Kings of the Turf

A History of the AJC Derby From 1861 to 1984


The past is a mosaic of tiny pieces, each piece a fragment of a larger picture.  Today, visitors who come to view the Derby each autumn at Randwick, happen to see one of the world’s great classics contested on one of the world’s great racecourses.  It is and has been for more than 150 years, an established convention of the Australian Turf.  It presents a very large picture, but is a mosaic nonetheless, made up of many tiny pieces from many people over many years.  How, one might ask, did it all begin?


Well, the first recorded horse race in Australia took place at Parramatta on 30 April 1810, when two racehorses named Parramatta and Belfast were matched against each other.  The balance of the afternoon was occupied by cockfighting, wheelbarrow racing, sack jumping, and a women’s race.  The very first official race meeting to be conducted in Sydney took place later that same year in Hyde Park in October 1810 and extended over three days viz. Monday 15, Wednesday 17, and Friday 19.  Formerly referred to by various names such as “The Common”; “Exercising Ground”; “Cricket Ground”; and “Race Course”, Hyde Park back then was really nothing more than open ground cleared of the bush, but it served as a community common to which the public had access and which became something of a meeting place and sporting rendezvous.

Mounted officers of the 73rd Regiment often informally raced their horses against each other on the ground, and the impetus for the first race meeting had primarily come from them.  A gathering of those interested in subscribing to the races took place in the Officers’ Mess Room in early June of that year.  His Excellency Governor Lachlan Macquarie and his wife each extended patronage to the cause.  A plate, a cup, and a purse – each to the value of fifty guineas and given in turn by the Subscribers, the Ladies of the Colony, and the Magistrates – were run for during the week as well as several match races on the side.  Lieutenant Governor O’Connell was elected as one of the stewards for proceedings.

Governor Macquarie (SLNSW)

A curious postscript to the planning for the meeting was the admonition that subscribers were neither to ride their horses over the course nor to suffer their servants to train the horses over it.  Any horse to be seen training over the course would not be allowed to start.  In order to ensure peace and harmony at the meeting, and that no gaming, drunkenness, swearing, or fighting be permitted, Governor Macquarie gave public notice that no booths, stalls or shops be allowed on or near the race ground during the Race Week and that any person attempting to sell any wine, liquor, or beer, be deprived of their licence and prosecuted.  A roughhewn racecourse of ten furlongs was laid out at great expense, and the subscribers to that first race meeting consisted of the fledgeling colony’s leading citizens and the officers of the 73rd Regiment.  The meeting went off most successfully with Mrs Macquarie presenting the Ladies Cup on the second day, and she, accompanied by His Excellency the Governor, honoured each day’s races with her presence.

A fashionable feature of Race Week was the two formal Subscribers’ Balls organised by the Stewards and conducted at Mr W. Wills’ establishment in George Street to which admission was granted to the various subscribers to the races at the cost of 7/6d.  The Subscribers’ Balls were held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings before the second and third days of the race meeting.  The Governor and Mrs Macquarie attended both balls thereby affording the proceedings official recognition as a celebration of the first liberal amusement instituted in the Colony.  Not all of the Race Week entertainment was high-brow.  On the bye days, cock-fighting was to be enjoyed at a house in the vicinity of Hyde Park.  The three-day format was adjudged a resounding success and was retained during the years 1811-13 and became a much-celebrated event on the Sydney social calendar during a time when few such diversions were available.  The authorised annual race meeting ceased in 1814 when the 73rd Regiment transferred to Ceylon.  No officially approved meeting occurred on the Hyde Park course again until Whit Monday, 31st May 1819, when a somewhat subdued one-day gathering took place.

1844 hyde park racecourse

Hyde Park Racecourse (SLNSW)


Whatever the merits of Hyde Park as a racecourse in 1810, the increase in Sydney’s population over the next decade considerably reduced its attractions.  Its primary disadvantage was that as a Common, a great injury was continually being done to the racing surface by the constant passing of wood carts and lighter carriages from the increased traffic flows.  This and the difficulty of controlling dogs during horse races began to render it untenable.  During 1816 and 1817, attempts were made by public subscription to effect improvements at Hyde Park, but the donations fell short of the required sum.  By September 1819 the various informal gatherings on the racecourse at Hyde Park had degenerated into a scene of low gambling and dissipation more reminiscent of the public debaucheries painted by Brueghel than a racecourse.

It was so subversive to the order and good morals of the citizenry that Governor Macquarie was forced to issue a general order that no horse racing would take place on Sydney racecourse without first obtaining special permission in writing from the Governor.  Magistrates were directed to disperse any unsanctioned assemblages.  The next authorised meeting took place in September 1820 over two days while the last annual meeting of Governor Macquarie’s long tenure took place over three days in August 1821 with James Chisholm, a leading merchant in George Street and future director of the Bank of New South Wales, the moving spirit behind the meetings.  Chisholm’s grandson, Harry, would later found the large bloodstock agency at Randwick that bore his name and flourished in the first decades of the last century.

A few months later, Governor Macquarie banned race meetings entirely and very soon thereafter, on February 22nd, 1822, the great man departed for England on board the Surry, having resigned, and been replaced as Governor by Sir Thomas Brisbane.  Brisbane took office on 1st December 1821, and although foremost a military man with a passion for astronomy, he was reportedly a keen sportsman with an interest in racing, having spent some of his formative years in Ireland with the 38th Regiment.  However, under the shadow of the Bigge Report and a new direction from the Colonial Office in London, Brisbane’s riding instructions were to strengthen discipline in the so-called penal colony and discard some of Macquarie’s more enlightened policies as regards leisure pursuits.  Consequently, for more than three years Governor Brisbane refused to revoke Macquarie’s late ban on racing.

However, while Hyde Park as a racecourse was no longer available, unauthorised match races took place on private courses such as Homebush, Windsor and Parramatta and very publicly at Richmond.  The authorities tended to overlook such transgressions, given the wealth and status of some of the personages involved.  In October 1824 the members of the Agricultural Society signed a round-robin and presented it to Governor Brisbane soliciting him to sanction the establishment of horse races in the vicinity of Sydney.  The petition was signed by no less than twelve magistrates and strongly argued that the races here had improved the breed of saddle horses in general.  The Governor rejected Hyde Park as a venue but the door was left open as public momentum began to build for the restoration of official race meetings.

North End of Hyde Park, St James Parsonage, Mint & Barracks c.1842 (SLNSW)


In October 1824 a new newspaper was launched in Sydney – the Australian – and it was the first independent newspaper in the colony.  Its proprietor was none other than that ruthless opportunist, political manipulator and adventurer, W. C. Wentworth.  Wentworth was not only the proprietor of this new enterprise but also the joint editor, together with Robert Wardell.  From its opening number, the newspaper crusaded for the restoration of official racing and was supported in this call by some of the colony’s leading citizens including Sir John Jamison and William Lawson.  Eventually, Governor Brisbane relented and sanctioned a race meeting which was held on Monday, 28th February 1825, on a rough course marked out on Captain John Piper’s Bellevue property at Rose Bay – at the southern section of what is now Royal Sydney Golf Club.  Apart from Piper himself, other prominent men to race their horses on that day included Sir John Jamison and Colonel Balfour.  We are told by a correspondent of the Sydney Gazette that “the ground was visited by a great many fashionables and most of the respectable inhabitants of Sydney.”  Sir John Jamison subsequently entertained a large party at dinner.

