Catherine Fields once boasted a national tourist facility which attracted thousands of visitors a year to the local area, the El Caballo Blanco entertainment complex.
The El Caballo Blanco complex opened in April 1979 at Catherine Fields. The main attraction was a theatrical horse show presented with Andalusian horses, which was held daily in the large 800-seat indoor arena. .
The El Caballo Blanco complex at Catherine Fields, according to a souvenir brochure held at the Camden Museum, was based on a similar entertainment facility at the Wooroloo, near Perth, WA, which attracted over a quarter of a million visitors a year. It was established in 1974 by Ray Williams and had a 2000-seat outdoor arena. The horse show was based on a similar horse show (ferias) in Seville, Jerez de la Frontera and other Spanish cities.
The programme of events for the horse show at Catherine Fields began with a parade, followed by a pas de deux and then an insight into training of horses and riders in classical horsemanship. This was then followed by a demonstration of dressage, then a session ‘on the long rein’ where a riderless horse executed a number of steps and movements. There was a Vaqueros show (a quadrille) then carriage driving with the show ending with a grand finale. All the riders appeared in colourful Spanish style costumes.
The indoor arena was richly decorated in a lavishly rich style with blue velvet ceiling drapes and chandeliers. The complex also had associated stables and holding paddocks, within a Spanish-Moorish setting The stables had brass fittings and grilles, based on the design from stair cases at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
The horse show at Catherine Fields was supplement with an ancillary Australiana show which consisted mainly of sheep shearing and sheep dog trials, while a miniature horse show was introduced in the late 1980s. The also boasted a variety of rides (train, bus, racing cars, paddle boats, and ponies), a carriage museum, a small Australiana zoo, picnic facilities, water slides and swimming pool, souvenir shop, shooting gallery, restaurant, snack bar and coffee shop, and car parking.
Emmanuel Margolin, the owner in the 1989, claimed in promotional literature that the complex offered an ideal location for functions and was an ideal educational facility where children could learn about animals at the zoo, dressage, and botany in the gardens. At the time the entry charge was $10 for adults, children $5 and a family pass $25 (2A + 2C), with concession $5.
A promotional tourist brochure held by the Camden Museum claimed that it was Sydney’s premier all weather attraction. It was opened 7 days a week between 10.00am and 5.00pm.
By the mid-1990s the complex was struggling financially and in 1995 was put up for auction, but failed to reach the $5 million reserve price. The owners at the time, Emmanuel and Cecile Margolin, sold the 88 horses in July, according the Macarthur Chronicle. By this stage complex was only open on weekends, public holidays and school holidays.
At a subsequent auction in July 1997 the advertising claimed that it was a historical landmark site of 120 acres just 45 minutes from Sydney. That it was a unique tourist park with numerous attractions, luxury accommodation and a large highway frontage.
The last performance of the horse show at Catherine Fields was held in 1998.
Unfortunately by 2002 the good times had passed and the horses agisted on the site, and according to the Camden and Wollondilly Advertiser, were part of a ‘forgotten herd’ of 29 horses that roamed the grounds of the complex. It was reported that they were looked after by a keen group of Camden riders.
Worse was to come when in 2003 a fire destroyed the former stable, kitchen and auditorium. The fire spread to the adjacent paddock and meant that the 25 horses that were still on the site had to be re-located. It was reported by Macarthur Chronicle, that Sharyn Sparks the owner of the horses was heart-broken. She said she had worked with the horses from 1985 and found that the complex was one of the best places in the world to work. She said that the staff loved the horses and the atmosphere of the shows.
Read more on Wikipedia and at ShhSydney which tells stories of abandoned amusement parks and at Anne’s Adventure when she explored the park through a hole in the fence in 2014, while there is more about the story with images at Deserted Places blog.
In 2016 the Daily Mail (Australia) ran a story about the sorry state of the former theme park. It reported that is had finally closed in 1999 and
its empty performance halls, go-kart tracks and water slides were overtaken by unruly grass and wildlife.
Gia Cattiva visited the deserted site and stated:
I have these special memories of visiting there in the 80s when I was a little kid – my grandma took me there.
It was a bittersweet experience. I feel really lucky to have experienced the park as a little kid and get to see the performances.
In 2018 Channel 9 News Sydney ran an item on the news highlighting how housing development is about to overrun the former theme park site. It features archival footage and what the site looks like before the new houses and street put in.
Former horse rider Sharyn Sparks states that working at the theme park was
like being on a movie set every day.