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The Men who built Flemington

Few people among the horse racing fraternity will recognise the name of James Watson, much less be aware of his connection to the famous Flemington race track. But, nevertheless, there is a connection.

Flemington Racecourse with the new main stand

In the beginning......

Watson was a Scot, born in Angus in the year 1811, who moved to Australia in 1839, to take on the management of an importing company, based in Sydney, representing a number of clients in Scotland.

For good or bad, Watson appears to have been something of a speculator and we soon find him, in 1840, as the lease owner of a parcel of land on the Saltwater or Marybyrnong river on the outskirts of the then rapidly expanding city of Melbourne. He named part of the land under his control “Keillor” after the estate back in Scotland where he spent his early life.

Unfortunately, Watson was not the shrewd investor he believed himself to be and, having run into financial difficulties, his leasing company was declared insolvent in 1843. 

He personally was charged with fraud and sued by his creditors. By 1847, Watson had bounced back and was once more in the land owning business, having purchased two parcels of Crown land, allotments 14 and 15 in the parish of Doutta Galla, on the outskirts of Melbourne, for a price of approximately £850. 

The land he named “Flemington” after his wife’s estates in his Scottish homeland. Already, during his time as lessor of the Saltwater property, Watson had encouraged competitive horse racing, and he continued this activity in the newly acquired Flemington suburb, providing stabling and other facilities required by the horse owners.

A Period Of Formalisation

The land had become popularly known as the Melbourne Racecourse and its name and location was formally established by a decree from the Governor of New South Wales, declaring the land officially a racecourse and establishing a six member trust to oversee the running of the course. In the early days of racing at Flemington, the meetings were organised under the banner of the Victoria Turf Club annually and usually in the autumn. 

By 1854, the Turf Club had added a second, spring meeting to the calendar, so popular had the “festival” become. Moreover, a second interested party had also grown out of the blossoming horse racing society – the Victoria Jockey Club - which also organised meetings and, as might be assumed from its’ name, looked after the interests of the riders. 

In 1864 these two groups agreed to join together for the good of the course and the benefit of racing at Flemington, naming themselves the Victoria Racing Club. From this date until 2001, the VRC ran the Flemington Course, turning it into a highly successful, wonderfully appointed venue suitable for the “sport of kings”.

First Steps On The Path To The Future

The development of the Course into the world famous arena it is today can be marked as beginning in 1864, when a certain Robert Cooper Bagot was approached to become secretary of the Victoria Racing club. 

Bagot was a civil engineer who had made a name for himself in improving a very ordinary Melbourne Cricket Club ground and laying down the basics on which MCG is based today. At first, Bagot was somewhat reluctant to accept the post, claiming that the only thing he knew about horses was that there was a leg at each corner. 

The gentleman proposing his appointment responded that there were already many experts on horse racing in Melbourne, yet none of them had been able to improve the status of racing through their expertise! The deal was done and the appointment made – although Bagot insisted on certain conditions.

The first of these was that the aim at Flemington was to make the sport a sport for everyone of all classes. Until the mid 19th Century, horse racing in Australia had very much been a mirror image of the sport in Britain with the upper classes being owners, trainers, supporters, punters and occupying any and all positions of importance within the activity. 

His first act was to drain the evil smelling marshy area in the centre of the course – and turn it into an area ideal for picnicking for race goer, now known today as the Flat. His next masterstroke was to persuade the VRC to purchase the land which has become known as “the Hill”. 

From this patch of common untended land, he sculpted one of the finest vantage points in the world from which to view racing.  He further insisted that admittance to the Flat should be free and that to sit on the hill should cost no more than one shilling, thus opening up the course to all classes. As a mark of the success of these enlightened steps it’s worth noting that prior to Bagot’s arrival the course had never welcomed more than 7000 fans to a day's racing. 

When the Melbourne Cup was run in 1880 more than 100,000 people turned up – and this at a time when the population of the city was recorded at 283,000. With Bagot’s input and influence, Flemington was truly up and running.

A Visionary With No Interest In Racing

Bagot passed away in 1881, but fortunately was succeed by a man of equal breadth of vision – Henry Byron Moore. Moore took over the secretarial duties of the VRC in the same year and in a highly successful tenure of more than forty years in office continued to put down the foundations and traditions of Flemington as we know them today. 

In the same mould as Bagot, Moore knew little about horse racing but had an eye for a good opportunity and many of the improvements and modifications introduced by him were prompted by his entrepreneurial attitudes rather than a love of horses. 

Soon after taking office in 1881, he attempted to persuade the VRC to buy land adjacent to the course to earmark for further, future expansion. The VRC refused, so he simply went ahead and bought it from his private funds and then re-sold it to the VRC when the need arose.