Such was the success of the meeting that another gathering at the same venue on St Patrick’s Day, 1825 was organised.  The Sydney Gazette correspondent on the day informs us that in “the forenoon every carriage, chariot, curricle, gig, horse, and cart, was in requisition to attend the races.”  And at the conclusion of the ceremonies on a racecourse that merited entire approbation, the exodus was one mad rush.  From the race course to the South-head toll gate, a distance of three miles, it was almost impossible to pass the road towards South-head for the excessively thronged multitude that was riding, driving, walking, singing, roaring, and racing their way homeward.  On Friday immediately following the St Patrick’s Day meeting, a group gathered at Sir John Jamison’s George Street townhouse and formed the Sydney Turf Club – the first official race club to be established in the Colony.

Among those at the historic meeting were William Balcombe, John Piper and W. C. Wentworth.  Balcombe and Mills became Honorary Treasurer and Secretary respectively.  It was resolved that each member would pay ten dollars on his admission and eight dollars annually, with two meetings planned each year viz. in April and September.  It was further resolved that Sir John Jamison would wait upon the Governor to solicit his patronage of the club and also upon the Chief Justice with an invitation to become an honorary member of the club, each of whom subsequently acquiesced.  The sport of official horse racing, with an organised race club, was finally up and running in the Colony, and, despite divisions and political rivalries in the sporting community and some contretemps with authorities in the years ahead, would never look back again.


The newly appointed Governor, Ralph Darling, instituted an inquiry into Captain Piper’s financial maladministration of the Customs Office.  This, together with general dissatisfaction concerning Piper’s galloping ground at Rose Bay, saw the nascent Sydney Turf Club in 1826 set down a substitute course on the Parramatta Road, four miles from Sydney between Grose Farm and George Johnston’s Annandale estate, where the Sydney University is today.  The club’s annual meetings for 1826 and 1827 were held there with the main race being the Brisbane Cup, a silver trophy donated by the former Governor of the Colony.  In both years the race was won by Andrew Nash’s horse, Junius.  In November of 1827, a special Turf Club dinner was arranged at Cummin’s Hotel in the city to celebrate the services to the Turf by Brisbane and in commemoration of the last day on which he, before his departure for England, dined with the Turf Club.

Governor – Thomas Brisbane

Almost forty members were in attendance with W. C. Wentworth in the chair and with the band of the 57th Regiment affording the music. Governor Darling had been extended an invitation but had declined to attend, which was consistent with his withdrawn attitude towards the Turf.  Wentworth, who was engaged in a long-running feud with the new Governor, whose penchant for autocracy had seen him marginalise the emancipists to the benefit of the more exclusive elements within Sydney society, used the opportunity of his address to draw none-too-flattering comparisons between Darling and his predecessor.  The attendees caught the mood of the evening, and as the liquor flowed freely, the antipathy to Darling was there for all to see.  Even the bandmaster of the 57th showed his empathy in his choice of tune when the formal toast to the incumbent Governor was proposed by striking up “Over the Hills and Far Away”.

When news of Wentworth’s address and the evening’s proceedings leaked out, Darling was apoplectic and made known his displeasure.  A meeting of the Turf Club on December 11 resolved that the club approved of the speeches delivered by W. C. Wentworth at the dinner. It also acquitted the rest of the members of the club of all intentions of offering any insult to the Governor and regretted that they were unable to offer Darling any further explanation.  Moreover, the meeting decided it was not competent to enter into the motives of Wentworth or Dr Wardell’s alleged hostility to the Government.

Darling’s retribution was swift.  In the very same issue of the Sydney Gazette that advertised the Turf Club’s resolutions, there was an announcement that Darling had withdrawn his patronage of the club; and that the Government had determined that John Mackaness would not be re-appointed as Sheriff.  Moreover, W. H. Moore as Crown Solicitor would be suspended from the functions of his office and be dismissed as Assistant Clerk in the Supreme Court.  Furthermore, it was intimated to the officers and other persons employed by the Government whose names still appeared as members of the Turf Club, that their continuance as such would be inconsistent with their duty to the Government.  Some other members of the club, notably Sir John Jamison, Frederick Garling, William Balcombe, Thomas Raine, and John and Francis Stephen, peremptorily relinquished all connection with the club on their own initiative.


Almost immediately there was some talk of the creation of a new Club whose membership would be drawn from the ranks of Governor Darling’s supporters.  However, it was only in the aftermath of a poorly patronised Sydney Turf Club meeting at Grose Farm in April 1828 – when all of the military and many of the civil-government officers boycotted the gathering –  the newly formed Australian Racing and Jockey Club came into being.  Governor Darling ostentatiously condescended to accept the office of patron while the Pecksniffian Sir John Jamison was elected president.  The new club’s first meeting occurred at Parramatta in October 1828.  That same month the Government mouthpiece, the Sydney Gazette published an obituary notice of the Sydney Turf Club.

The gloating was somewhat premature as the club continued to function, albeit in a somewhat reduced state.  The Australian Racing and Jockey Club had intended to create a new racecourse in Sydney but the divisive manner of the club’s creation and the political tension and rancour that continued between it and the Sydney Turf Club effectively stopped it.  Indeed, the rivalry between the two clubs dissipated the sport of horse racing at a time when it could have done well without it and the limited taste for public amusements in such a contracted society as Sydney then was, soon rendered it something of a laughing stock amongst more sober citizens.

However, some of the air cleared when Governor Darling left the colony in October 1831 to a chorus of unseemly rejoicing from Wentworth and many of his acolytes.  It was in December 1832 that a group of the leading colonists of New South Wales, aware of the need to replace Grose Farm, petitioned Darling’s replacement, Governor Sir Richard Bourke, for “a portion of land in the neighbourhood of Sydney for a racecourse.”  The petition had a certain amount of clout for among its signatories were those leading lights of the colony, Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Snodgrass and the ubiquitous Sir John Jamison.  The brave Irishman, Snodgrass, was a highly-decorated hero in the Peninsular War. His status is perhaps best demonstrated by stating that it was he who acted as Administrator of the colony of New South Wales for seven weeks during the interregnum and summer of 1837-38 after the departure of Governor Bourke for England and before the arrival of the new Governor, Sir George Gipps.

The Scotsman, Sir John Jamison, on the other hand, owed his prominence in colonial affairs to his extensive landholdings, particularly his impressive estate, Regentsville, at Penrith, along with grazing runs on the Namoi and Richmond Rivers.  Moreover, the politically astute Jamison, as we have seen, could change sides with the skill of a fastidious cat crossing a muddy street in Sydney Town.  However, despite the prestige and talent of those mentioned above, the real moving spirit behind the petition was a young, ambitious 32-year-old clerk to the colony’s Executive and Legislative Councils by the name of Edward Deas Thomson.

The Road to Randwick and the Creation of the Australian Jockey Club

Edward Deas Thomson will loom large in our chronicle of the A.J.C.’s formative years, and perhaps we should become acquainted with him now.  Deas Thomson had been born in Edinburgh on the 1st of June, 1800, the youngest son of a Tory politician who had picked up the sinecure of Accountant-General to Her Majesty’s Navy.  Having received the elements of education at Edinburgh High School followed by the prestigious public school of Harrow, Deas Thomson later spent two years at a finishing college in Caen, Normandy, a legacy of which was that he remained fluent in French throughout his life.  Upon his return to England, Deas Thomson immersed himself in the world of commerce. He assisted his father in the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping into the Navy accounts while also attending lectures on political economy by the distinguished Scottish writer J. R. McCulloch, whose ideas on free trade were to influence Deas Thomson’s career in public service.  In 1826 he journeyed to America to arrange the affairs of a deceased brother but afterwards travelled extensively in both the United States and Canada, and at his father’s request, maintained a detailed journal on matters relating to the United States Army and Navy.

