Lisa and Tess are both back this week on 2SER Breakfast and given yesterday’s sporting news from Melbourne, they thought they’d have a look at Sydney’s first racecourse and the surprising way it continues to influence horseracing in New South Wales today!
How long did it take to establish a racecourse in Sydney after 1788? Well, the answer to that is not very long!
When he got to Sydney, one of the first things Governor Macquarie did was to lay out and establish the names of a whole lot of streets, like George and Elizabeth Streets, and also to proclaim Hyde Park. That was in 1810.
Within just 2 months, officers of the 73rd Regiment established a racecourse around the park. Apparently the regiment argued the races were essential, since a race course would help improve the breed of horse available to the military, but I think it’s safe to say that the regiment was desperate for some entertainment and a chance to let off steam and to race and gamble.
The first official horse race in Sydney was run in Hyde Park in mid-October 1810. Perhaps some of the giddiness of the first race meet was tempered by the Governor’s order that no stalls could be set up around the course, and that “Gaming, Drunkeness, Swearing, and Fighting” were NOT permitted.
The first ‘meet’ was a three day event, with generous prizes including a purse of 50 guineas and a silver cup, of ‘very fine worksmanship’* which was given by the Ladies of the Colony, also valued at 50 guineas.
A grandstand was erected near the winning post, at the top of what is now Market Street (so near where the underground entrance to St James station is today), with the course running in a clockwise direction towards Macquarie Street, along College, around Liverpool and returning along Elizabeth Street to the post.
The clockwise direction was chosen to accommodate the topography of the land on the site, but was then maintained as a standard on New South Wales racecourses. So unlike horse races in Victoria, such as the Melbourne Cup, where the horses gallop anti-clockwise and come in from the left towards the winning post if you’re watching on the straight, in New South Wales they all run clockwise and race towards the winning post from the right.
The first race meet was a huge success, despite the bans on stalls and shops selling booze to the large crowd. An air of celebration pervaded the town, much like on Melbourne Cup Day. The Sydney Gazette reported “The satisfaction universally produced by the equestrian amusements of the week, was visible in all countenances.” *
Unfortunately we don’t have any illustrations of the racetrack in action, but a couple of watercolours by John Rae, like the one above, show horses around the edge of Hyde Park along what was the route, so we just have to use our imaginations.
The track was regularly used for 4 years by the 73rd Regiment until they were transferred away from the colony. For the next 5 years, the racecourse was only used unofficially on an intermittent basis. In 1819 the Hyde Park track was reopened, with races being held here until 1821, when the newly-arrived Governor, Thomas Brisbane, placed a ban on official racing, in an attempt to wind back what were perceived as the excesses of the Macquarie era. Despite the ban, there was at least one more race on the Hyde Park track in 1825, after which it was discontinued.
It might not have operated for very long, but Hyde Park Racecourse has had a lasting legacy on the racing industry here in New South Wales, with clockwise racing the standard.
Historian Mark Dunn has written briefly about this fleeting racecourse on the Dictionary here.
To find out more about the history of horseracing in Sydney, have a look at what else has been indexed under horseracing here, and look at Richard Cashman’s essay on Sport in Sydney here. You can also find a bit more about horses in Sydney here and here.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio