Going to the Dogs! Labor and “Tin Hare” Racing

Paul Tracey

In 1927 an invention was introduced into Sydney which encouraged a field of chasing greyhounds to race each other around a circuit. The entrepreneurs behind the ‘tin hare’, as the mechanical lure was known, obtained the green light from the Lang Labor Government for night time greyhound race meetings, which, because of its low cost structure and leisure hour suitability, attracted Sydney’s working class patrons in their thousands. Within months, the ‘tin hare’ had spread to another Sydney outlet as well as some country and industrial centres throughout NSW. Conservative and wowser ‘do gooders’ were horrified at the opening up of this additioaal outlet for public gambling. This article deals with the first decade, or so, of the ‘tin hare’ in NSW. It discusses the moral and political furores that it occasioned; the attempts that were made to criticise, curtail, cancel and control the sport; and its ultimate survival and success.

The sport of coursing, which involves a contest between two greyhounds pursuing a live hare, has been claimed as the fastest growing sport outside of horse racing and cricket in colonial Australia. The greyhounds chased their prey by sight rather than scent and were judged on a multitude of attributes including their intelligence, stamina, courage and speed. This sport, which survived as Australia’s last blood sport up to the 1970s, originally drew on the patronage, wagering and facilities of the wealthier’ classes before gaining limited popularity as a spectator and gambling sport when the practice of enclosing the courses was introduced towards the end of the 19th century. By 1906, coursing was so rampant, it became caught up in the general conservative and religious frenzy in NSW against public gambling. Along with racing and trotting, betting operations were restricted to licensed grounds and the number of competition days controlled by legislation. In 1927 an American invention known as the ‘tin hare’ was introduced to Sydney and revolutionised greyhound contests into another form of racing ,which immediately attracted the working classes in huge numbers and opened up controversial opportunities for working class congregation and gaming.

The ‘tin hare’ was a common term applied to a mechanical contraption that allowed a lure to be propelled around a circuit in front of a field of chasing greyhounds. Successfully used in the USA since about WW 1, the contraption was introduced to Australia in early 1927 by a somewhat shady character known as ‘Judge’ Swindell. Swindell formed a proprietary company – the Greyhound Coursing Association (GCA) – to promote the new sport in Sydney. Other investors in the £50,000 venture included leading Sydney retailers Hugh Foy and Anthony Hordern. The GCA obtained a limited use lease of the Epping Park Racecourse (Harold Park) from the NSW Trotting Club (NSWTC) and commenced evening ‘tin hare’ racing under lights on 28th May 1927. The new operation had been legalised by a simple amendment to the 1912 Gaming and Betting Act introduced by the Lang Government that redefined coursing as either chasing a live or ‘mechanical’ hare.

In introducing the bill, the Colonial Secretary predicted that the move would be popular with animal welfare groups opposed to the cruelty that was associated with live hare lures. He promised that this change would give no further opportunities to expand betting activities since it could only take place at licensed coursing venues. Considering the “lather of virtuous indignation” and the “predictions of the moral collapse of the State” that were later levelled at ‘tin hare’ racing, the opposition to the amendment at the time was quite restrained. The parliamentary conservatives criticised all gambling for its moral and economic harm. Their leader, T.R. Bavin, even suggested that any non Saturday racing was injurious to the national good because it promoted non attendance by workers at their occupations.

The ‘tin hare’ racing at Epping Park turned out to be hugely popular and very successful as a commercial venture. Crowds of twenty or thirty thousand regularly attended the night meetings and spirited gambling took place, with over 180 bookmakers in attendance. The promoters were careful to imitate the atmosphere of Randwick race meetings, with attendants formally parading the greyhounds before races, the adoption of the terms ‘paddock’ and ‘ledger’, the wearing of jockey caps and colours by trainers and with kennel inspections, coloured saddle cloths, semaphore boards and judges boxes.

Apart from the ability to bet at night, the working classes were attracted by much cheaper entrance fees and by the absence of the airs of superiority associated with upper class patrons of normal racecourses. Within a short time tin hare operations had extended to Newcastle, Cessnock and Lithgow and a second metropolitan licence had been granted for the Shepherd’s Bush (Mascot) course operated by the newly formed Australian Coursing Association (ACA), another private company but with a paid up capital of £100,000. This company was run by Stadium boss and boxing promoter, Jack Munro, who at one stage organised a hurdle race with trained monkeys in jockey colours riding the greyhounds as an added attraction. Swindell, with the patent rights in NSW, had a hand in the pie of all ‘tin hare’ operations. Within the first eight months, the GCA had posted a profit of nearly £47,000 and its shares boomed in value. Companies were formed at Broken Hill, Goulburn, Bathurst, Mudgee, Tamworth, Maitland, Singleton and Dubbo. The ACA purchased Rosebery Park pony racecourse and even the use of the Sydney Sports Ground for mechanical hare racing was under active consideration.