Edward Deas Thomson (SLNSW)

Afterwards, his ambitious father circulated the journal in influential circles to advance his son’s career.  It was in this manner that Edward Deas Thomson claimed the favourable attention of William Huskisson, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies.  It was through this connection that the cosmopolitan Deas Thomson was offered the position of Clerk of the New South Wales Executive and Legislative Councils at a salary of £600 per year.  Arriving in Sydney in December 1828 on the Royal George along with 158 male prisoners, he lost no time in impressing the civilian powers under the governorship of Ralph Darling with his grasp for detail, boundless energy, and indomitable spirit.  Despite his father’s frightening expectations and overweening ambitions for his son, there was never anything in Deas Thomson’s character that suggested he found this inheritance oppressive.  In July 1829, Deas Thomson was appointed a magistrate of the colony.  However, it was under Darling’s successor, Sir Richard Bourke, that Edward Deas Thomson’s career and influence burgeoned and he was to become Bourke’s son-in-law when he married the Governor’s second daughter Anne Maria in September 1833.  The newly married couple initially lived in Government House with the widowed Bourke.  It is intriguing yet futile speculation as to how much his marriage to Bourke’s daughter hastened Deas Thomson’s career.  But it certainly did him no harm.

It was Deas Thomson who accompanied the Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, on his tour of the proposed Botany road site for a racecourse.  This wasn’t just a matter of the clerk discharging his expected duty, for Deas Thomson was a capable gentleman rider genuinely interested in the Turf.  Only a matter of months before – in August 1832 – he had ridden his horse, Tam O’Shanter, into second place in an inaugural five-mile cross-country steeplechase event for gentlemen riders between Botany and Coogee and finishing on the hills above Waverley House.   As it transpired, Mitchell duly reported that he could see no objection to the use of the site as a racecourse and added his support to the proposal.  It was hardly surprising that Mitchell approved the location, for in truth it was good for little else and beyond even the pale of the emerging settlement of Sydney.  In fact, there was a primitive track already marked on the land  – the so-called ‘Sandy Course’ – and the circuit surveyed in December 1832 roughly followed its contours.

The Governor, having been pleased to sanction the reserve of the eligible piece of ground on the Botany road for a new racecourse, also authorised the loan of twenty convict labourers to assist in its formation.  Edward Deas Thomson was one of the seven men; the others included such leading lights of the colony as Lieutenant Colonel Snodgrass and Sir John Jamison, who agreed to superintend the work under the direction and advice of the Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell.  A subscription list began. Moreover, Deas Thomson and Thomas Icely each consented to act as joint treasurers and be responsible to the subscribers for the sums collected as well as those expended under the direction of the committee.  The Sydney Monitor in April 1833 declared: “The new race-course gives already a ‘glorious note of preparation’ there being numerous booths of large dimensions being erected thereon.  The course itself will be very trying to the slight-made horses from its sandy nature.”


The ‘Sandy’ or ‘Subscription’ course hosted annual races from 1835 to 1838 and an extract from The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser of April 1833 distils the peculiar flavour of a journey to the racecourse on the occasion of its 1835 autumn fixture: “Yesterday at any early hour, the road from Sydney to the course was crowded by every description of vehicle; and horsemen and pedestrians had some difficulty, as the day advanced, to get forward with that bustle and hurry which everyone present seemed to consider imperative.”  However, this initial burst of public enthusiasm wasn’t to be sustained for the new racecourse on the Botany road was to be plagued by the same problems that had marred racing at Hyde Park, Grose Farm and Parramatta.

The state of the course itself was wretched – properly called sandy as an irreverent journalist with The Sydney Monitor observed, while the road to the racecourse was in an equally deplorable condition, as the aching bones of the visitors who went in wheel carriages testified in 1838.  The problem, as always, was money.  The prizes on offer were less than those available in some of the minor districts of the colony while owners were not prepared to risk their horses of any celebrity on the uncertain ground.  Moreover, something of a Billingsgate flavour characterised those early meetings much the same as the drunk and disorderly behaviour that had marred the later proceedings at Hyde Park.  And the Botany ground was little better than a sandy swamp.  The Australian put it this way at the conclusion of the 1838 annual races: “if a house built upon the sands cannot stand, we do not see why a grandstand should.”  The 1838 meeting was the last to be held on the Sandy Course for some twenty years.


While the fortunes of the ‘Sandy Course’ languished, those of Edward Deas Thomson flourished.  Marrying the Governor’s daughter certainly helped and in late 1836 his father-in-law championed his appointment as colonial secretary of New South Wales and registrar of the records, an appointment that was duly promulgated in January 1837 and was to last until 1856.  This new position carried with it, membership of both the Executive and Legislative Councils and this together with the numerous boards of which he was a member, including the Convict Assignment Board, seemed to fairly justify the jibe that no man’s pie was freed from his ambitious finger.

Whatever the Machiavellian intrigues in securing his various appointments, Deas Thomson’s background and ability clearly fitted him for it and Sydney racing now had an influential friend in the future.  As the colonial secretary and enjoying the prime of his life and the fullest vigour of his faculties, Deas Thomson became the Governor’s chief adviser; in effect, he was the second executive officer of the colony and a succession of Governors came to rely upon him heavily.  A deeply conservative man, he revered the imperial connection and did his best to frustrate any movement towards any independent responsible government in the colony.  As David Clune and Ken Turner observe in their book, “The Governors of New South Wales 1788 – 2010”, “… an obedient servant like Thomson could more effectively erode the Governor’s personal authority than disobedient ones.”

Although racing in Sydney had seemingly stalled, the sport was flourishing in the bush and countryside while the number and quality of thoroughbreds in the colony continued to multiply.  Indeed, one early Governor reported that the signs of spreading civilisation in the colony were the Church, the Court House and the Racecourse. In many far-flung country districts, the racecourse was the very heart of sporting and social life.  Insofar as Sydney was concerned, this anomalous state of affairs wasn’t to last.  On the 26th of May 1840, a group of influential citizens met in Sydney to establish Annual Subscription Race Meetings in the County of Cumberland for the improvement of the breed of horses, in the colony.  Among the gathering were the prominent military officers, James Chambre and John Holden; the veteran explorer, William Lawson; the pioneering Hunter Valley studmaster, Robert Scott; and a recently arrived and wealthy bachelor from England by the name of Henry Kater, who came to the Antipodes with a determination to successfully breed thoroughbreds.

Nominating Lieutenant Chambre as secretary, these men together with a few others styled themselves the Australian Race Committee and in August of that year published a notice in the Sydney Morning Herald declaring their intentions of initiating two subscription race meetings each year.  The meetings were to be held in the first week of February and the last week of July, and conducted under the rules of the Newmarket Jockey Club, subject to such alterations as the circumstances of the colony may necessarily impose.  The annual subscription was to be £5 and the races were to be conducted at the new racecourse then forming at Homebush, on the Parramatta and Sydney Roads.  The new site was part of W. C. Wentworth’s estate, and while the mercurial explorer cum politician was no longer active in racing, he was more than willing to assist in its development.

Old Homebush Racecourse 1834 (N.L.A.)