By profession, Moore was a surveyor, and this helped him to plan the construction of new grandstands on the course - which he saw as yet another step on the pathway to making the “raceday experience” more pleasurable. In particular he deserves commendation for creating a Ladies area, in response to complaints that the main concourse of the grandstands was too crowded and the ladies were not able to promenade and show off their fashionable attire. 

Indeed, he even went as far as providing well-appointed “retiring rooms” for his female clientele! Moore was also responsible for laying down the world famous rose gardens for which Flemington is rightly celebrated. However, perhaps the best example of his businessman’s attitude to the course is the creation of “ladies' day”. 

Having heard of the complaints about his lady guests not being able to adequately display their finery, he conceived the idea of creating a special day of racing focused on the lady race-goers, and decided that henceforth the day on which the Oaks was held would be designated “Ladies Day”. 

Moore contacted every newspaper editor in Melbourne and pitched to them the concept of “fillies and fashion”, convincing then that by putting emphasis in this feature of the racing program, they would gain a substantial increase in circulation. Within two years, the Oaks Day or Ladies’ day had become the fashion event of the season!

For over a century and a half Flemington race track has been nurtured and loved by men of great vision into becoming one of the world’s leading courses. However, a race course is nothing without its races, and whilst Flemington hosts many races of national and international significance, the most important, held every year since 1861 is the Melbourne Cup. 

Those who organised the first meeting could never in their wildest dreams have imagined they were laying the foundations for such a major event. The racetrack at the time was described as very basic, with few running rails to guide the competitors and grandstands for the spectators very basic in construction. In front of roughly 4000 punters, the first race was won by Archer, and the fuse of enthusiasm for the race had been lit. 

Boosted by the thriving, bustling city of Melbourne and the booming gold fields in the interior of Victoria state a visit to Flemington on Melbourne Cup Day became more a social event with picnics on the course and clubs of racing enthusiasts making it annual pilgrimage. By 1880, the race, like the course had become firmly fixed on the racing calendar, with its’ own designated day – the first Tuesday in November.

Meanwhile, On the Track......

Archer, the winner of the first Melbourne cup was a Sydney based horse, and prior to the race, rumours abounded that he had walked all the way during the previous month to build up his strength and stamina. 

All these stories were, of course, nonsense spread by his trainer, Etienne de Mestre and friends to boost the horses standing. Whatever the effects of this publicity might have been, the horse itself romped home by six lengths and won a lot of money for his Sydney supporters.

 As a mark of his class, Archer was raced again, successfully, the following day in the Melbourne Plate. The following year, 1862, de Mestre again brought Archer to the Festival and again he came out the winner, although this time it was acknowledged that the horse along with his trainer and supporting entourage had, in fact travelled to Melbourne from Sydney by steamboat. 

De Mestre brought Archer once more the next year, but due to a mix up with telegraphic services and public holidays in Melbourne, de Mestres’ acceptance of participation in the race was not received before the deadline, resulting in Archer being barred from running. Uproar ensued among owners and trainers  and many horses were withdrawn in sympathy. The result was the smallest ever field for the Melbourne Cup of only seven runners, the winner being Lantern. 

Undeterred by this mishap, de Mestre returned in 1865 with a horse by the name of “Sydney” Tim Whiffler, which gave de Mestre his third win in the race. Despite being the most successful trainer in the early days of the Melbourne Cup, de Mestre did not present his fourth winner of the race for another twelve years, when in 1877 his horse, Chester led the field home. De Mestre was to chalk up his fifth win in the race the following year

As was his custom de Mestre entered a number of horses into the race including hos winner from the previous year, Chester. 

Unfortunately, Chester was a faller in the race and did not finish, allowing another of his horses, the less-fancied Calamia, to win by two lengths. This fifth win was to set a record for the race of five wins for one trainer which would not be matched for almost a century – and then along came Bart Cummings, who won his fifth title in 1976, eventually going on to win a total of twelve Melbourne Cups. 

For this achievement alone he is regarded, rightly, as the greatest Australian trainer of all time. Indeed in five of his twelve victories, Cummings also trained the second placed horse, underlining his nickname the “King of Cups”.

Throughout the twentieth century there have been many individuals who have contributed to the growth and development of Flemington race course and the Festival of Racing which takes place every November and it would be possible to write page after page eulogising these greats. 

However, without the foresight of Bagot, the entrepreneurial skills of Moore, the horse knowledge of de Mestre, and even the somewhat shambolic and amateurish beginnings of James Watson, Flemington as it exists today would be a very different institution. These men, although they did not realise it at the time, laid the foundations of one of Australia’s national treasures.

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