Keith Nolan a legend of Kembla Grange


“No out-of-town club can equal the progress made by the Illawarra Turf Club, which races at Kembla Grange,” Lillye, later to become a committeeman, produced on an Olivetti machine going on the type face and resurrected from my files.

In the early days, Kembla Grange provided the lowest TAB betting turnover – a measly $600 for an entire meeting. But Nolan picked it up on limited shoulders and carried Kembla Grange back to relevance.

Nolan picked Kembla Grange up on limited shoulders and carried it back to relevance.

“To survive, Keith had to get country programming for any type of field size,” Ray Alexander, the former Australian Jockey Club CEO, recalled.

“There was considerable opposition from the provincial and country clubs, so Keith had to put the proposal personally to the AJC committee.”

Comfortable in a public bar eating prawns out of newspaper on the counter, “Shoulders” Nolan wowed the assortment of landed gentry, leaders of industry including Sir Frank Packer, and a mess of legal minds enriched by the jurist Jim Comans.

Keith Nolan revived the fortunes of Kembla Grange.Credit:

Winning that day proved to be pivotal in the progress of Kembla Grange. Hopefully the contribution of “Shoulders” will be remembered and the race named in his honour, the Keith Nolan Stakes (now the Kembla Grange Classic), will be given a position of prominence in years to come.

Of course, great horses and plungers gravitated to the long Kembla Grange stretches over 2200m. Melbourne Cup winners Evening Pearl, Macdougal, and Toporoa raced there, as did classic types Myocard, Dr Grace, Beau Zam, Stylish Century and the New Zealander Bonecrusher, later successful in the Cox Plate.

However, it is doubtful whether Bonecrusher proved as financially beneficial to his connections at Moonee Valley as Gold Spring, trained by the Kiwi Doug Webster, in a 1955 Kembla Grange coup.

Described by Lillye as “having more tricks up his sleeve than Houdini”, Webster was in an era when New Zealanders spoke little and won big.

Gold Spring was prepared at Moorefield, which adjoined a swamp. The bog assisted the mare greatly because she had a hoof problem. Spending most of the day there had her in prime condition but also served another purpose.

Webster noted how miserable she looked, covered in mud and slush, and didn’t bother grooming her for the Wollongong Cup.

Bookmakers fell for the ploy and offered 10/1. She accounted for Toporoa, who a few weeks later won the Melbourne Cup, in the process downing the mighty Rising Fast, one the best horses to never win the Big One.

New age Kiwi trainers Chris Waller and Bjorn Baker are masters of their craft with strong prospects in the The Gong and are a far Haka from Webster, who crossed the Tasman 75 times – the last when aged 75 – and never returned home without plenty of Aussie money.

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Much of the colour and chicanery has gone from the turf but Waller and Baker, with a dialogue flow that makes most politicians sound tongue-tied, contribute with style to the new generation, geared on statistics and strike-rates, with prizemoney overwhelming the power of the punt.

But enjoy the vitality of Kembla Grange today and spare a thought for those that made it possible.

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