Stated intentions notwithstanding, the first race meeting under the auspices of this new club was held on Tuesday, March 16, 1841, and was a pronounced success. Publicans along the Parramatta Road counted their lucky stars as hundreds of gigs and carriages of every description, together with thousands of equestrians and pedestrians, made their way to Homebush.  It was lamented that the course itself was not on a more extensive scale while the inability to view the racing from start to finish, given the placement of publican and confectionary booths inside rather than outside the perimeter of the course, was also an issue.  Apart from the Grand Stand itself, a makeshift stand had even been erected for the public, to which admission could be gained by the payment of half a crown.

The highlight of the meeting was the running of the St Leger Stakes, a race for colonial-bred three-year-old colts and fillies at £10 each and £200 added prize money.  It used the English St Leger weights, i.e. colts 8 st.12lb and fillies 8 st. 7lb although, unlike the English equivalent, it was run over a mile and a half.  It marked an important milestone in Australian racing history and was the forerunner of the set-weight classics for three-year-olds in this country.  The race was won by George Rouse’s good filly Eleanor, a homebred by the imported English stallion, St John, who stood at Richard Rouse Senior’s Rouse Hill estate.  The second meeting of the Australian Race Committee was conducted in late August, and, like the first gathering, was a pronounced success.

The public popularity of these inaugural meetings saw the Australian Race Committee meet on Wednesday, January 5, 1842, and resolve to be reconstituted into a club to be called the Australian Jockey Club, a proposal made by Captain Hunter and seconded by Henry H. Kater.  Apart from Hunter and Kater, the others at the meeting were Captains O’Connell and Sawbridge; Price, James Chambre, and William Gibbes.  It was further resolved to invite the Governor, Sir George Gipps, and Sir Maurice O’Connell to become Patron and Vice Patron respectively. Originally the club was to consist of twenty members at least, with the power to add to their numbers by ballot; and the annual subscription for each member should be £10, which entitled them to run horses at each meeting.  Four stewards were to be chosen annually from the members of the club, and to these stewards was to be committed the entire management of all matters. James Chambre was to be appointed the honorary secretary and treasurer.  The first Spring Meeting, held at Homebush, was a three-day affair opening on September 20 and closing with a dinner at the Royal Hotel in George-street.  During these formative years, the club did not have premises of its own and conducted its business at that establishment.


And so, it came to pass that during the years from 1842 until 1859, the Australian Jockey Club conducted its meetings at Homebush.  Initially, the intention of the club was to conduct two three-day race meetings a year at the course, the first during autumn and the second during spring.  However, the poor attendance at the spring renewal saw that meeting abandoned in 1844.  There were annual spring races conducted at Homebush from 1850 to 1854, but these were called the Annual Drapers’ Meeting and organised by a group of tradesmen, not the Australian Jockey Club.

Indeed, it was the circumstances surrounding the last Annual Drapers’ Meeting and a split within the sporting community of the colony itself that saw the organisation and administration of horseracing in Sydney, and the integrity of the Australian Jockey Club, sink to its nadir.  In somewhat confused and controversial circumstances, the £150 balance of A.J.C. funds – the surplus from previous years’ race meetings had, upon the resignation of Captain FitzRoy and Secretary J. R. Holden, been handed over in 1854 to the Drapers’ Treasurer for the last running of the Homebush Drapers’ Race Meeting.  This was an appropriation of public money for purposes different from those for which it was raised and caused considerable friction within the club at the time.  Indeed, a number of influential supporters retired from the Turf as a result.


Perhaps the only reason for any sense of optimism amidst this imbroglio came in the guise of the man who in September 1854 had succeeded Holden to the position of Honorary Secretary of the club viz. George Taylor Rowe.  Thirty-three years of age and the owner of the Collingwood estate and stables near Liverpool, Rowe was a true racing man.  His immediate task was to breathe some life into a dying body.  That the oldest and richest of the Australian colonies and the colony from whose pastures had largely come all of the original racehorses of her sister colonies, had a failing principal race club was a major embarrassment.  An indication of the impassivity and indifference that had descended upon the Australian Jockey Club at this critical juncture of its history, in the wake of the last Drapers’ Meeting, was their unresponsiveness to the following advertisement placed by Rowe in Bell’s Life on October 7th, 1854: “AUSTRALIAN JOCKEY CLUB NOTICE.  In consideration of certain resignations, and other reasons that will be stated, a General Meeting of Members, Ex-Members and ALL PARTIES interested in the A.J.C., is called for Wednesday next, the 11th inst. at the Royal Hotel, at 3 pm.”

The purpose of the meeting was to conduct a ballot for gentlemen anxious to be enrolled within the club.  The call went unheeded.  A second meeting was called for Wednesday, 8th November, same time, same place, and on this occasion only two members attended.  Subsequently, Rowe addressed circulars to several members inviting their presence on another date but in no instance was courtesy of a reply even vouchsafed.  A lesser man would have resigned in disgust.  An exasperated editorial in Bell’s Life stated: “We cannot reconcile ourselves to believe it is intended to disband the Australian Jockey Club and suffer our Annual Metropolitan gatherings to lapse.”

George Rowe had no intention of seeing such meetings lapse.  Upon coming to office in September 1854 although the club had no funds, Rowe wasn’t entirely friendless.  Some staunch sporting men such as Charles Martyn, Sydney Burt, Alfred Schroder, Jeremiah Downes, Charles Baldwin and Etienne de Mestre, all lent their support.  The indefatigable Rowe threw all of his energy and zeal into a reconstitution of the club with the aim of making the 1855 Autumn Meeting over the last three days of May a resounding success.  And it proved to be so with eleven races conducted over the course of three days with numerous entrances for each race and more prize money offered than at any previous gathering at Homebush.  Moreover, George Rowe through the good offices of Deas Thomson had secured the patronage of His Excellency, the Governor-General, Sir William Denison.  Denison not only subscribed liberally in support of the races but consented to accept the permanent office of Patron to the club.  After all, horseracing wasn’t merely a national amusement.  Given the importance of the horse in the nineteenth century in both wartime and peacetime, improvement of the breed was a national pursuit to be encouraged by the highest office in the land!

Alas, an attempt at an A.J.C. Spring Meeting in 1855 to provide a substitute for the lost Drapers’ fixture failed.  It was disappointing regarding both entrances and the quality of those entrances, together with a lack of public attendance.  Consequently, in 1856 an attempt was made to resuscitate the Burwood Races in December and let them take place at Homebush.  Sadly, again the horse entrances were few and the number of people in attendance wretchedly small, especially of the pleasure-seeking class. Those that did come consisted mostly of hardened turf habitués.  Moreover, the total absence of the usual concomitants that then created a racecourse atmosphere, i.e. acrobats, itinerant serenaders, brass bands, and ‘cards of the races’ men, rendered the scene rather depressing.  In 1857 the A.J.C. again attempted a spring race meeting at Homebush, but once again poor patronage saw the experiment forsaken.  It seemed that the Sydney sporting public wasn’t ready for a three-day spring fixture.  Nonetheless, the annual autumn race meeting conducted by the A.J.C. had established itself as one of Sydney’s most significant social, cultural and sporting events.


Under George Rowe’s stewardship, the Australian Jockey Club grew in membership numbers and strength during the three-and-a-half years of his tenure, although ill health and the pressure of the job saw Rowe resign in February 1858 to be replaced as Honorary Secretary by the 36-year-old, George Rowley.  A friend of Rowe’s, Rowley was a prominent attorney, who had successfully raced the good horse, Oily Gammon, in his own right during the mid-1840s as well as more recently Mariner and Sailor in partnership with Rowe.  His legal skills and practical racing knowledge were of great value to the Jockey Club during his relatively brief service in what was to prove a seminal period in the club’s history. Indeed, a series of critical meetings which he helped organise, occurred during that week in February 1858 at the Metropolitan Hotel, whereby the form and character of the Australian Jockey Club became more clearly defined. For those interested in such matters, the Metropolitan Hotel was located on Pitt-street very near the present-day Rowe-street, and opposite the eastern end of the Sydney General Post Office.

