Newcastle Harness Racing Club (NHRC) will celebrate 30 years since the opening of the "Newcastle International Paceway" with a special race night on Saturday, October 19.
The occasion will be an opportunity for members of the Hunter Valley harness-racing community - be they owners, trainers, drivers, breeders, participants or the public - to catch up for a reunion of sorts and celebrate the sport of harness racing and the many great memories it has produced.
It will also be an opportunity to honour the retirement of long serving NHRC chairman Jim Bell and recognise his commitment and drive to ensure the ongoing success of harness racing in the region.
The opening of Newcastle Paceway in October 1989 was the culmination of years of lobbying. For nearly 50 years before that harness racing had been conducted at Newcastle Showground.
But the showground was unsuitable for mobile starts and the NHRC had long had their eye on a larger facility.
The opportunity to move to the International Sports Centre site coincided with the entry of the Newcastle Knights into the Sydney rugby league competition in 1988. This required the ISC be made into a rectangle.
"The doing of that left enough ground at the back for a five-furlong harness racing track," Mr Bell recalled.
"I think the idea started off in conversations between John Nott (who was on the trust at the ISC) and legendary sports journalist Terry Radley from the Newcastle Herald, who was a great supporter of harness racing.
"They collaborated with Paul Daley, club secretary-manager at the time. The new manager at the Department of Lands, John Osborne, saw potential for the site tying in with developments at the Knights.
"Christine Brewer was with the club and also worked in the Department of Lands, and with the support of John Price, the Member for Waratah, a meeting was arranged with the Minister for Sport, Michael Cleary, and we got the finance.
"With the money we were able to build as good a facility in the country as you could find and a first-class track to run a measured mile race."
Indeed the Newcastle International Paceway was world class, offering state of the art betting facilities, race day stabling and eventually a purpose-built grandstand with uninterrupted views from every vantage point.
Newcastle Paceway's 940 metre track was the envy of harnesss racing clubs Australia wide, and for many years was the only track wide enough to start 10 horses in one line behind the mobile barrier.
"It was a very fast track, and held Australasian records across the distances for many years," NHRC secretary Wayne Smith said.
"You'd go a long way to find a better facility for spectators, competitors and race-day officials alike."
Newcastle Paceway put the Hunter on the harness racing map nationally.
"We've had some great nights here," Mr Bell recalled. "We were the first club to hold heats of the Inter Dominion outside of a major metropolitan city and the Newcastle Mile has produced many Australasian records."
The industry structure of harness racing has changed in recent years, but Newcastle is now back racing as part of the Miracle Mile and Inter Dominion carnivals.
"Owners, trainers and drivers will come for the Newcastle Mile and Inter Dominion heats here in Newcastle next year because they'll be part of a major Australian harness racing event.
"The Newcastle Mile will be a qualifying race for the million dollar Miracle Mile so trainers will be coming here in numbers for that too."
Mr Bell has held the position of president and now chairman of the NHRC for 20 years, and been involved in the administration of the industry for the best part of 50.
He will stand down this month and his successor will be decided at the club's next AGM.
"From my point of view it's been a great time," Mr Bell said.
"I've worked with horse people I admire and I've had the great satisfaction of being able to work with friends to help achieve the industry's ambition of a good track and and a good facility in my home town.
"Like all sports administrations in Newcastle, you want the best, but it doesn't necessarily come quick when you're up against the powers in Sydney, but it does come eventually and when it does, it's very satisfying."
The race day on Saturday, October 19 will be a reunion and celebration of the last 30 years, with free admission on the night, a capacity program, restaurant open for bookings, and all the usual trackside facilities in operation.
"We're urging anyone who's had anything to do with the Newcastle Paceway and harness racing in general over the years to take the opportunity to come along and help us celebrate," Mr Smith said.