09 January 2010

Flemington Racecourse: Melbourne Cup Day

Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne now looks very elegant. It has a crowd capacity of 120,000 and contains three grandstands, but its origins were more humble.

Modern grandstands, Flemington.

The first official race meeting took place in 1838 at Batman Hill, close to today’s Spencer Street railway station. From March 1840, racing was moved out of the city to Saltwater Flat on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, with meetings held over three days. This new racecourse was set up on land owned by Robert Fleming and the property was used at the time for farming cattle and sheep. Apparently the property was known as Fleming Town, and the name soon attached itself to the racecourse on it. [Note that in the VCR history, they say the site was named after Flemington in Morayshire, Scotland].

Today Flemington Racecourse is on crown land, and covers 127 hectares. The racecourse is serviced by its own railway station, and is protected as a heritage site by the Australian National Heritage List.

The first racing club was the Port Phillip Turf Club, but within the decade (in 1848) the course was leased to the Victoria Turf Club. Its timing was excellent. With the great population explosion and wealth explosion in Melbourne and Victoria due to the 1850s gold rush, the Turf Club was onto a winner. One can imagine a lot of money earned from digging or mining being taken to Melbourne and immediately placed on bets, food and drink.

The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861, attracting a crowd of some 4,000 people. Modest at first, but a tradition had been established that would later see it become Australia's most famous horse race, the race that stops a nation. Within 20 years, 100,000 people flocked to see the race. Since the total population of Melbourne in 1880 was only 280,000, horse racing fans must have been coming in from the country and from interstate. Even today, the interest never wanes. Malaysia-Finance Blogspot said The Melbourne Cup is in the same league as the English Derby, America's Kentucky Derby and the Dubai Cup. But in folklore terms, the Melbourne Cup is the biggest race in the world, full stop.

Derby day at Flemington, painted by Carl Kahler, 1890

Meanwhile, in 1864, the Victoria Turf Club merged with the Victoria Jockey Club to form the Victoria Racing Club. And with the passing of the Victoria Racing Club Act in 1871, the VRC was given state approval to legally control Flemington Racecourse.

And improvements were constantly made. Australian Heritage Database noted that the original winning post was located on the far river side of the track. By the late 1860s the Hill and its gardens had become so popular that the VRC relocated the winning post in front of it. Banks of tens of thousands of roses were planted from 1881 on. During the 1890s, the Hill was redeveloped, with a new stand being constructed and other facilities being provided for ordinary race-goers. For a small entrance cost, patrons could enjoy the comforts of the stand and the entertainment that took place on the Hill. Brass bands, side shows and carnival rides provided amusement, and refreshments were available from the Temperance Pagoda, Swiss Chalet or Chinese Teahouse.

The very classy Members' Grandstand was added in 1924-5. Tea Break blog in Flemington Race Course reported that from the stands, the scenery is great. Visitors can see Melbourne's skyline across the landscape.

Today the Melbourne Cup is promoted as part of an entire Spring Racing Festival, many of its features races being held at Flemington. Snippets of Life blog wrote Melbourne Cup 2008 was impressed that the entire nation stopped work, dressed up, laid bets on the horses, partied and drank. But she was most impressed with the tradition relating to fashion. For women going to a Cup Event, wearing a gorgeous spring dress and a fascinator or large hat is an absolute MUST, as we can see from the Fashions in the Field.

A new book has appeared called Fashion at Royal Ascot, written by James Sherwood and published by Thames and Hudson in 2011. It would be interesting to compare 300 years of fashion showcasing at Ascot with a passion for fashion in the fields at Flemington each spring carnival.


Andrew said...

I knew a little about the tulip boom and bust, but much more detail now. Well done.

J Bar said...

Great to see all this.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Melbourne Cup Odds said...

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Melbourne Cup said...

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Hels said...

Melbourne Cup
many thanks.
I am adding a link to a new book called "Fashion at Royal Ascot", published since this post appeared.

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James Brown said...

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Hels said...

Welcome to the bloggy world James.

Pick a theme that you know a lot about (eg sport, travel, literature) and keep up to date with other blogs who also share your chosen theme.

Stick rigorously to the frequency of blogging you can live with eg one post per week.

Stick rigorously to the number of words you are comfortable with (eg 750 words per post).