The downside of these commercially successful ventures operating at Harold Park an~ Mascot was the growing criticism by Anglican clergy and other citizens who denounced the new sport as ‘a pastime that bred parasites’. Claims abounded that women and children were gambling and that working men were neglecting their families to finance their betting activities. Added to this was the threat to the AJC of declining attendance and their abhorrence of proprietary ‘non thoroughbred’ racing generally. The AJC threatened to deregister their bookmakers if they also operated at the ‘dog’ meetings. There was opposition by businessmen who felt that the ‘dogs’ were interfering with their trade. Using the campaigning tactics of the temperance movement, communities organised public meetings on the subject where they decided whether to support or to oppose the introduction of ‘tin hare’ racing into their towns. The Lang Government reasoned that the mounting hysteria was mainly an anti-working class attack and continued to issue licences right up to election eve. The Opposition certainly hyperbolised the “tin hare” plague. Only 12 licences were actually issued up to the defeat of the Lang Government, although nearly double that number were under consideration.

‘Tin hare’ racing was initially a sitting target for criticism. Its new gambling opportunities attracted all sorts of underhand tactics and shonky characters. Newspapers delighted in printing stories about greyhounds being kidnapped or about dopes and stimulants employed to win or to lose races. Ring-ins, interference with starting boxes or the ‘tin hare’ itself or even parts of the dogs anatomy were brought to the public’s notice. Bogus bookmakers simply mounted stands and took bets, whilst on other occasions, bookmakers lost so heavily they darted from the course, chased by punters or pleaded for time to pay debts. Such was the moral and professional furore with the ‘tin hare’ that, in October 1927, the incoming Bavin conservative government refused to issue any more licences and amended the Gaming and Betting Act to make betting after sundown completely illegal.

This move, which for a long time also hampered the growth of the sport of trotting, was met by greyhound companies reorganising their meetings to purposely clash with other racing fixtures, but their inability to conduct at night eroded public support. When, in 1928, the Supreme Court ruled that mechanical hare racing was not ‘coursing’ in terms of the legislation, all betting activity had to cease and the tin hare mechanisms were left to rust. Later in 1928, the courts ruled that as there was no provision for bookmakers at coursing meetings to pay taxation on their bets, any betting on greyhounds was illegal. However a blind eye was turned to Rooty Hill where ‘rich men’s’ coursing had continued in spite of mechanical hare greyhound racing taking off in other centres. At many other places, non-betting coursing continued to take place and the mechanical racing industry bided its time hoping for a change of government.

This came in 1930 with the return of Jack Lang and an actual or implied promise to legalise the ‘tin hare’. Although his Government was re-elected in October 1930, the move to legalise greyhound racing took about a year to activate. Instead of being handled by the Colonial Secretary, Mark Gosling, the move came via a Bill drafted in Jack Lang’s own Treasury Department, namely the Finance (Greyhound Racing and Taxation) Management Bill, 1931. As well as allowing the licensing and operation of two Sydney venues and one in any other town for either night or day time meetings as well as legalising gambling on greyhounds, the Opposition was thrown a sweetener with an offer to amend the Winning Bets Taxation Bill which would discount the amount of the original stake from the total winnings collected when assessment of the 10% tax was calculated.