At the same meeting that saw the accession of Rowley, a committee was appointed to arrange and manage the forthcoming Great Match between Veno (owned by George Rowe) and Lauristina and the Autumn Meeting on the Homebush course. The committee consisted of the following members viz. George Rowley, Saul Samuel, Sydney Burt, George Rowe, John Tait, Archibald Cox and Alfred Schroder.  Moreover, the ranks of club membership were significantly augmented by the election of some prominent and influential citizens of the colony.  February 1858 saw men such as the Hon. Richard Jones M.L.A., elected as members, together with Alfred Cheeke, Archibald Thompson, Francis Hill, R. M. Isaacs, James Greer, Richard Roberts, George Pitt and J. V. Gorman.  Here was a club that meant business.

Joseph Fowles’ Painting of Lauristina (‘Heroes & Champions’)


Three months after those momentous meetings at the Metropolitan Hotel, the so-called Great Match of two miles at weight-for-age over the Homebush racecourse came off on Saturday, May 8, 1858, in the presence of some four or five thousand spectators undeterred by the heavy and continual rain. The four-year-old mare Lauristina carried 8 st. 11lb while the aged gelding Veno carried 9 st. 2lb. Most of the visitors in attendance took advantage of the “Iron Horse” and there were but few vehicles of any description on the ground. Large amounts were staked upon the race and up to a late hour on Friday night, the newly established Tattersall’s was crowded with eager visitors, and considerable sums were booked. The odds were in favour of Veno, the champion of so many fields and he continued to be the favourite on the day. As the event transpired, it was Joshua Rose’s Lauristina that ran out an easy winner of the 2000 guineas’ prize (and £1,000 wager aside) in a time of 4 minutes and 7½ seconds, although it is fair to say that Veno wasn’t at home on the heavy ground at Homebush.

The Great Match coincided with the opening of another institution mentioned in the last paragraph that would become a cornerstone of the Turf in New South Wales, and I refer to Tattersall’s Hotel in Pitt-street. At 8 pm on the same Saturday, Tattersall’s New Subscription Room was crowded on the occasion of handing over the stakes to Mr Rose. S. C. Bart having been unanimously called to the chair, delivered an appropriately congratulatory speech and presented the winning cheque followed by a series of resounding toasts, with the copious draughts being drunk with enthusiasm. On Monday evening, May 10, and notwithstanding the continued inclemency of the weather, upwards of forty gentlemen, subscribers to Mr W. J. O’Brien’s New Subscription Room, sat down to a banquet to formally inaugurate this most desirable institution, self-consciously modelled on the great Tattersalls of London, which had been founded by Richard Tattersall near Hyde Park in 1766. Covers were laid for double that number of guests but the rain fell in such torrents that it deterred many in the suburbs from attending.

W. J. O’Brien (S.E.N.)

Henceforth, the proprietor W. J. O’Brien decreed that the premises in Pitt street that had formerly been known as ‘The Mayor’s Inn’ would be called ‘Tattersall’s’.  On the following Friday evening at 8 o’clock, a committee was appointed to draw up the necessary rules and regulations for the future governance of the Room. A recognised establishment of this kind was indispensable for racing to thrive and to preserve the integrity and good faith between betting men in the colony.  Unless horses were backed, horseracing could never prosper as the bare stakes would never prove sufficient remuneration for the expense and trouble of training and breeding. Insofar as practicable, the rules of betting to be adhered to by the subscribers to Tattersalls were to be founded upon, and similar to, the new rules of betting recently passed in England. Moreover, the Australian Jockey Club was requested to cooperate with the committee of Tattersalls in the punishment of defaulters. Tattersall’s subscription fee was set at one guinea per annum.

Tattersall’s Hotel, Pitt Street (Courtesy of Time Gents, Mick Roberts)

It would prove to be an enduring institution in the city even if its relationship with the Australian Jockey Club didn’t always run smoothly. In the painting shown above, the original Mayor’s Inn and Tattersall’s Hotel is the two-storey building to the right.  Two years after this original housewarming dinner for Tattersall’s, another occurred in the new three-storey building shown on the left of the picture that Mr O’Brien constructed for the accommodation of the sporting world in general, and the members of Tattersall’s Club in particular. In the rear of the new building and situated on the ground floor was Tattersall’s Long Room, a spacious apartment of about 80 feet in length and 20 feet wide. During the racing season, this portion of the establishment was to be devoted to the business of the club (upwards of 100 members) while at other times it would be used as an additional dining and reception room. The cry had long been for a first-class, centrally situated hotel. Under W. J. O’Brien, the want was now supplied.

Accordingly, a second celebratory dinner inaugurating the newly expanded Tattersall’s Hotel occurred in January 1860, with Captain Hare in the chair and John Tait acting as vice-chairman.  The following month even the reserved and conservative Sir Edward Deas Thomson condescended to pay a visit.  Having inspected the premises, he expressed himself as highly pleased with the establishment, designating it as one of the most commodious and tastefully-furnished hotels anywhere out of England. The self-righteous might have bellowed sulphurous imprecations at this gambling Babel in their midst and at the denizens that frequented it, but clearly, it was here to stay.


Another defining moment in the development of the Australian Jockey Club came at a meeting in May 1859.  A ballot for the election of a Race Committee resulted in favour of the following gentlemen: Messrs Briscoe Ray, George Rowley, John Tait, S. C. Burt, John Lackey, R. T. Jamieson, Alfred Cheeke, A. B. Cox, B. Thompson and W. McQuade. For some of these men, service on the committee wasn’t so much a matter of altruism but of enlightened self-interest.  Nonetheless, in turn, the Race Committee created for the first time the following official positions and appointments: President – the Hon. Edward Deas Thomson; Vice President – Alfred Cheeke; Judge – John Lackey; Secretary – George Rowley; and Treasurer – S. C. Burt.  (It wasn’t until 1880 that the positions of President and Vice-President were changed to Chairman and Vice-Chairman.)  It was an impressive line-up and during the next twelve months, membership of the club rose markedly.  Moreover, many of this new intake were younger members, men from whom a club could derive renewed strength and inspiration, and who would be especially important during times of momentous change.  However, an executive and race committee was one thing; a decent race course was another.  And while the club was stuck with Homebush for the May Autumn Meeting, real moves were afoot for a shift to Randwick.


A number of elements conspired to render the Homebush course unsuitable to be the premier racecourse in the oldest colony.  Location was one factor.  It was too far out west relative to the population distribution of Sydney.  Moreover, the means of transport to the course were rudimentary and expensive.  The tides in Homebush Bay could be tricky for those going by steamer, while the cost of a horse-drawn omnibus from the city was prohibitively expensive as well as dusty and uncomfortable.  The opening of the Parramatta Railway in 1855 made some difference but not enough as trains were invariably slow and overcrowded.

A second telling factor against Homebush as a permanent home for the Australian Jockey Club was that the course was on private ground and needed to be leased for meetings.  Both William Cutts and Robert Towns, when controlling the Homebush course on the Wentworth estate during the 1850s, extracted a high price from the club to lease the ground.  And it was money that the Jockey Club could ill-afford, given the parlous state of its finances.  A third element militating against Homebush was the state of the ground itself.  The course was often rock hard as well as always being unlevel.  The first state was injurious to horses; the second injurious to spectators denying them an uninterrupted view of proceedings.  And given the ad hoc and rolling nature of the racecourse lease, there was incentive neither for the lessor nor the lessee to spend money on the track surface.

