Coleraine Races – in the footsteps of Adam Lindsay Gordon

Adam Lindsay Gordan
slv.gov.au

 

“On the fields of Col’raine there’ll be labour in vain
Before the Great Western is ended,
The nags will have toil’d, and the silks will be soil’d.
And the rails will require to be mended.
For the gullies are deep, and the uplands are steep,
And mud will of purls be the token,
And the tough stringy-bark, that invites us to lark,
With impunity may not be broken…”

(“The Fields of Coleraine”, Adam Lindsay Gordon)

 

Coleraine’s Great Western Steeplechase referred to in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem is the oldest continuous horse race in the Southern Hemisphere.

 

Well, in a manner of speaking at least. First run in 1858, the 162nd running of the event which I attended last Sunday involved two laps of the inside track of the Coleraine racecourse over 3600 metres. Much earlier, nineteenth century iterations of the event were a rather different matter.

 

 

The diagram above shows where the first Great Western Steeple was contested. If you imagine the built up area to the left of screen as the outer areas of the old Coleraine township, this and the adjoining farming paddocks to right of screen were the site of the first running.

 

Bell’s Life in Victoria of the day noted with much excitement in May 1858 that “the time of 7 min. 10 sec. taking into consideration that the distance was close on three and a quarter miles means this has been one of the fastest steeplechases run in the colony.”

 

In the second Great Western in 1859, the club’s archives record the following note.

 

“…It was to be run over about four miles with 27 jumps to contest for the handsome prize of 500 sovereigns and while the locals were disappointed that Walkover, the inaugural winner, wasn’t available they were happy that there were five good jumpers ready to tackle the course. Or at least, they thought there were five. Sadly, two of the jockeys became so intoxicated the night before the event they were in no fit state to ride and their runners were scratched…”

 

Oh dear! It really must have been a lively old post gold rush “colony”!

 

Even in the early days though there were some adjustments both to the length and direction of the the route as reported by the Hamilton Spectator on 16 May 1868.

 

“…the course this year, was different from that of former years. Starting from the flat nearly at the back of Nickoll’s Hotel, the line lay towards the pound-yards, over some three or four made fences, into the paddock on the hill, over the lane to the manse, and down on to the flat again, three times round, finishing the third time down the lane, in front of Mr. Fether’s house. The distance, about four and a quarter miles, over thirty-four fences, was traversed in about thirteen and a half minutes.”

 

Strewth! With those navigational details it’s a wonder the jockeys managed to find their way around the course once let alone three times.

 

Getting back to Adam Lindsay Gordon himself though, his curriculum vitae is not exactly the stuff of line and length.

 

Quite apart from other colourful details of much of his life, the list of his occupations in itself gives the clearest indication the man in question was an interesting individual – colonial militia, police officer, horse breaker, jockey, member of parliament and poet. And all those squeezed into the adult years of one who unfortunately took his own life aged 36.

 

For all that, he remains best known perhaps to most Australians as a poet. The Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 4 refers to “his popular ballads with their narrative drive and vitality.” The anapaestic trimeters of the two stanzas above (dee dee dum, dee dee dum, dee dee dum) are a fine example of such drive and vitality where the underlying rhythm of the poem is, quite appropriately in this case, that of a galloping horse.

 

The poem itself discusses the merits of the 1864 contestants. As it were, a form guide written in verse. It’s well worth a read. One of the contestants Gordon refers to in the seventh stanza is Archer, the winner of the first two Melbourne Cups in 1861 and 1862, although the poet is dismissive of the horse’s jumping ability…he’ll never earn over big fences.”

 

Gordon competed in five consecutive Great Western Steeples between 1862 and 1866 for one win and four placings. After riding “Cadger” to victory in 1865 he wrote The Fields of Coleraine.

 

His monument  near the Coleraine racecourse notes that he would have “crossed the road (Glenelg Highway) at this point.”

 

Roger Lowery at Adam Lindsay Gordon’s Coleraine monument. (author’s image)

 

It is one of four monuments to him so he hasn’t done too badly. It seems quite a few folk must have mourned his passing and/or admired his work. The other three are in Mount Gambier, Ballarat and Macarthur Street Melbourne opposite Parliament House.

 

The free wheeling energy of his poetry also gives us an insight into what was apparently a rather reckless devil may care sort of approach of his to jumps racing. We get a hint of this above. It seems “the tough stringy-bark…that invites us to lark” must have tempted him to “lark” far too often when discretion may have been a wiser choice.

 

Another explanation for his recklessness was his poor vision.

 

“In 1853 Gordon settled in South Australia, in the Mount Gambier district and took a position with the South Australian Police force. He quickly gained a reputation as a sportsman, a boxer and an excellent, though often reckless horseman. He competed in and won many district races despite the fact that he was extremely near sighted and more often than not, had to trust to his mount to judge a jump whilst he hung on for his very life.” (www.monumentsaustralia.com.au – Adam Lindsay Gordon)

 

Whatever the reason, the legacy of two serious falls over fences later left him substantially physically incapacitated. That along with compounding financial difficulties arising from poor business decisions and the tragic death of his 11 month old daughter, his only child, in 1867 saw him become increasingly melancholic in his last years.

 

At the time of his death in 1870 his last published book Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was released for sale the same week. While the quality of some of his earlier work had been patchy, this last publication was by far his best and, despite another lukewarm reception at the time, it later became widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of nineteenth century Australian literature.