Although the Opposition was enthusiastic about that part of the bill, criticism of mechanical hare racing ranged from its social evils right through to its passing faddishness (with comparisons to ‘mini golf, which was apparently the current flavour of the month!). The sharpest criticism compared the Depression economy and the then unemployment to the encouragement the bill would give for gambling by those least able to afford it. With Lang commanding a majority in the Legislative Assembly, the bill went through in an all-night session, but struck trouble in the Upper House when the third reading was denied on October 1st 1931 after allegations of corruption favouring Swindell had been aired. Lang then had to wait until Governor Game had agreed to swamp the Upper House with an additional 25 Labor nominees in order to pass his other contentious legislation for his greyhound racing bill to be resubmitted and passed on 25th November. The Harold Park based GCA club was duly re-licensed and recommenced operations in December just in the nick of time to save its shareholders ITom severe financial losses. With the Government’s failure to decide a second Sydney licence, the GCA held a virtual monopoly on Sydney greyhound racing. In February 1932, the Colonial Secretary issued the second mechanical licence to a newly formed (but Swindell controlled) Greyhound Racing Club to operate at Kensington Race Course. Randwick Council, under the mayoralty of the UAP candidate for the area, Arthur Moverley, made a formal protest to the Colonial Secretary declaring that move would depreciate property values while the riff-raff associated with tin hare racing were not wanted in the municipality. But it was the ACA at Mascot who were most put out when it was clear that the 1927/28 arrangements were not being automatically renewed and that they faced liquidation. The survival of Harold Park certainly made it appear as though Swindell had friends in high places, prompting the opponents of greyhound racing to call for a Royal Commission into the alleged corruption of the licensing system.

The institution of this Royal Commission became one of the first acts of the new Stevens Government, which was elected after Lang’s dismissal by Governor Game in May 1,932. A notoriously anti-Labor judge, Halse Rogers was commissioned to inquire into the issue of Greyhound Licences and also the installation of poker machines in hospitals which had also occurred under the Lang Government. His report about greyhound racing whitewashed the politicians of any proven corruption but viewed with suspicion the fact that the Labor Colonial Secretary consulted widely with Swindell before recommending any licence issue to Cabinet. The clear inference was that Swindell was arranging his own enrichment as well as possible, even if unproven, donations to Labor Party ministers and/or departmental staff before agreeing to issue licences. Halse Rogers found that a character known as Redmond Barry (the same name as the Judge that ordered the execution of Ned Kelly!) had arranged for both the ACA and the GCA to offer large bribes in the form of blank share scripts as inducement for the legislation legalising greyhound racing to proceed. He also found that the Mascot licence had been unlawfully and deliberately stalled on account of the association of that company with Major Eric Campbell who was not only notorious as the main organiser of the New Guard but as a particularly vigorous Lang and State Labor opponent as well. Halse Rogers questioned large sums of money provided by the Foys and the Horderns to facilitate the recommencement of greyhound racing and the obvious upward movement of the share prices of both the GCA and the ACA based on the rumours that they were to be re-licensed. But his findings failed to pinpoint the culprits and no charges were ever laid arising from the Royal Commission. However, the report gave the Government the opportunity to clamp down on the excesses of the Lang days in a number of ways.

The Royal Commission was extremely critical of the role of proprietary companies in mechanical hare racing and the Stevens Government responded by announcing that such current licences would not be renewed once they expired. A counter move by the Swindell forces was for a Control Board to be formed to control mechanical hare racing (similar to the role the AJC had over horse racing) but this was seen by the National Coursing Association (NCA) as unwarranted interference in NCA activities. A Cabinet announcement that night betting would again be abolished was met by industry claims that ‘tin hare racing was essentially night time sport’ and warned that restrictions would reduce attendances, employment and revenues for Government and again force clashes with race meetings. The Government must have rethought its position before eventually dropping the matter under the pretence of the priority of other business. Considering the moral fervour raised against the ‘tin hare’ when in opposition, the Stevens government’s failure to curtail greyhound betting came as a welcome surprise to the industry .

The Government announced its own ‘Tin Hare’ policy by press release on 4th April 1933. From 1 May, only a single metropolitan licence would be issued and this would go to a non-proprietary organisation. Proprietary racing could continue in country towns for the time being, although no licence would be granted to any interests or persons adversely mentioned in the Royal Commission. While this pleased the NCA, which had hopes pf getting the metropolitan licence, it concerned the existing companies whose shareholders faced huge losses. It was pointed out that proprietary horse and trotting racing clubs operating in Sydney were untouched and that the Royal Commission had not criticised the two licence arrangements currently applied to Sydney dog racing in any way.

Despite the NCA expectations, it was the NSWTC, which had already changed its Articles of Association to include dog racing, and had the superior position of its own racecourse at Harold Park, that obtained the sole non-proprietary metropolitan licence. It commenced greyhound racing operations in November 1933. Pleased with the financial success of the venture, the NSWTC built a separate greyhound track on the inside of the trotting track where the dog racing had taken place previously. The ‘tin hare’ was obviously a useful adjunct to the trotting operations especially since they could not conduct night trotting meetings under the current legislation. But the NSWTC entry into the greyhound racing industry and the attempts to issue their own greyhound racing rules .caused tensions with the NCA. Most country coursing clubs resisted the NSWTC rules and pledged loyalty to the NCA.

