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Royal Randwick – a theatre of world-class racing, fashion and cuisine

A look at how Randwick Racecourse came to be one of the most significant figures in Australian Horse Racing and recognised around the world

Royal Randwick Racecourse

It’s difficult to come to terms with the Royal Randwick racecourse being described in these terms, but this is a quotation frequently used to describe the world famous Australian course today. World Class racing? Well, with races such as the Australian Derby, or the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, or the Doncaster Mile Handicap, as regular fixtures on its racing calendar from the dawn of time (almost!), it’s difficult to argue as to the quality of the racing not being world class. But fashion and cuisine? Surely this is something of a flight of fantasy or is it?

What is Randwick Racecourse

Have a look at Randwick as it is today. For starters, take a peek at the new Winx  Stand, named in honour of the world famous thoroughbred, now nearing completion in time for the new spring season.  

Here we see an ultra—modern structure of glass and steel, more reminiscent of an airport departure lounge or a conference centre than a traditional racecourse grandstand – a structure far removed from the wood and concrete constructions that served the course for many years. Clearly this shining structure is intended to be more than a grandstand, working only on race days. Rather, it serves as an asset to the course, available for use seven days a week, irrespective of what Is going on in the solely equine areas. It offers itself as a banqueting venue, catering for up to 1800 guests, either for Charity Gala evenings, wedding receptions (of course, for those with fat wallets!), conferences, concerts and celebration parties. 

However, Randwick is more than the Winx stand. A fine example of racecourse architecture which has served it well for many years is the Queen Elizabeth II stand, home of the Chairmans’ Club. Here, on level 1, it is possible to dine in the most luxurious surroundings on locally sourced produce and enjoy an atmosphere as might be found in Sydneys’ top dining venues, or downtown in London Paris or New York. And each table has its own television monitors so that guests can follow the races without having to actually watch the track, and there are also betting facilities at each table. 

The Queen Elizabeth Stand also offers a race day experience on a lower level of opulence for those who like to enjoy the racing first and the fine dining second. Typical of this is the Stables dining Club which in addition to the almost obligatory “posh nosh” also provides views over the track and the parade ring, betting facilities and, perhaps the key selling feature, a five hour drinking window for racegoers to enjoy cocktails and other alcoholic delights. And then, there is the Everest Carnival Fashion Lunch, perhaps the premium fashion event of the racing season, taking its’ inspiration from Royal Ascot in the UK, where it is obligatory almost, to dress in the height of fashion, to be seen and not simply watch the racing.

Nevertheless a day out at Randwick races is not all about fine dining and top fashion. Even if the fine dining is prepared by Michelin Starred chefs and the fashion parade of the “beautiful people” is as much a good watch as the races themselves, the primary attraction is the racing. There are trackside areas where simple picnics can be enjoyed, or more basic bars are available for those who are not enamoured of fancy cocktails. Despite all these trappings which the modern horse racing industry offers us – fine dining, fashion shows and twenty first century fittings – there is one important aspect of Randwick which cannot be overlooked:- the racing!

The Origins of Racing At Royal Randwick

Horse racing in Sydney had begun in the early nineteenth century when a group of prominent “colonial gentlemen” organised events in Hyde Park, close to the city centre. Unfortunately, the boisterous behaviour of ordinary racegoers at the end of the meetings, which would often spill over into the city, led to the races being suspended. A short time later, however, at the request of a group of eminent citizens led by a major land owner, Sir John Jamison, who petitioned the then Governor for a new racecourse to be established, the Randwick venue was created. Racing began there in 1833, on a course laid out by Assistant Surveyor General of the colony, Mortimer Lewis, using convict labour. This course was operational until 1838, when as with previous city courses, the hoi paloi attending the meetings became rowdy and unruly thus deterring the more elegant citizens of Sydney from attending, Without this influential and monied patronage, the meetings could not continue. 

However, the day was very much saved by the establishment of the forerunner of the Australian Jockey Club in 1842, a group of horse lovers who organised racing at the Homebush course and who were gradually bringing regulation and order to the sport. In tandem with this regulation, they were also seeking a more permanent and convenient home for their sport; a home which could be developed to provide better facilities for racegoers and horse owners and trainers, which would in turn lead to better races and attract better jockeys. To this end the AJC appealed, successfully, to the Governor and received permission in 1858 to open the now derelict Randwick course. As a result, a new turfed track was laid with running rails; vegetation was cleared to improve the visual aspects of the venue, and work was begun on a 700 seater grandstand for spectators. Having completed all these improvements and rendering Randwick to a layout not far from that of today’s world class venue, the first formal meeting was held at the end of May 1860.

