Racetracks of Old
In Victoria, there are currently 69 metropolitan and country racetracks and 72 racing clubs. With over 500 race meetings hosted each year, the viability and consolidation of some of these tracks is an ongoing topic of conversation amongst participants.
A recent drive through the suburb in which I was born had me reminiscing about childhood memories, as well as old racetracks. Twenty years ago, Mordialloc’s Epsom racecourse was a casualty of racecourse closure. A little research has shown me it was not the first, and it probably won't be the last.
*Racing at Epsom Racecourse, Mordialloc.
Established in mid-1880s, Epsom was a popular racetrack until fire destroyed the grandstand in 1936. The facilities continued to be used as a training facility until its closure in 1997. Epsom was the home to a large number of Melbourne trainers including John Hawkes, Pat Hyland, Pat Carey, Jack Holt, George Hanlon and Don Baertschiger. Living at Carbine Lodge while my father was John Hawkes’ foreman, I have vivid memories of spending my weekends and school holidays across the road at the course, watching the horses train. Bordered by Boundary and Governor Roads and White Street, the area is now a housing estate.
There used to be two types of racecourses - those owned by Clubs that operated as not-for-profits, and Proprietary courses, owned by private businessman trying to make it rich. During World War II, the government took over control of many courses, using them for defence purposes. After the war, an increase of entertainment options saw a slump in the popularity of horse racing and so the increase in track closures commenced.
Not long after Epsom first opened, nearby Mentone Racecourse first raced in 1888. It was then closed to racing in 1948 but remained open as a training track until being subdivided for housing in 1972. The Richfield Racecourse lasted only a few years but the nearby Aspendale Racecourse took its place in April 1891. Aspendale was owned by Mr J.R ‘Robert’ Crooke who named it after his two-time Newmarket Handicap winner Aspen. Robert was also a motoring enthusiast so also built Melbourne’ first ‘commercial track’ on the site. Horse racing ceased in 1931 but the facilities were used privately by horse trainer Lou Robertson until early 1951 when the land was subdivided for housing, shops and a CSIRO research station.
Before becoming the AFL and cricket stadium it is today, Elsternwick Park was also used as a racecourse from 1880 to 1891.
The St Kilda Cup was a two-day event in late December held on a racecourse at the southern end of Peanut Farm Reserve in Blessington Street. It ran annually on Boxing Day from 1848 until the last meeting in 1868.
Nearby, the now heritage precinct of St Vincent Place in Albert Park was also briefly used as a race track in mid 1850s.
*Images L to R: Williamstown Racecourse, Ascot Racecourse (red border) and neighbouring Flemington Racecourse (green border).
Melbourne's southern suburbs aren't the only ones featuring racecourses in close proximity to one another. Almost next door to Flemington, across from Melbourne Showgrounds, was the 1400m Ascot Racecourse.
Built on 77 acres bordered by Union Road and Ascot Vale Road, Ascot was the brainchild of a Mr Riley, who had previously operated another long-gone racetrack, Oakleigh Park. The first race meeting was held there on Wednesday 25 October 1893. It was then purchased by John Wren in 1906. Wren was a big player in the industry, if not somewhat of a shady character, and also owned a number of other racetracks. Read more about John HERE. In 1946 and on behalf of the Housing Commission, the government purchased Ascot from Wren and built homes for 2,600 people, housing which still stands today.
Richmond Racecourse, also owned by John Wren, was bounded by Bridge Road and Westbank Terrace. It first operated in 1892 and was also a location for trotting and motor car races. It was closed for good in the late 1930s and redeveloped into 138 ‘working men’s’ homes.
Opening in 1891, Fitzroy Racecourse was actually located in Northcote and originally named Croxton Racecourse. It bordered the current Gadd and Wootton Streets and was then purchased by John Wren and partners in 1919. The track was renovated in 1925 but the Government eventually forced the closure of the track for racing in mid-1931. It remained relatively vacant until it was sold for housing in 1942.
The detailed history of the Williamstown Racing Club can be found in the book Williamstown: A Great Metropolitan Racing Club by historian Tom Ferris. In 1859, Williamstown local horse Flying Buck, won a race a Flemington by 10 lengths, prompting the development of Williamstown racecourse (which was actually in Altona). Phar Lap won the 1931 Underwood Stakes there. It continued to be a successful track, until a series of events in 1940 started to spell the end. In World War II, the government took over the racecourse for a training base. Williamstown was forced to merge with the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association (VTRA), forming a new club called the Melbourne Racing Club. A fire in 1947 destroyed two grandstands forcing the end of meetings, and in 1949, Williamstown racecourse was sold for surplus building materials. All that remains now is a concrete stairway leading to nowhere.
The murmurs of club mergers and racecourse closures will no doubt continue to bubble under the surface, but if and when it happens, lets hope their histories are not discarded.
*Images L to R: Working the horses at John Hawkes' Carbine Lodge, Epsom, 1989. Aspendale Racecourse Grandstand.