A compromise was belatedly reached whereby the NSWTC would control greyhound (mechanical) racing, and the NCA would control coursing activities. Additionally the NCA would retain authority over racing membership and registration of greyhounds; and over sires and litters and approvals for naming. The NSWTC would licence mechanical hare trainers and retain the right to refuse such licences. However this arrangement broke down hopelessly when the NCA imposed its own Greyhound Racing Control Board and 30 country clubs withdrew their affiliations with the NSWTC. The Trotting Club responded by imposing automatic disqualifications on greyhounds racing at unaffiliated centres, which stopped those owners and trainers progressing to Harold Park racing with its classics and higher prize money. The NSWTC also called off the arrangement where greyhounds and their connections had to be NCA members before competing at Harold Park leading to NSWTC affiliates being blackballed by NCA ones. Throughout this crisis of control, the Stevens government sat of the fence, pointing out that the government’s only role was to ensure racing was conducted along nonprofit making lines and in compliance with the operating licence issued.

The dispute still raged in 1937. The NSWTC lifted the ante by offering a minimum of £50 prize money for all its greyhound racing and by programming 12 races each meeting at 15 minutes intervals. By October the larger clubs (which were those closer to Sydney) at Newcastle, Wollongong, Dapto and Maitland were urging the NCA to end the impasse with the NSWTC. The Government’s decision to grant a second metropolitan licence gave renewed hope that the NCA might be involved in city mechanical hare racing, even though bodies associated with the RSL were also applicants. The popularity of dog racing had not abated and reports of congestion at Harold Park helped the government decide that; one metropolitan greyhound centre was insufficient. In fact the popularity of the greyhounds was also confirmed by worried local government authorities. Complaints about kennels being constructed without approval; of greyhounds being exercised in public parks and the annoyance and noise created by ‘backyard’ operations led to actual bans in some public areas and the muzzling of greyhounds both in public and during races.

The long overdue second metropolitan licence eventuated in 1939 when the government duly licensed the NCA and leased the crown owned Wentworth Park for racing operations. The NSWTC, now subject to a select committee inquiry into its own conduct and administration of trotting, was close to its goal of having night trotting legalised. It accepted that control of mechanical hare racing would pass to the NCA and it started to disengage itself from the greyhounds following the establishment of the non-proprietary Greyhound Breeders Owners and Trainers Association in 1939. As it turned out, Wentworth Park was commandeered for Army use during the war and the NCA conducted its meetings at Harold Park. On resumption at Wentworth Park, the NCA converted its ‘outside’ rail lure to an inside one. With both clubs racing under the same rules and meetings never clashing, the only differences in operations were the shape of their tracks and the distances being’ run. Greyhounds freely competed at both courses or on any the 45 country courses that had been licensed by 1939.

While the tin hare proved to be immediately successful with Sydney’s working classes, it was in country NSW that it really boomed. Before the advent of the off-course TAB, in rural centres, with their at best spasmodic horse racing meetings, the Saturday afternoon tin hare meetings, often utilising the facilities of the town show or sports ground, provided the only regular legal opportunity for race wagering. While the ponies, that had once held the loyalty of the working classes, did not survive the war, the ‘tin hare’ became a firm part of Australian betting culture. Fifty years after the war, greyhound racing behind the mechanical lure still operated largely on the pre-war model and still attracted largely working class support.

Mechanical hare racing’s long association with the working classes was cemented in a number of ways. Firstly, the 1920s and post depression criticisms by wowser middle class elements ensured a lower class solidarity for the ‘tin hare’s’ survival similar to the fight that had been mounted against Temperance hysteria. Secondly, the lower admission charges to greyhound racetracks and the ability to bet in shillings and sixpences favoured lower income participation as did the staging of night meetings which especially accommodated workers during their leisure hours. Thirdly, there was the affinity caused by the fact that thousands of working people and families could readily take part in the ownership, rearing, training and racing of their own greyhounds for fractions of the costs associated with race horse ownership. Finally, and most importantly perhaps, was the political positioning of Jack Lang and the ALP in the cause. Lang’s hammering of the theme that the worker’s greyhound racing was being attacked while the rich continued to enjoy their racing without state or moralist interference fitted neatly with the reality of depression age politics when workers bore the brunt of economic conditions and social criticism. Ironically, the eventual failure of the conservatives to wipe out the sport of mechanical hare racing was perhaps the one depression outcome that workers could claim as their own victory.