 

Sadly though, he seemed haunted by the ghosts of self doubt common to many writers. On 17 November 1868 he confided to his good friend John Riddoch, a Penola pastoralist and viticulturist, “I ought to have written for the Australasian this week but I’m afraid that I can’t write anything worth reading now.” (“The Last Letters, 1868-1870”)

 

His troubled soul was obviously not to know what subsequent acclaim Bush Ballads and Galloping Rhymes was to receive in future years.

 

“…I don’t suppose I shall, though, for I feel like sleeping sound
That sleep they say is doubtful. True; but yet
At least it makes no difference to the dead man underground
What the living men remember or forget…” (“The Sick Stockrider”, Adam Lindsay Gordon)

 

Over a century and a half later and despite changes to the nature of the Great Western Steeplechase, you can’t but help feel just a little overwhelmed by the history of the race and Gordon’s closeness to it as you set foot inside the Coleraine racecourse. Even on an atrociously freezing day like last Sunday.

 

For the record, the Steven Pateman trained Historic won the 2019 race ridden by Will Gordon. White, red epaulettes, teal sleeves, teal cap.

 

From my careful inspection of the mounting yard prior to the race, all eleven jockeys appeared to be sober and there were no late scratchings.

 

 

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Comments

  1. Colin Ritchie says

    Fab read Roger, I just love those early Australian poets, they always convey so vividly all aspects of life around them.

  2. Fantastic Roger.

    The chese’n’kisses and i drove past this statue last year. I’d hoped to get to the Coleraine Races in 2019, alas,not to be. I should make sure i /we get there in 2020.

    Glen!

  3. Terrific piece RDL.

    I reckon we’ve had references to iambic pentameter in the pages of the Almanac but I wasn’t expecting ‘anapaestic trimeters’ to get a run.

    Also a rare reference to a ‘manse’.

    Love the inebriate jockeys. I believe that has occurred once or twice at Warrnambool in recent times. No names of course.

    I also sympathise with Gordon’s lot – not the reckless horsemanship, but the writer’s tendency to feel they have nothing to say.

  4. Terrific stuff Roger. ALG was a bit of an SA legend for a schoolboy in the 60’s. I can remember “The Sick Stockrider” on the English curriculum alongside Colin Thiele’s “Sun on the Stubble” with it’s tale of a German boy’s upbringing (Bruno Untermeyer Gunther – BUGsy – thanks to his parents unfortunate initialing of his schoolbag).
    The Blue Lake in Mt Gambier with it’s volcanic crater and annual colour change was a mythical place. And Gordon’s Leap over a fence to a ledge below (myth or square up dare bet we’ll never know). Great historical references on this site.
    https://westerndistrictfamilies.com/tag/adam-lindsay-gordon/

  5. roger lowrey says

    Thank you all.

    Respectively, I agree Col. Those writers were critical in the nascent emergence of the pre federation colonial sense of identity. A B Patterson’s Bush Christening (dee dee dum) and Man From Snowy River (dee dee dee dum) etc. My farmer dad used to recite so much of it from memory which a cool T S Elliott devotee dude like his Whitlam educated upstart son (ah that would be me) used to think was daggy but I now reflect was part of something much bigger historically.

    Glen, as you will recall the current township is still just to the left of the monument in the diagram and the current racecourse is just out of screen to the right. Hope it’s a bit warmer when you get there. Last Sunday was freezing.

    JTH, Glad the anapaestic trimeters caught you off guard. On other matters, it was a low blow on my part but the reference to writers having nothing to say resonated with an amateur like me so I imagined it would hurt a professional like you even more.

    Peter, I once taught “Sun On The Stubble” to the lovely Year 7 English kids at Mildura High School in 1981 (sigh, oh God I hope they are all happy and doing well now wherever they are – I still love them and miss them so much strangely!). In my Mildura years I felt much closer geographically to SA than Melbourne. You know, think here Ron Papps rather than Bill Collins. Didn’t help my punting much but.

    Go Cats!

    RDL

  6. Ron Papps! (Of the heavy breathing having scampered to the mic)

    Sun on the Stubble is a fine book.

  7. Great piece Roger. And this thread! Sun on the Stubble (inspired by Eudunda, of course), Ron Papps, anapaestic trimeters and TS Eliot.

    Here’s a connection for you- I was only just then listening to “Afternoons and Coffeespoons” by the Canadian band Crash Test Dummies, which was based upon The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Worth a listen if only for the bass-baritone voice of Brad Roberts

  8. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks Roger, my education continues.

    I own Colin Thiele’s old AWA portable Radiola record player, from the early 60s I reckon. I wonder what he played on it back then.

    ALG is currently resting a five minute walk from me.

    But I’ve got nothing on Ron Papps, nothing.

  9. roger lowrey says

    Mickey, loved the song. My son was very impressed I had heard of Crash Test Dummies. Thanks for the tip. And yes, the thread developed a quirky sort of life of its own didn’t it?

    Swish, I never met Ron Papps however my favourite “moment” of his was at the 1600 mark of the 1993 Adelaide Cup where Harry White had taken the bold front runner Ideal Centreman to nearly a 20 length lead. “At the half way point and…(pause)…either Harry has got this horribly wrong or the stewards are going to have some pretty strong words with a lot of these boys!”

    Ideal Centreman hung on to win narrowly with Les Carlyon highly complimentary of White’s coolness riding out his mount hands and heels “while ritual flayings took place around him.”

    RDL

  10. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Papps, Ray Fewings, Bert Day, John O’Neil, Alf Gard

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