Almost as soon as greyhound racing behind the mechanical lure commenced in Australia in May 1927, the venues began thinking of ways to keep attracting the crowds. One of these was the introduction of hurdle races.
The biggest problem for hurdle racing, and much of the reason why it has not remained viable, is that there was always a lack of depth in terms of talent and so one or two greyhounds would tend to completely dominate an era. In the twenty-first century, hurdle racing has well and truly disappeared into the dusty vaults of curious history.
All Black became Australia’s first hurdle champion, winning 480 yards (439 metres) events at the Epping (Harold Park) course, both on the flat and over the jumps. In November 1927 All Black won by 25 lengths over the hurdles at Epping in 30.8, which smashed the hurdle record by 1.2 seconds.
Although hurdles started in NSW, Victoria was always the leading producer of champion hurdlers. Among the first of these was Spinning Wheel. He raced in the early 1940s and won around 30 races (not all over hurdles) at Maribyrnong, Napier Park, Sandown Park, Colac, Geelong, Ballarat, and Warrnambool. He also ran some 34 seconds and 29 thirds in a long career.
In those days, Victoria did not have racing behind a mechanical lure; it was all pacemakers. Legislation approving racing behind a lure did not gain approval until the late 1950s.
Tasmania was also a strong hurdle state, but once again the depth of talent and dominance by one or two stars tended to stifle its expansion. For example, in April 1949 a hurdler named Treble Value notched his 10th successive victory over the hurdles at Launceston, setting a new record for a Tasmanian jumper.
Tasmania officially banned hurdle racing in October 2007 after a report suggested there was as least one injury for every two hurdle races conducted.
Hurdle racing in NSW was always a stop-start feature. At Wentworth Park’s opening night in October 1939, a hurdle event took place, being won by Qualinor, who scored by eight lengths over 550 yards (503 metres).
Hurdle racing was effectively abandoned in much of New South Wales during and after the Second World War, although it was revived at Wentworth Park in 1949. In 1953, for example, Ballina held a hurdle race for the first time in almost two years, but it only attracted five starters.
The next year, the first greyhound hurdle using a jumping mechanical lure ever to be tried in Australia took place at Wentworth Park. The device had been invented by Pat Kieran, the ground manager at Wentworth Park. The first hurdle using the jumping hare was run over 580 yards (530 metres) and taken out by First Entry, by eight lengths.
Possibly the greatest hurdler seen in New South Wales was Smith’s Elect. Trained out of Newcastle by Charlie Morris, Smith’s Elect won on the flat, over both sprint and distance, and proved a sensation as a hurdler. He set track records on both the flat and the hurdles, possibly the only greyhound to achieve that feat.
For example, in July 1959 Smith’s Elect won a sprint at Taree in track record time. Then, in December that year he won a maiden hurdle over 532 yards (486 metres) at Newcastle by 10 lengths in 30.0, a new track record. He then won his next three hurdle starts, two at Wentworth Park, and one at Newcastle, all in track record time. He had therefore set four track records in four hurdle outings. In fact, he won his first nine starts over hurdles, although he was beaten in between when competing on the flat.
In May 1960 Smith’s Elect had his first distance start, over 750 yards (686 metres) at Newcastle, winning by six lengths. In July 1960 Smith’s Elect found interference when fifth to the Victorian champion Cedar Flash in the Victorian Grand National Hurdle final.
Hurdle racing ceased at the Sydney city tracks in the 1960s, but once again was revived in the late 1970s for a short period.
New General, originally trained by Tasmanian trainer Gavin Whitney (father of Shane, the trainer of former champion stayers Chinatown Lad and Fallen Zorro), was prepared in NSW by Les Harper. In 1978 New General raced 28 times for 17 wins and seven placings. Gavin Whitney won the Warragul Hurdle Championship and then took New General to Dapto where the greyhound broke the hurdle track record. Whitney then handed the dog to Harper, who went on to win the Wentworth Park Hurdle Championship with him in August 1978. All told, New General won 32 races over the hurdles and simply ran out of opposition. His closest rivals were No Quarter and Pearl Way, and between these three they completely dominated hurdles in NSW, both in the city and the TAB circuits.
I think the last time a hurdle race was held in NSW was on 12 May 1990. It was conducted at Wentworth Park on Ladies Bracelet final night. The event was taken out by Diama Star who ran 31.74 for the 520 metres, breaking Ashburner’s 32.37 track record. I am not aware of any events run on the loam circuit.
Perhaps the greatest Victorian hurdler of all time was Odearo. A brindle and white dog, Odearo was a dedicated hurdler from the start of his career, in March 1969. He won his first five starts before being placed at his next three, including a third placing behind his nearest rival, Rare Chief. After turning the tables, by 10 and a half lengths at Sandown, on Rare Chief at their second meeting, Odearo was tried on the flat, running a solid fourth.
Odearo won the 1970 Olympic Park Hurdle Championship and was beaten a half neck in the 1970 Sandown Hurdle Championship. At one point he won nine races on end, including one on the flat over 720 yards at Warragul. At his next start he broke the 430 yards hurdle track record at Warragul.
Odearo finished last at Olympic Park in May 1971. He was found to be injured after that event and immediately retired. His career consisted of 41 starts for 24 wins, 10 seconds, and three thirds. Over the hurdles, he raced 35 times for 23 wins, nine seconds, and two thirds. Odearo won $11,382 in prize money from hurdle racing, a record at the time. By way of comparison, Zoom Top had retired as Australia’s greatest stakes winner with $59,032 in 1970.
When Moon Venture, arguably the next dominant hurdler of his time in Victoria, took out the 1975 Olympic Park Hurdle Championship, he took his prize money tally from hurdle events to $13,558, a new record, beating that of Odearo.
The next great Victorian hurdler was Weinberg. This white male raced between 1984 and 1988 winning a string of races, many from almost impossible back marks. His greatest triumph was taking out the 1986 Olympic Park Hurdle Championship. He had fallen in the 1985 final and ran fourth in the 1987 final. The video below shows Weinberg in full flight.
As far as I’m aware, the last major hurdle final took place at Olympic Park in June 1994 with Global Jet taking the Championship by 15 lengths. He had run fourth the previous year behind Diamablue.
Hurdle racing was still being conducted at Sandown Park into 1995 and in Tasmania until 2007, when a review conducted by Tony Murray determined that greyhound hurdle racing was to cease immediately.
Weinberg’s Amazing Win In The Red Rug