The New Development of Moonee Valley Racetrack – From History to the Future

In Australia, Thoroughbred Horseracing has always held a huge fascination for people of all backgrounds and social standing. The sport of the rich, of Kings in the UK and Europe became the people’s sport in Australia. It has always required very large tracts of land as races are run over distances up to 4000m or 2 1/2 miles. Moonee Valley Racetrack was one of the first race-courses in Melbourne. It is now undergoing a massive redevelopment – as are the surrounding suburbs and the total environ. Racetracks represent the last major tracts of open space in such suburban landscapes.

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In earlier times there were many forms of Horseracing. The wealthier classes raced Thoroughbred Horses. The working class followed ‘the Pony Races’ , ‘the Trots’, Steeplechasing ‘the Jumps’ and Greyhound Racing or ‘Coursing’. Moonee Valley was unique in that in its long slow development to become a ‘principle’ club, as it is now, it fostered all of these pursuits. John Wren, the somewhat notorious Melbourne Gambling King of ‘Power without Glory’ fame, bought into the track and for some time it was a ‘Proprietary Track’ – not a club but a profit making venue owned by private individuals.

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Named after one of its original investors, a Mr Mooney, it was originally a farming and grazing property of some 98 acres. The crown land was first secured in 1847. The adjoining property was the Travancore Estate. Both properties were located on the banks of the Moonee Ponds Creek. The land was somewhat flood prone, and so the most risky sections were leased to Chinese Market Gardeners. There was a parcel of land at the top of the hill on McPherson St, as well as land on the banks of the Moonee Ponds Creek the Chinese used. By 1900 over 100 ethnic Chinese people lived there, many being market gardeners or laundrymen and women. There is no record of these people other than occasionally in Court Records or in the local press where people complained about the odours emanating from the Market Gardens. Local cemeteries do not hold Chinese graves. The property had long become known as Feehan’s Farm.

 

In 1874, Mr William Samuel Cox, a noted sportsman and amateur jockey, leased the property with an option to purchase which he subsequently effected after the lease period of seven years. The most famous race at Moonee Valley is named after Cox – the Cox Plate. However during these times the market gardens continued until 1911 when the executors of the Feehan family ‘removed’ the Chinese from the property. One wonders what that may have meant.

The Proprietary tracks, the Richmond, Fitzroy and Ascot ‘Pony Tracks’ being the most well known and heavily patronised of these continued to operate up until 1920 with Ascot lasting through until 1946 under John Wren’s guidance. Such tracks also existed at Thornbury and Oakleigh.

Richmond, Fitzroy and eventually Ascot were assumed by the Ministry of Housing – Richmond in 1941, with the track known as ‘John Wren’s Racetrack’ closing in 1931.

 

Wren had purchased Ascot in 1906. Again he ran pony races here for the working classes. Wren saw the writing on the wall when the well heeled thoroughbred racing club fraternity tried to close down Ascot and all proprietary clubs during World War I through Government decree. Wren sold his Victorian interests to the Victorian Racing and Trotting Association in 1920, thus permitting Ascot to remain open when the Government closed down Sandown Park (Oakleigh), Fitzroy, Aspendale and Richmond Proprietary courses in 1931. By 1945 his ruse was exposed (he maintained ownership of the land), with the club having to acquiesce to Government in its decision to close the site, even though it had a long term lease from John Wren. Wren picked up a tidy sum of £142,618 in 1946 and the land was developed into the Ascot Vale Housing Commission Estate. Remember this had already occurred at Richmond, Fitzroy, Williamstown and now Ascot. (Now you may understand the name of the suburb ‘Ascot Vale’.)

Fast forward to today. Flemington, Moonee Valley and Caulfield have massive profitable land developments occurring on or adjacent to the Crown land or club owned holdings. Each club has the largest remaining holdings of open space within its immediate suburban precinct.

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Let’s take a look at Moonee Valley. The club is building 2000 new dwellings including apartment towers.

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In the Northwest corner, the members old carpark will see the construction of 28 townhouses and up to 400 apartments. Over 4000 new residents will move onto the site – and pay a premium. There will be no Housing Commission style development this time!

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At this point in time the Moonee Valley Racing Club must now submit to a traffic management plan to cope with these new residents, now being undertaken by the State Government before any works may proceed.

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The biggest bone of contention is the re-configuration of the racetrack. It requires the demolition of the current Grandstands backing onto McPherson St and the Winning Post, Finish Line and Grandstand being relocated to the Wilson St side of the track. Couple with this the apartment towers replacing the original Grandstands being up to 20 storeys high with 6 storeys minimum surrounded by commercial malls and parklands. The new track will hug the perimeter of the property and feature a longer home straight. Many of the current facilities for racing – horse stalls, maintenance facilities, marquee area and car parking will be located in the centre of the track.

The Grandstand is to be spectacular.

In the masterplan, the devil is in the detail.

See sub precinct C, D, E, G and H. All those areas are designated for residential development – high density and medium density. Note the current Racecourse Secretary’s residence with its Edna Walling Garden simply ‘disappears’ in some drawings yet is retained in others – Take a look at 4.7 and its Landscape Masterplan. So assess whether according to the masterplan there is more or less open space?

It would be accurate to say that a fair proportion of the planning proposition in the masterplan is future vision and quite possibly ‘pie in the sky’. It may or may not be actualised.

In October 2016 MVRC Chief Executive Michael Browell acknowledged “There are few boxes left to be ticked re traffic management ‘and issues of heritage’ but its onwards and upwards”

The Essendon Historical Society agrees. It lists:

  1. The Manikato site – a famous horse’s grave and memorial adjacent to the current admin buildings
  2. Club Secretary’s House and Edna Walling Garden – built in 1937 – definitely a priority
  3. The SR Burston Stand – visually a huge imprint on the district’s vista
  4. The Alister Clark Rose Garden – should it be restored?
  5. The Horse Stalls – built early, it features mature trees and an early style ‘birdcage’ the nickname for the horse’s walking area – these are quite unique and of great historical value.

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Take a look at the scale of the development and the surrounding environs. The former grassed ‘Jockey and Trainers’ car park on McPherson St opposite the Club’s administration buildings now features a Quest Apartments complex of 4 storeys. The real question is – does the overall development harmonise or dominate the local landscape and environment? It is a question our Architect Andrew Fedorowicz had to deal with as the project Architect on the Legends Trackside Gaming and Bistro facility construction in the 1990s, a building that gracefully overlooks the final turn to the finish line on the current Moonee Valley track layout, featuring a singular glass window extending the length of the building providing a perfect panoramic view for all race meetings. This meant that at Balance we were and still are somewhat familiar with the overall track layout and local environment.

Again, you be the judge. Next week let’s drop in on the Melbourne Racing Club at Caulfield – its even bigger.

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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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