Given the uncertainty and widespread dissatisfaction with the Homebush course, something had to change.  What was needed was a new racecourse.  A motion to this effect was mooted among the members of the Jockey Club in early June 1857.  The old “Sandy Race-course” as it was popularly termed, on the Botany road was a very good course, “barring” as Paddy would say, “the sand”.  Given that the object in view was to establish a racecourse of which the club would have exclusive control, the question arose as to whether the old course, which years before had been granted by the Crown for this particular purpose, could again be rendered fit for use.  Still, the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly.  The idea was that the club would fence in the whole course; build a substantial stone grand-stand; and erect sufficient stable accommodation in the vicinity of the running ground for all horses likely to require it.

Eventually, the tipping point came at a historic meeting of the Jockey Club on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 22nd, 1858, at the Metropolitan Hotel.  Despite the gravity of the situation, a scheduled meeting earlier that month on Monday the 13th had failed through the lack of a quorum.  There was no such failure this time.  In the presence of S.C. Burt, George Rowley, S. C. Brown, Briscoe Ray, John Lackey, Buchan Thompson, John Tait and David Bell, with R. T. Jamieson in the chair, some far-reaching decisions were made.  A new committee was appointed to revise the rules of racing, and these were subsequently published by the Proprietary of Bell’s Life in Sydney.  However, even more significantly, the meeting directed the Honourable Secretary, George Rowley, to apply for a grant of the reserve of the Old Sandy Race Course in the names of Edward Deas Thomson, Alfred Cheeke, and Richard Jones, who in turn were appointed Trustees.

Richard Jones M.L.A.

At that time the Randwick course was in a more parlous state than the Homebush course itself.  Nonetheless, the application for a grant of the reserve was made and granted, while it was estimated that a sum of £3,000 would be needed to completely renovate the course inclusive of the turfing of all the running, and the erection of a commodious grandstand.  At a general meeting of members of the Australian Jockey Club held on June 13th, 1859, the subject of the formation of a new course at Randwick was fully brought under consideration.  The fifteen members present individually undertook the liability of £50 each towards the cost, and it is worth recording their names and the nature of their guarantee:

“S. C. Burt, Esq. – In consideration of your commencing the foundation of a race course at Randwick I hereby undertake to become liable to the extent of £50 for the purpose of paying the expense thereof. The revenue to be derived from the amount of subscriptions and the sale of gates, booths, stands etc. when completed to be a security to me for whatever I may be called upon to pay under this guarantee. Sydney, June 13, 1859. (Signed) G. Rowley. Also signed by Messrs. R. Jones, S. C. Brown, C. Martyn, R. Hassall, W. G. Henfrey, J. Robertson, David Bell, H. Prince, J. H. Atkinson, W. M. Arnold, J. F. Perry, A. Loder, Alex Mackellar, and Alfred Cheeke. Pay to the order of W. McQuade, Esq., treasurer A.J.C. S. C. Burt.”

Some familiar racing names will be found among the fifteen that will recur in the following pages of this chronicle. Messrs. R. Hassall (breeder of Tim Whiffler, Metropolitan and Melbourne Cup winner 1867); J. H. Atkinson (who gave George Rowe £1,000 for Veno); Andrew Loder (owner of The Pitsford, A.J.C. St Leger 1866); Judge Cheeke (owner of Ramornie and Clove, who each won Derbies at Randwick in 1863 and 1865 respectively, as well as Sir John (Tattersall’s Cup winner, 1869); A. Mackellar, the father of the A.J.C. Starter; Charley Martyn, a leading Pitt-street auctioneer; and W. G. Henfrey, a cordial manufacturer who for years would be the A.J.C. Clerk of the Course.

Apart from the fifteen guarantors above, the Honorary Secretary was instructed to write to each absentee member requesting him to guarantee a like amount. Moreover, within a matter of days, the club issued a circular seeking financial contributions from the general public fully relying upon their cheerful cooperation. The circular read: “The Club, having accepted tenders which will entail an immediate expenditure of about £2,000 (guaranteed by a few members) for fencing and forming the course, and requiring at least £1,000 more for the erection of a Grand Stand, appeal with confidence to the sporting public, feeling certain that they will not allow this great national undertaking to fail at the eleventh hour for want of so small an amount.”

The public responded and the aforementioned ‘Foundation Document’ that the original fifteen signed is preserved in the club’s archives.  The advantages of the proposed course were articulated viz. a racecourse which would be the property of the club and free of rent; a new course that would be within two-and-a-half miles of Sydney; ground that was largely level and as such would afford an uninterrupted view of the entire running; and a racecourse that would be rendered self-supporting by the revenues accruing to it from annual subscriptions, gate, grandstand, and booth takings. That same general meeting resolved that there would be two race meetings each year i.e. spring and autumn.  This would place the Australian Jockey Club in the same position as the clubs in the other colonies.


Simeon Pearce c.1880

Pray, allow me a word at this juncture as to how the name ‘Randwick’ first became associated with the district. It wasn’t until 1848 that the name was used, although it wasn’t proclaimed a municipality until as late as February 1859.  The name itself derived from the village of Randwick near Stroudwater, in Gloucestershire, England.  It was there that one Simeon Henry Pearce was born and who together with his brother James, migrated to Australia in 1842. A civil servant and successful land speculator, Simeon Pearce was responsible for the promotion of Randwick as a fashionable residential suburb.  His original residence in the area, Blenheim House, built around 1847-48 still stands today and remains of considerable historical significance: a rare survival of a Victorian Georgian residence in the district.

Blenheim House, Randwick (SLNSW)

Pearce was also the moving spirit behind the building of St Jude’s Church and cemetery, the final resting place of so many of the colourful characters that will pass through these pages.  Pearce was to become Randwick’s first mayor in 1859, an office he was to hold no less than six times.

St Jude’s Church, Randwick (SLNSW)


The accession of Edward Deas Thomson to the position of President of the Australian Jockey Club in May 1859 was to have a profound effect on the fortunes of the club.  It was an appointment that was to last until 1879, the longest-serving president or chairman in its history. Men who think of themselves as indispensable are almost always wrong, but Edward Deas Thomson was surely indispensable then. These were the years that irrevocably established the club’s character and culture and Deas Thomson’s personality had much to do with both.  It may have been at an unguarded moment that he agreed to take on the role but he was now a more authoritative and assured personage than the ambitious 32-year-old civil servant who had played such an important role in reclaiming the Sandy Course some twenty-seven years before.  A man of little humour and no wit, he prudently refrained from talking too much.  It was almost as if the dank air of Edinburgh during his formative years had seeped into his very soul.  But, oh! – what little sympathy he had for inefficiency!

In the years since he helped reclaim the Sandy Course, Deas Thomson had been a busy man.  Apart from his duties as Colonial Secretary, he was a member of Charles Wentworth’s select committee on Sydney University, and after its report won parliamentary approval, Deas Thomson was one of the sixteen original members of the university senate in December 1850, and he remained there until his death.  The Gold Rush of 1851 placed Deas Thomson under even greater pressure to maintain efficient administration in the colony as it grew and spread dramatically.  The Legislative Council recognised Deas Thomson’s dedication and work ethic when it voted him a £500 salary increase and made it retrospective to 1846. In 1852-53 he played a pivotal role in the two committees on the new constitution for New South Wales.  Ill health saw him return to England for a time and in February 1856 he was appointed C. B.  Indeed, he had reached that age when honours began to fall on him like the leaves of autumn.  He resumed his role as Colonial Secretary upon his return in January 1856 and after the first elections tried but failed to form an administration under the new constitution.  His services as Colonial Secretary were terminated in June 1856 and, in line with the provisions of the Constitution Act, he was granted a pension of £2,000.  However, Deas Thomson did remain a member of the Legislative Council until his death.

