There are many great race meetings held around the country and a few are as iconic as the Louth Races held annually in early August.
The tiny town on the Darling River about 100km downstream from Bourke, has a rich history as a river port integral to the opening up of the outback and providing a means to transport wool from ever expanding pastoral activities of the late 1800’s.
Despite most of us living in urban Australia, there is an inextricable link we have with the outback, a connection we have to the soul of the land; and we seek out destinations that heighten that connection.
If the destination is a country town that is steeped in folklore, on an iconic river, and has a poignant back-story, we are hooked. Add an iconic race meeting that attracts thousands, and the experience holds an even greater allure, even for those us who may like things on the quieter side.
Back in 1892, poet Henry Lawson was sent out to the Bourke region of NSW by the Bulletin editor J.F. Archibald with £5 in his pocket with the intention of garnering some insight into outback life for his writing. While travelling through the area, he stumbled upon the Darling River town of Louth, a town he described as “a place that loved a drink, a party and a punt.” Had Lawson experienced the modern day Louth Races, he may have amended it to... ‘still loves’.
Louth Races were first held on 27 December 1880, but in its modern form as the Louth Turf Club, its history dates back to 1959 and its fiftieth anniversary attracted a record crowd of over 6,500 visitors; pretty impressive for a town of less than 100 people.
Located about 100km downstream from Bourke, Louth is a small service town (Pub, fuel and general store all rolled into one) originally established as a service point for the Cobb & Co coaches that Louth evolved into a strategic river port for the growing river boat trade of the late 1800s which enabled the woolclip from outlying stations to be transported back to England via the sea ports of Adelaide and Melbourne.
The ‘King of Louth’, T.A Mathews, established his hotel in 1859 and so laid the foundation for the river town that grew into a thriving port. Having left his wife and children back in England, it was not until many years later they were able to join him; a reunion that turned to tragedy when Mary died in 1886 aged 42.
To honour his wife, Mathews built a seven-metre polished granite cross that dominated the Louth landscape. Significant anywhere due to its size, the poignancy of the ‘Celtic Cross’ is highlighted when it reflects the setting sunlight to the location of the front door of their house every year on the anniversary of her death on August 19. To experience the flash of light at sunset is a truly touching experience.
The monument is not only testament to the love and devotion of a husband for his wife, but also the accuracy of navigation technology of the 1800's as its alignment was aided by one of the river boat captains of the Darling River.
The Louth Races
While a race meeting of this size is great for the punters to experience a bit of outback partying, there is a much deeper implication of race meeting as it benefits not only the town financially but also significant donations are given to the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service).
Held on the first Saturday after the NSW Bank Holiday, the Louth Races is a seven-race program with prizemoney over $74,000; a far cry from the 1880 races which was a two-race program with a 60 sovereign two-mile open handicap.
Today’s Louth Races offers bookies and TAB for betting as well as food and bar facilities and even marquees for those that like a bit of outback style.
But it is also more than just a race day with the Gundabooka (one-stick) Golf Challenge held on the Wednesday, an Art & Craft Fair at the Public School on Friday, while a race Calcutta is held at the local pub, Shindy’s Inn, on the Friday night.
While many ‘punters’ arrive during the week for the pre-race events, it is the Friday when the masses start arriving, and the vibe really picks up, especially in the racecourse campground.
Best Laid Plans
As a fan of American author John Steinbeck, I often relate while travelling to the adage “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”, but enjoy the unpredictability it can bring.
My trip to Louth (along the Darling with a Jayco Penguin camper-trailer), and the plan to get there for the Golf Challenge, did go awry as heavy rains on the Tuesday closed all the roads, and kept them closed till Friday morning. But I wasn’t alone as a few hundred others also had to hold tight in Bourke till the roads opened, which they did first thing on Friday morning.
Well rested after a couple of nights at Kidman's Camp and with the frenetic energy of a Formula One start, the Bourke crowd hurriedly rushed along the road to Louth, with the determination not to miss out on any more fun. And as the convoy snaked its way into the little Darling river town on Friday morning, those that arrived before the rain greeted the new comers with the cheers, a wave, and the realisation that the real celebrations could begin.
I headed out to check out the campground, with a similar reception, but it appeared that the lack of numbers had not dimmed the enthusiasm for partying with some rough-camping around smouldering campsites sleeping off last night’s efforts.
While my ‘best laid plans’ for the trip out had gone awry, nothing was going to get in the way of my beloved and essential good night’s sleep while enjoying the quietness of the outback. I had planned well ahead to camp 20km downstream at Trilby Station, one of the best famstays on the Darling and a place I have been visiting for over ten years. No potential for that part of the plan to go awry. So I ducked down to Trilby Station to setup by the billabong before heading back to start and enjoy the festivities.
