One day in 1921, fairly reliable folklore says, a chap on a horse suddenly went on a breakneck, roughly circular, six-furlong gallop across some rough paddocks down beside the river at Acton. What was this eccentric equestrian up to?
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin explaining by noting that on Melbourne Cup Day this Spring (it's November 6) the race meeting at Thoroughbred Park will celebrate 50 years of galloping at that Mitchell venue.
But of course Thoroughbred Park is not Canberra's first racecourse. The first one was at Acton, and is under the lake now, vaguely where Springbank Island pokes up out of the murky waters.
In its edition of October 14, 1925, the lively (but short-lived) Canberra Community News reported that ''In all probability the Canberra Racing Club will open the coming season with a race meeting on Saturday, 7th November, 1925, on the Acton Racecourse, when it is intended to submit a programme, the prize money for which will amount to at least £100 … The Acton race track, measuring only 6 furlongs and 66 feet in circumference, prevents the club registering under AJC Rules, which require the track to be at least 8 furlongs in circumference.
''It is doubtful if there could be found in New South Wales more attractive surroundings for a racecourse [yes, close to the Molonglo river and with Black Mountain nearby and mountain ranges looming in the far distance] and, although the appointments so far are somewhat primitive, the track itself is a favorite with jockeys who appreciate the level going and the care displayed in laying out the turns.''
Then comes, from the News, this priceless little history lesson.
''Way back in 1921 the Canberra Branch of the Returned Soldiers' Association decided to hold a race meeting for the purpose of raising funds, and detailed three of its members to report on the suitability of the ground where the present racecourse is situated. It was thought at first impossible but Mr P.F. Douglas, who had come mounted, was not to be denied, and it was finally agreed to allow him to gallop round the area and provided the rider didn't break his neck, or the horse a leg, then the work of digging out stumps, filling in rabbit burrows, and cutting down trees would be proceeded with by voluntary labour.
''Horse and rider safely negotiated the six furlongs in about as many minutes and from that incident sprung the present racecourse and eventually the club that now controls it.''
The National Archives of Australia has photographs of race meetings at the ''somewhat primitive'' Acton racecourse (the ones here are from 1927). Of all the photographs of early Canberra these are some most likely to make us wish we could have been Canberrans then. They are photographs of quintessential bush race meetings, and might as easily have been taken at Gundagai or Gulargambone as in the federal capital city.