Freed from his obligations as Colonial Secretary, Deas Thomson had time to devote to his other interests, which were many and varied.  While a sense of patrician detachment never left him, nor did a sense of noblesse oblige.  At different times, he was president of the Sydney Infirmary, the Benevolent Society, the Society for Destitute Children and the Australian Club. However, the role which gave him the most satisfaction in the autumn of his life was undoubtedly his involvement with the Australian Jockey Club.  Deas Thomson was a man who had spent his life mastering detail but not allowing detail to master him.  He understood the art of delegation.

We first catch sight of him in his new role on Tuesday, June 25, 1859, at Randwick in the grey winter light. He, together with Sydney Burt, Charles Martyn, Samuel Jenner and Archie Thompson, accompanied by Mr Surveyor Langley, attended the proposed site of the new course and staked out the line of running.  It was a distance of a mile and a quarter over a splendid piece of country.  Several influential residents in the neighbourhood were also present to lend their support.  The committee placed newspaper advertisements inviting tenders for the necessary work with responses required not later than July 9.  The limited liability of £50 from each member had been cheerfully accepted and Sir Daniel Cooper had subscribed an additional £100.

The sport of horseracing was progressing in other directions as well.  At a well-attended meeting of the Australian Jockey Club held in the Metropolitan Hotel in November 1859, the club set the dates for both the Champion Race and the 1860 Randwick Spring Meeting and confirmed the weights to be carried in the Champion race.  Another issue resolved at the same meeting was the club agreeing on a uniform date from which horses should take their ages.  John Tait reported on a meeting that he had attended in Melbourne of delegates from the various colonies to determine this very issue.  On behalf of New South Wales, Tait at that conference had concurred in a proposal that the ages of all foals should date from the 1st of August each year.

A motion was then put in that the resolution arrived at by the delegates in Melbourne be confirmed.  This elicited considerable discussion, particularly among breeders feeling dissatisfied with the alteration since it would seriously affect horses running at the next Spring Meeting.  It was considered, however, that Mr Tait, having agreed on the part of New South Wales to the arrangement, the Club was bound to carry it out.  This was an important alteration.  Horses that would, under the old rule, run as four-year-olds during the whole of the following year, would now be five-year-olds on the 1st of August next, and consequently would have to carry five-year-old weights at the Spring Meeting in September.

However, let us return to the Randwick course itself.  Once the tenders were let, rarely did a day go by that Sir Edward Deas Thomson, along with some of his committee, wasn’t in attendance inspecting the work.  Perhaps the favourite motto of the Victorian era was ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’, which approximately translates as ‘Industry Overcomes All Things’.  This simple distillation of an idea was a fixed tenet of Victorian faith and it very much applied to the development of the racecourse.  It was at a meeting convened by members of the Australian Jockey Club in the Tattersall’s New Rooms on the last Monday in February 1860, that the long adieu to the time-honoured mead of Homebush was bidden.  With the Hon. Deas Thomson in the chair, it was resolved that the forthcoming Autumn Metropolitan Meeting should be held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the last three days of May, over the Randwick Course.

It was also determined that tenders should be invited for the erection of a Grand Stand capable of accommodating 700 or 800 persons on that occasion, but which would be enlarged to accommodate 1200 or 1500 on the day of the Great Champion Race.  Homebush racecourse lingered on as a training track until around 1880 staging the occasional race meeting.  When the Homebush Abbatoirs were opened in 1915, what was once the racecourse became slaughterhouse saleyards.  The only evidence today that racing ever took place there is the Horse and Jockey Hotel on Parramatta Road and it’s in the name only, not the building, which was constructed long after the Homebush racecourse disappeared.


And so, it came to pass.  The inauguration of the new Randwick course happened with the metropolitan autumn meeting over three successive days beginning on May 29th, 1860.  The course was described in detail in the pages of that day’s Sydney Morning Herald:

“The Randwick Metropolitan Course is situated near the hamlet of that name, at a distance of about one mile and three-quarters from the boundary of the city of Sydney, and lies to the south of the Lachlan Swamp.  It contains within the boundary fence 202 acres.  The running ground or course is of an oval or egg shape and measures precisely one mile and a quarter in length.  It has been formed with great care and presents no greater undulation in any part than is desirable to test the speed of horses of the different qualities of strength and fleetness.  None of the bends is so sharp as to interfere materially with the stride of the horse, even when running at his best pace; and the “run in,’ which is perfectly straight for seventeen chains, and nearly a dead level – rising only very gradually for a short distance before reaching the winning post – offers a splendid arena on which to test the fitness of the racehorse.  The made part of the racecourse is in no part less than fifty feet wide, and for the last half-mile, it is seventy-five feet.  It has been laid down in doob, or, as it is usually called, couch grass, with a mixture of English grasses and Dutch clover.  It now presents a beautiful sward throughout, although only eight months have elapsed since the work was commenced…The posts are placed at a distance of five chains or 1- 16th of a mile apart, so that the distance in any portion of the course may by this means be readily ascertained.”

The original course bears a remarkable familiarity with the track today.  The Sydney Morning Herald correspondent observed:

“The first remarkable feature which occurs in the running ground is that which has been designated ‘the rocks,’ at a distance of fifteen chains from the winning post.  Further on, at twenty chains, or a quarter of a mile from that post, stands the starting post for the mile course.  The level, which occurs between the fifteenth and twenty-fifth chains, has been called the ‘Lachlan Flat,’ from its proximity to the Lachlan Swamp.  The bend at the 28th chain has, in honour of the present Governor-General, as a liberal patron of the turf, been designated the ‘Denison Corner’.  At the 40th chain or half a mile from the winning post, stands the starting post for the T.Y.C. or three-quarter-mile course.  It is here that the start of the two-mile race will take place.  We next come to the gentle rise, which occurs between the 45th and 53rd chains, which has been called ‘Constitution-hill,’ as affording an opportunity during the race to test strength and condition against mere swiftness of foot and lack of proper training.”

“The next point of note is the turn at sixty chains.  This is to enjoy the name of ‘Champion Corner,’ for it is here that the start of that race will take place in September next; the distance being three miles and thrice past the winning post.  It is also the starting point for the St. Leger, one mile and three-quarters, twice past the winning post.  Passing on to eighty chains from the winning post, we reach the starting post of the Derby and Oaks course, the distance being one mile and a half; twice past the winning post.  This point has in consequence been named the ‘Derby Corner.’  Proceeding further on, we come to the commencement of the straight running, fenced in on both sides, which, as already stated, is seventeen chains in length.  The subsoil being of sand, there is no state of the weather which can render the course otherwise than highly favourable for testing the qualities of the racehorse, according to his condition and fleetness.  It neither can become hard by drought nor sloppy by excessive rain.  Many a good horse has been broken down by the former cause, and many and one, of a timid character, or ridden by a timid jockey, has been prevented by the latter from coming to the front – and so it is that the race has not always been to the swift.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing.  The ground for that 1860 Randwick Autumn Meeting hadn’t settled and was hard while rain betrayed the fact that there was no shed for the sheltering of horses when the elements were inclement.  Coastal storms seemed to rage in late autumn and winter that year for in July 1860 stormy weather carried away the roof of the newly-erected grandstand and otherwise damaged the improvements including the new galloping grounds, which had suffered badly from the heavy rains.  The objective now was to have the course in good order for the second Australian Champion Sweepstakes and the general Spring Meeting in September.  The charges for the grandstand and weighing-yard on the Champion Day were determined at £1/1/- for gentlemen; 10/6d for ladies and 5/- for children.  Ditto for the Spring Meeting, 10/- for the first day, 5/- for the second, and 10/- for the third, or £1/1/- for the three days.  The A.J.C. committee further decided that the gate should be sold by auction for the four days and that the booth stands etc. should in like manner be submitted for public competition in one lot.  William McQuade was announced as the official starter with the scarcely less-onerous post of clerk of the course awarded to Mr W. G. Henfrey.