While there was a palpable buzz growing as the campground grew, the real hive of activity was happening behind the scenes as an army of locals and friends readied the racecourse for the big event, a task that was not just about getting the track ready from last week’s, or even last month’s, event, but getting it ready from a year ago. Everything from touching up paint on aging structures, hooking up essential power, setting up tents, marquees, bars, etc, to creating the ever important betting ring.
For the Kids
Friday is a day for the kids, with the Louth PS Art & Craft Fair opening its doors to visitors and providing a great insight, and some funds, to one of the smallest Schools in Australia. With only four students, it was a great way for visitors to get an understanding of how schools of some outback towns operate. The fair also highlighted the importance of remote schools; without them, essential education could only be achieved by ‘School of the Air’ or alternatively, families would need to move from the town, further wearing down the fabric that enables these towns to exist. An experience that makes the early arrival worthwhile.
Shindy’s Inn, Louth
Most of the off-track activity is centred around Shindy’s Inn, Louth’s only pub which is an easy walk from the track and offers great meals and drinks to settle the dust. During the race event, it is the location of the race Calcutta, and nightly entertainment that highlighted some local talent from the area.
Off and Racing at Louth
While the attire over the last few days was characteristically rough and tumble campground party wear, early morning on race day activity centred around ladies getting hair and makeup attended to around the campsites, then dresses, jeans and fascinators fitted. The din of getting ready was regularly punctuated with the request for the partners to also get ready... and some really did get ready... but not in the normal race attire, but an array of fancy dress and even some cross dressing. Some funny, and some just weird; but all contributing the visual spectacle and spirit of the day.
Behind the scenes, work was still going on readying the racecourse and the frenetic activity also extended to the stables, with the stars of the day being prepared while onlookers analysed the form guide, inspected the thoroughbreds that would carry their punting hopes and dreams.
By late morning, the course is set, and the punters for the Louth Races started to roll in, and what an ensemble it was. Interspersed throughout the well dressed, were Superman, Spiderman, Batman, funny bowties, lampshades on heads, Hawaiian shirts, and even pink polka-dotted board shorts.
It wasn’t too long until the race card ticked over and the hill was full along with the home-stretch crowd that is iconic to Louth Race’s; a sea of hats and raised drinks all cheering the horses down the straight in Race 6, the Louth Cup.
It was a sight to behold! So many hopes, so many dreams. Some came true, most didn’t, but the atmosphere never waned as there was another chance for hopes and dreams to be restored in the last to recoup losses or consolidate winnings.
With the last race done, it was time for everyone to party... for some it was the concert at the course, while some either moseyed back to campfire partying in the campground or down to Shindy’s for the band. But for others, it was off to the quiet oasis by riverbank at a nearby farmstay, far from the maddening crowd, to gather around and stare into the embers while chatting about what a day it was.
Lawson was right, Louth ‘is a place that loved a drink, a party and a punt.’ And it will again for many years to come.
Acknowledgement Of Country
We acknowledge that the Paakantkji (Barkindji) people are the traditional custodians of the Central Darling and so pay our respect to their elders, past and present.
Things to Do at the Louth Races
• The Celtic Cross lightshow
• Louth PS Art & Craft Fair.
• Memorabilia at Shindy’s Inn
• Gundabook Golf Challenge
• Friday Night Calcutta
• The big Race
Best time to Visit Louth
Louth Races is held first Saturday after the NSW Bank Holiday, but Louth is also a great destination throughout the year although summer temperatures can be high.
Louth Races Accommodation
Camping at the is free for Friday and Saturday nights. $10 per person / per night for those arriving before Friday. Facilities include toilets and a couple of showers. BYO firewood.
Free Camping is available in the designated area on the banks of the Darling River adjacent to the village (no facilities provided but showers/toilets are in the park across from Shindy's Inn).
It is nice to be close, but can get a bit noisy into the night so a great option is to stay at one of the many station stays nearby:
- Trilby Station: 02 6874 7420
- Kallara Station: 02 6837 3963
- Idalia Outback River Stay: 02 6874 7401
- Rose Isle Farm-stay: 02 68 747371
Getting to Louth
Louth is located about 1 hrs drive from Bourke (Dry weather road)
- From Melbourne: The Kidman Way: (Distance = 1,020km approx)
- From Sydney: Mitchell Highway > Castlereagh Highway: (Distance = 690km approx)
- From Brisbane: Warrego Highway > Mitchell Highway: (Distance = 970km aprox.)
- From Adelaide: Barrier Highway > Darling River Run: (Distance = 1,050km Approx)