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June 1, 2021

The Australian Turf Club and its Members lost a wonderful part of the Club’s history recently, with the passing of John Ryan.

He was a historian and racing lover and one of the founding archivists and heritage content researchers/writers for the Australian Turf Club (ATC).

Following his retirement as an academic historian at Macquarie University in the late 1980s, John started his involvement through contributions of historical articles and pictorial displays of early Sydney racing. The articles were published in the Australia Racing Calendar throughout the 1990s.

Due to the popularity of these articles, John was invited to assess, catalogue, restore and archive the vast array of racing heritage items that had built up for years at the then Australian Jockey Club (AJC). The material recognised the AJC’s rich 140+ year history and status as the Principal Club and racing authority in New South Wales.

John and some helpers began the mammoth task of going through and cataloguing all items of potential historical interest held by the Club, discovered packed away in long forgotten cupboards and Club storerooms. This collection when brought to life, revealed century-old race books, foundation race trophies and prizes, raceday equipment, photos, and other rare racing collection items. John set about getting expert advice on storage and preservation of this material, and began the long but valuable work of cataloguing, restoring and archiving these assets.

The result of this pioneering work by John and his team is now a fully dedicated heritage unit at the ATC, with staff able to call upon a vast array of historical assets in presenting displays and working with other teams to celebrate ATC’s rich, varied and unique history.

There were a number of notable discoveries which John stumbled upon in the early days of the AJC archives.

In 2003, a large historical photograph taken of Randwick and surrounds in the 1890s was discovered rolled up in containers kept at the back of the AJC workshops (now Sydney’s Eastern suburbs light rail Tram depot). Thought to be one of the earliest full-scale print developed photographs produced at the time, John organised the restoration of these series of prints and they are now displayed in the reception area at Royal Randwick.

John was able to bring this history to life through his popular series of Calendar articles, raceday menu card booklets, historical presentations, and commemorative exhibitions. Members respond positively to these features, and the public soon became engaged with John’s work via contributions and donations of their own family collections to the ATC.

John was a social historian at heart – in recalling the great horses, trainers, jockeys of particular eras, he was just as interested in the impact and influence those great characters of racing had at the time on the population of Sydney and the country at large, as their memorable deeds on the track.

He wrote about how the champions on the track lifted the spirits of the population: Carbine, Phar Lap, Peter Pan, Flight, Tulloch, and Kingston Town. He wrote about great racetrack rivalries and how they gripped the city: Beaford v Gloaming, Todman v Tulloch, Sir Dapper v Emancipation, Saintly /Octagonal/ Filante, etc. He wrote about racing between the wars, in the depression and how racing was there to witness and help celebrate great events of the city via its commemorative racebooks, some of which included the opening of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, the birth of Federation, the Bicentennial, and the celebration of the Sydney Olympics.

As a World War II veteran himself, John was particularly interested in the impact of the two wars on racing and the ATC, not only in terms of curtailment of the industry in those times, but also the effect the war had on the people of Sydney and their relationship with the sport of kings. His article and pictorial exhibition on the use of Warwick Farm racecourse as a hospital infirmary and medical training centre during World War I opened up that part of the ATC’s history which few people were aware.

John continued to write about and collect historical records of the Club from 1996 until he retired as the AJC historian in 2009. He stayed in touch with the club and was very pleased to witness the emergence of the ATC Heritage Unit and its place in the new Australian Turf Club in the intervening years.

He passed away in April at the ripe old age of 98 years.

John’s work in developing the archive from its early pioneer days in the mid 1990’s and his writings celebrating the ATC’s rich history, has given the club a rich long-standing heritage asset which members, staff and the public alike can celebrate on an ongoing basis.

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