sister club, the Clarence River Jockey Club.

ABOVE: Punters enjoy a day at the races at the South Grafton Race Course, c.1917.
ABOVE: Punters enjoy a day at the races at the South Grafton Race Course, c.1917. Clarence River Historical Societ

Like the July Racing Carnival, the SGJC had its own Boxing Day races, which began as a one-day event before extending to two in 1869. At that point, they were run by the CRJC races but in 1879, when the SGJC became official, William Joseph Hawthorne pushed for support to form the new club.

The SGJC's founding president was TT Seller, of Newton Boyd Station, who led the nine-member committee.

The first race card had six races, headed up by the South Grafton Christmas Handicap, a two-mile event with a 40 pound win plus two pound sweepstake. A total of 107 pounds was added to the prizemoney by the SGJC.

In 1879, the club returned to a one-day event, despite the success they had had for the past nine years, because another group had weaselled in on the Christmas racing period and they were looking to improve the quality of racing at their club.

However, racing in South Grafton was not limited to the workings of the SGJC.

It has a rich history with the first races being held at Wilson's Hill, then in the area known as Alipou Creek, which runs under the Pacific Highway today.

When the Christmas Races were a regular event on the calendar, races were moved to a new site on Glen Innes Rd.

In 1965, the area between Minden and Hay Sts was gazetted as the new South Grafton Racecourse and for public recreation. It remained in the area, now called Hawthorne Park, until the CRJC took over the South Grafton race club.

RIGHT: This picture was taken at the last South Grafton Cup meeting on the old course.
RIGHT: This picture was taken at the last South Grafton Cup meeting on the old course. Clarence River Historical Societ

Over the years, The Daily Examiner has reported on the happenings of South Grafton Racing, including one account which relays the remarks and race of a famous bushranger.

"The famous bushranger Starlight is recorded as having ridden his horse on to the racecourse, nominated, and won a race and then shouted 'For all and Sundry' before taking off into the bush again.” (DEX, 1970)

In "Day races got out of hand'', The Daily Examiner reported from the courts on January 1, 1817 that five men were subsequently charged and appeared in court for offences said to have been committed at the races where it was alleged at least one of the accused was "not quite sober”.

With 109 years of racing under its belt, in 1956 the SGJC handed over its assets and race dates to the CRJC and racing ceased in South Grafton.


THE Cowan family arrived in South Grafton in the 1840s and became part of the South Grafton racing community.

William (born 1827), the patriarch of one of South Grafton's founding families - the Cowans - established himself as a businessman with a number of land holdings around the southside, including the block previously known as Price's store, where he established his butcher's shop.

He also established a hotel and store near the riverbank on Wharf St, which was run by his widow following his death before it was passed to his eldest son, William, along with the butcher shop.

While Cowan (senior) was involved in the match races at South Grafton, it was his son William who cemented the family's involvement in the racing industry.

He served as clerk of the course at the early Grafton meetings and later as a committee member of the CRJC, but it was his family's involvement in the Christmas race meetings that helped racing grow on the southside of the river.

Norman Cowan served as a steward and William was acting as treasurer for the Christmas races. The later generations of the family became permanent fixtures on the committee of the South Grafton Jockey Club.

While the family had a number of successful horses, it was Norman's ownership of the champion Newbold who cemented their names in Clarence River racing history.

It didn't take Newbold long to take charge of racing in Grafton, winning under Norman Cowan and his next owner, J. Gregory.

Race Wins

Norman Cowan

Newbold, 6yo, 1858 Ladies Purse, jockey J. Cassen

Newbold, 6yo, 1858 Town Plate, jockey J. Cassen

Newbold, 7yo, 1859 Ladies Purse, jockey J. Cassen


THERE is always a figure associated with the beginning of something new, and for the South Grafton Jockey Club, that name is W. J. Hawthorne.

An enthusiastic member of the Pastoral and Agricultural Society, Hawthorne was a pioneer of jersey cattle and the dairy industry in the Clarence. But that was only his first love.

His second was horse racing and breeding, which he did from his stud farm in Caramana from 1878 to 1885, and later from Chandos on the Orara River.

Warlike became his most successful sire, which was bred from his most consistent horse, Freedom, which only missed out on a placing in 10 starts from 130.

It was Hawthorne's determination that resulted in the formation of the South Grafton Jockey Club.

In the 1870s he was the driving force behind racing on the south side of the Clarence River.

In 1871, he acted as starter for the Christmas races, in '72 he became steward for the meeting and by 1875 he was honorary secretary and treasurer.

It was because of the increasingly important Christmas races that Hawthorne began gathering support for the formation of the new jockey club.

On September 13, Hawthorne had his wish and the South Grafton Jockey Club was born, with the following Boxing Day races being held for the first time in the following months under the control of the new jockey club.

This was the same year the new club decided to hold just the Boxing Day races instead of the two-day race carnival so they could concentrate on improving the quality of racing in South Grafton.

According to John O'Hara's book Big River Racing, it was this "dedication and his clerical skill as secretary of the club which enabled it to survive and grow into a local institution.”

The son of immigrants from Ireland, Hawthorne lived in South Grafton for most of his life where he established himself as a blacksmith and wheelwright in Wharf St at the age of 21.

He later became an auctioneer and council clerk.

When he died at the age of 84, he had retired from his position as clerk of the Orara and Nymboida Shire Councils only three years earlier.

At some point, Hawthorne also served at South Grafton and Dorrigo shires and was the first town clerk for South Grafton when it became a municipality in 1906.

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