Given the absence of suitable training ground in or about Randwick, the vexed question that the club had to confront was the extent to which the use of the course would be allowed to horses in training for the Champion Race.  At a general meeting of the Australian Jockey Club held at the clubrooms in Pitt-street on August 13, 1860, the subject provoked a long and energetic discussion before the following motion was duly carried by a decisive majority: “That the horses engaged in the champion race be allowed to have each one gallop per week over the outer portion of the course, in the presence of a member of the Race Committee; the last gallop to be taken not later than the 27th August.”  Accordingly, each candidate for champion honours had the opportunity for taking three several turns around Randwick prior to the day of running.    No exception was to be made in favour of any particular horses, but the rule was to be rigidly adhered to, both in respect of those horses currently in Sydney, and those which were in training at a distance to the metropolis.  And the fact was that most of the training stables in August 1860 were situated a long distance from Sydney.  Gratis and Veno were located at Liverpool, training under the superintendence of Higgerson, Parsons had charge of the Don at Windsor, and Hall was tending the Buck at Richmond.

And so, the second of what had originally been conceived as a series of great intercolonial contests between the best horses in the land came off on the new racecourse on Saturday, 1st September, 1860. Present were the Governor-General, Sir William Denison and his suite as well as the Premier, the Treasurer and other prominent members of the Legislature.  It might have only been a three-race card, but the presence of crack horses from the other colonies as well as New Zealand gave rise to much excitement.  The Sydney Mail estimated that when “the first race was summoned there could have been no fewer than 18,000 or 20,000 people on the course, to say nothing of the ‘outside subscribers’ who occupied the hill overlooking the track.”  The conditions of the race were “of 100 sovereigns each, half forfeit, with 500 sovereigns added” to be conducted over three miles at weight-for-age conditions for New South Wales.

Joseph Fowles’ Painting of Zoe – (‘Heroes and Champions’)

As events transpired, Zoe, a daughter of Sir Hercules, owned jointly by Justice Alfred Cheeke and John Tait, won the Champion Race rather easily and £1,675 was the net amount paid to Tait, in Cheeke’s absence, at Tattersall’s on the following Monday evening.  With the Champion Race out of the way, the first of the reconstituted A.J.C. Spring Meetings were then held over three successive days beginning on the following Thursday with an estimated 10,000 people present on the following Saturday.  Randwick always was destined to become a vanity fair for the fashionable, the frivolous and the impecunious and it is interesting to reflect that it started very much in character at that first meeting on the new course.  It was regarded as one of the best-regulated sporting reunions ever seen in the colony.  A new age in the Colonial Turf was dawning.  Moreover, the intelligence received in early August 1960, that both old Jorrocks, the champion New South Wales racehorse, and Alice Hawthorn, the champion Victorian racehorse, had each died within ten days of one another, seemed symbolic of a permanent break with the past.

Frederick Woodhouse’s Alice Hawthorn (‘Heroes & Champions’)


Coinciding with the development of the Randwick racecourse was the development of the Randwick municipality itself. It was in 1857 that the Premier and Colonial Secretary, Henry Parkes, introduced the Municipalities Bill, which passed through Parliament in October 1858. It was on October 28, 1858, that Randwick lodged a petition containing 70 signatures seeking incorporation as a local government area. On November 12 the petition, one of the first lodged under the Act, was officially proclaimed in the N.S.W. Government Gazette. A proclamation signed by the Governor, Sir William Denison and the Premier, Charles Cowper, proclaimed Randwick a municipality. The first Council elections were held on March 29, 1859. The first Borough Chambers were erected three years later at a cost of 700 pounds.

Randwick’s First Municipal Council Chambers

But back to the racecourse. That 1860 A.J.C. Spring Meeting was the last conducted by the club without a Derby on the programme until 1978, the year in which the A.J.C.  transferred the Derby to the autumn.  It was in May 1861, in the wake of the successful Autumn Meeting of that year that the Australian Jockey Club published their programme for September. And lo and behold! On the First Day, Thursday, 12 September, the third race on the card was to be the Derby Stakes of 5 sovereigns each, with 100 sovereigns added.  It was a race for three-year-olds with colts to carry 8 st. 10lb and fillies 8 st. 5lb., and no allowance for geldings. The second horse was to receive 25 sovereigns from the prize.  The race itself was to be run over the classic distance of one mile and a half.  It was far from the richest race at the three-day fixture; it wasn’t even the richest race on that first day.  Nonetheless, it was a start.  And from little acorns, mighty oak trees grow!





1861 -The Prophecy of Cassandra!


  1. Hi Ian,

    Loved every one of your Derby manuscripts due to the meticulous research and your unique decision to attribute equal literary worth the the owner, the trainer, the jockey, the horse and the pedigree.
    One in particular I enjoyed was Pandect which was clearly the most comprehensive record of John Wren’s involvement with thoroughbred racing.
    I am interested in knowing how the missing four jigsaw pieces – 1978, 1863, 1865 and 1868 – are coming along and when we might expect them to be published

    • Ian Ibbett

      Hi John,
      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment on my website and your appreciation of the content. There won’t be a chapter for 1978 because there was no A.J.C. Derby conducted that year. It was the year of transition from its traditional running in spring to the autumn. As for the other three years that you have mentioned – 1863, 1865 and 1868 – I have done a fair amount of work on all three but need to be in the mood to return to that decade. I’ve been sidetracked lately by supplementing more recent chapters with better photographs and adding to the text in places. The 1947 chapter is a good example of that. I’m impressed that such an aficionado of the history on the standardbred is taking such a keen interest in this history on the thoroughbred.

  2. Gary Rockliff

    G’day Ian, what a fantastic website, my favorite story is about Heroic, it was such a shame to see him denied a chance in 4 group ones, in particular the Melbourne Cup and I also have fond memories of Imagele. I have ancestors that lived in Murrurundi in the early to late 1800’s who were jockeys and would ride in so many tracks in the Hunter Valley area. They would also travel to Sydney racecourses like the one that was behind the Smiths Hotel in Prospect. Thanks so much for the stories. cheers Gary

    • Ian Ibbett

      Hi Gary, Thanks for taking the time to leave an encouraging email on my website. I’m pleased that you are enjoying the chapters and I must admit that the Heroic story is one of my favourites, too. I was particularly pleased with some of the photographs contained therein that I managed to track down. I’ve enjoyed writing the various chapters and feedback such as yours is always heartening. I’m nearing the end of the task that I originally set myself, although I do still intend to write an Epilogue, contrasting racing now to back then, and why I’m no longer much interested in it. Anyway, all the best!

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