The Sport of Kings become Property Developers

One of the biggest transformations of this decade is where the major Horse Racing venues – Flemington, Caulfield, Mooney Valley and Sandown Racecourses are all earmarked for, or have recently undergone significant re-development projects. The principal clubs – the VRC, the VATC and the MVRC are all financially healthy. However the industry is well aware of the challenges of remaining relevant in a myriad of sporting entertainment choices for the public. And they have land! This week we look at Flemington and what the Victorian Racing Club has done to both modernise and capitalise on its existing holdings.

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Flemington saw its first race meeting on the rough, flood prone river flats of the Maribyrnong River in March 1840. The City of Melbourne was just 5 years old. The first race meeting had been held on the site of the current Southern Cross Station two years earlier. Flemington Racecourse was first known as the Melbourne Racecourse. The original property in the area was owned by James Watson. The main Melbourne approach road transversed the property which was called Flemington – named after his Wife’s Elizabeth’s hometown in Scotland. You may recall this property was the forerunner of Travancore – the estate we have looked at earlier. This is where the name Flemington was derived.

The finish of the Melbourne Cup 1885, credit State Library of Victoria.jpg__760x480_q85_crop_subsampling-2_upscale

Flemington, as the name and location of the Racecourse, was in common usage by the late 1850s.

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Originally the land was acquired from the ‘Lang Brothers’ by the then NSW Governor and was regarded as Crown Land. It was decreed that 352 acres be considered a ‘public racecourse’ in 1848. The Victorian Colony was established in 1851, and up until 1870 the site was administered by six Government appointed trustees. In 1871 the Victorian Racing Club was legislated to be the trustees of the racecourse.

The Victorian Racing Club had formed in 1864 with the Victorian Turf Club (1852) and the Victorian Jockey’s Club (1857) both disbanding to form the new club.

Originally racing was scheduled for Autumn. It was in 1854 that the then Victoria Turf Club decided to run a Spring Meeting as well. The First Melbourne Cup was run in 1861, and the rest as they say is indeed history.

Flemington and the Melbourne Cup are deeply ingrained in Melbourne’s psyche. Mark Twain, CJ Dennis, Adam Lindsay Gordon, all were great admirers and ‘aficionados of the turf’ and are now perpetually linked to the great festival that has become the Melbourne Cup.

The public were admitted free to the inner paddock of the track in the early days – it was known as ‘The Flat’.

The first Grandstand was constructed in 1873. It was exclusively for members (and only men could be members!). It was known as Bagot’s Cowshed – named after the then secretary of the club Robert Cooper Bagot. It was at the base of the ‘Hill’ and supplemented this main viewing area of the Hill.

When Henry Byron Morgan became secretary in 1882 he commissioned four more new grandstands, incorporating elegant vice regal facilities. He also was the driving force behind the creation of the lawns and gardens, including the famous rose gardens. William Salway was the original architect who provided much of Flemington’s unique design, under Morgan’s period as secretary.

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In 1922 the VRC embarked upon a major redevelopment of the racecourse. Bagot’s old stand became a public stand and Architects Roberts and Marks designed and built a superb new members stand (this stand was recently demolished to make way for the new Grandstand). New Tote buildings were constructed in 1930 to house the complicated gadgetry which supported this type of on-course betting. Several of these buildings still remain today (although substantially altered). The racecourse was utilised by the Defence Forces during World War II with racing suspended.

The ‘Old Hill Stand’ was constructed in the 1950s. This period saw many of the older structures demolished to make way for the somewhat bland construction style of that period. A new Hill stand was constructed in 1978-79 and the new ‘Prince of Wales’ stand was constructed in 1984 with a new members stand above it.

There are all sorts of treasures located at Flemington. ‘It is of aesthetic architectural, historical and social significance to the State of Victoria’ – The Heritage Register. From the odd 1930s tote buildings, the 1920s style Men’s toilets, the chronographic clock in the VRC committee room to the 1870s Brass Bell near the Racecourse manager’s office, it is a place richly steeped in history and a living history at that. The former 1924 stripped Grandstand was significant in that is was one of the last 1920s interwar stripped classical grandstands still intact… It is now gone.

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There are some very major changes occurring at Flemington right now. The Old Member’s Grandstand and the Tote buildings at the rear of the grandstand have been demolished to make way for what will be known as ‘The Club’ Grandstand.

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‘The dynamic design by award winning architects Bates Smart is superior in quality and innovation’ – says the VRC website. The new stand is scheduled to open in time for the 2018 Melbourne Cup Carnival in November of that year. The construction is now ahead of schedule.

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The new stand is part of a $135 million ‘upgrade’ of the Flemington layout. It will be in addition to the track rebuild and flood mitigation works completed in 2006.

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The track and its surrounds have subsequently been rezoned which now permits a variety of new developments that previously were not possible.

It would appear that the club has won its battle with Victoria’s Heritage Register. The compromise was to feature many historic features of the old Grandstand in the new Grandstand and to auction off material not used for memorabilia. Wood panelling, iron features and door knobs will make their way to the new ‘Club’ Grandstand. These components formed part of the older 1924 Member’s Grandstand. “There is precious little at Flemington that isn’t of Heritage importance, right down to the track with its long straight” said Paul Roser, Heritage Victoria’s senior conservation manager.

Funding has come from selling off two land parcels adjacent to the track to Chinese developers Greenland Holding Group. The group plan to build four high-rise apartment blocks adjacent to the track. The towers – at the rear of the Grandstand complex on the other side of the railway station were to be 31, 25 and 14 storeys high respectively. The land was the old asphalted members car park. A separate land parcel on Epsoms Rd where the proposed Tower was to be 31 storeys high has been reduced to 15 storeys, and the three buildings in Ascot Vale behind the Grandstands can be no higher than 10 storeys.

The planning proposal and subsequent rezoning of the properties has been approved by the Government Planning Minister not withstanding that the Epsom Rd building was outside any designated renewal area and that there would be no commuter use of the existing Flemington Racecourse Railway Station by the thousands of new residents occupying the towers.

In short, the character and feel of this historic precinct will be changed forever. You be the judge as to whether it is for the better.

From my perspective, I actually like the new Club Grandstand, but I sometimes wonder whether it would not be possible to disassemble the older buildings such as the former Member’s Grandstand and move them somewhere else – either at the racetrack or perhaps a site like Werribee Racetrack which sorely needs such facilities. The State Government contributed $10 million to the Club Grandstand development – enough to cover such a relocation.

Putting it in perspective the club generated well over $160 Million in revenue in 2015-16 and retains equity of over $203 million.

Til next week when we move to another similar location with a very different history.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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