At this first meeting a crowd of over 6000 people attended, and such was the popularity of Randwick Racing that during the decade two further, larger stands were constructed to accommodate the ever growing following. These developments were, nevertheless, to prove inadequate. First of all, the 700 seater stand was demolished in 1875  and replaced by one with twice its capacity and included private boxes (a forerunner of those now found in the Winx stand), a reporter's room and a telegraph facility. Next the two grandstands built in the 1860s were replaced with two new buildings. In 1882, a new and larger St. Leger stand was opened and four years later, came the Official stand. Additionally, up to the turn of the century the AJC carried out a whole host of what might be tidying up works. Perimeter fences were erected to prevent random public entry, thus directing people to official turnstiles which provided the only entries, and entrance money for the Committee. Formal gardens were laid out to beautify the establishment and on site establishments to cater to visitors' needs were set up. And thus, by the time the first world war arrived, the basic structure of today’s Randwick had been laid down.

The Creation Of Iconic Royal Randwick Races

During this period of its youth, Randwick was organising and creating many of the iconic races which now form an integral part of the racing calendar. The Australian Derby, which at times has been known as the AJC Derby and the Randwick Derby Stakes, was first run in 1861, in the first season of the course’s existence and has been staged at the Autumn Carnival every year since. As befits a race with such a long history, it has been won over the years by many horses of great distinction. For example the great Phar Lap came home in front of the field in 1929. Similarly, the renowned Tulloch was the winner in 1957 and Kingston Town led his competitors home in1980. Perhaps the most unusual “winner” of the race was a horse which did not actually run in the race – Prince Humphrey. In the 1928 Derby, Prince Humphrey was declared the winner, and in the record books still appears as the victor. However, and eagle-eyed race fan Dick Tate from Toowoomba, when looking at the winners photos a few days after the race, noticed that the horse purported to be the winner, had, in fact, different markings to the declared winner, Prince Humphrey, and was none other than a substitute called Cragsman. Yet, because the course supervisors had declared Prince Humphrey as the winner, and more importantly, bets had been paid out on that result, the outcome could not be changed.

Another significant race in the Randwick Calendar, is the Queen Elizabeth II stakes, although only so-named since 1954. In its’ first incarnation it was known as the Queens’ Plate, named after the then monarch, Queen Victoria. It was first held in 1851 and was won by a horse named Cossack, who also repeated his success the following year. In 1862, the race was won by the first of what might be called the track giants – a horse called Archer, trained by the equally famed Etienne de Mestre. Not only did Archer win the Queens plate, he was also the first horse to win the Melbourne Cup two years running, in 1861 and 1862, leading eventually to his induction into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame.

In 1874, the race changed its name and became the AJC Plate. There was no loss of prestige or glamour in this change of name, and it continued to attract the finest gallopers to participate. It remained so named until 1954, when, to coincide with the visit of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II to Australia, and being conscious of the new queens’ love of horses and racing, the race was renamed in her honour. In the interim many horses of superb reputation triumphed in this event, but two in particular stand out. First of all, already mentioned earlier, was the great Tulloch, who completed a hat trick of wins in the race in 1958, 1960 and 1961. However, none can compare to the formidable, world renowned Winx who won convincingly in 2017, 2018 and 2019;  victories which no doubt heavily influenced the naming of the new stand now opening on the course.

Despite these long standing Red Letter events in the Randwick timetable, however, perhaps the most important race now hosted by the course has only been run for the last four years – the Everest. Although only four years old, the race is now firmly established as the centrepiece of the Spring festival with a total purse for the event is $15million, making it the most valuable race in the Australian Calendar. It has developed an unusual method of qualification for the horses. Entry slots in the field can be purchased for $600,000, yet these can be secured without the buyer specifying the horse which will occupy them, and the field is limited to twelve horses. Once purchased, the buyer has the right to dispose of it as he wishes: he may either sell it on, share it, syndicate it to a group of owners or simply run his own horse.  The very first race in 2017 was won by Redzel, running in a slot purchased by one, James Harron. This he sold on to the Triple Crown Syndicate, who entered the horse in the slot where it duly obliged with a winning run. A feat which it repeated the following year.

The Everest, now a firm fixture, is run in October during the Randwick Spring Carnival, and if the plan comes together as projected, the new Winx stand will be full opened and available for not only the race itself, but also for the entire fashion show/fine dining circus which is expected to accompany it. One wonders how moving the Randwick Course further away from its’ original roots as a source of entertainment and enjoyment for the ordinary people of Sydney would be seen by its’ earliest patrons. What it will do, however, is to serve to reenforce the title bestowed upon it when Queen Elizabeth II visited the course for a days racing in Febraury 1992. Delighted by her experiences she confirmed that the Course should henceforth be known as “Royal Randwick” - an honour well and truly deserved and thus cementing its position as possibly Australias’ most famous racing venue. Fine dining, a parade of the ultra-fashionistas, and racing par excellence – no more than would be expected from Royalty at the races.

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