By Andrew Lemon
Great names from Flemington’s history include Francis Vignoles, John Wood, Conrad and Mountain Maid – but have you ever heard of them? We take a journey back 180 years ago, when it all began at Flemington.
One hundred and eighty years of continuous racing at Flemington – that’s what we might call a semi-significant birthday. It rolls by on Tuesday 3 March 2020, worth celebrating.
Melbourne as a township may have been less than five years old at the time of the first races at Flemington, but this did not prevent the locals from turning out in their hundreds for a three-day autumn carnival. It was run on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 3, 4 and 5 March 1840. This is how Flemington began, initially known just as the ‘Melbourne Racecourse’.
In truth there had been horse races, of some sort, within two years of settlement, and well-organised Melbourne autumn race meetings near today’s Docklands in both 1838 and 1839. But for autumn 1840, a new venue had to be found. A handful of racing enthusiasts suggested a flood plain on the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River, not too far from town. Their timing was crucial. Any later and the site would have been subdivided and sold as semi-urban farms: indeed the allotments were already drawn up on the surveyors’ maps.
Autumn 1840 was in one sense a bush race meeting, in another the first page in the extraordinary story of one of the world’s great racecourses.
Francis Vignoles does not have a memorial plaque or marker at Flemington, but he has the distinction of owning and riding the first winner at the track. Nor does Conrad, the black colt he rode to victory, beating Henry Gisborne’s Hassan. We don’t know much about Conrad. Hassan claimed descent from a famous British thoroughbred sire, Camerton.
Vignoles sometimes spelt his name de Vignoles or Vignolles. He was a 24-year-old lieutenant with the 28th regiment in the British Army. The race he won was a private match race – a two-horse contest – the owners wagering against each other. Vignoles was a typical early colonist, argumentative, persistent, a chance-taker, eventually leaving the army to try his luck on the land. He does have a memorial at Cecil Plains beyond Toowoomba in Queensland. It reads “Captain Vignoles, died 6.6.1893, aged 76 years: Quinnia Selection and also Western Creek, entertained lavishly. He died a pauper.” For some, that’s racing.
But should we really give Vignoles and Conrad the honours for the first win at Flemington? Theirs was merely the curtain-raiser. The next race on the card, the main event, was open to all comers at weight for age, and really deserves recognition as the first race of importance ever run at Flemington.
John Wood’s Mountain Maid was the winner of the Town Plate. The field of six included a recently imported stallion, Sir Charles. We know little about the mare except that she was six years old (or maybe seven), brown, valuable, beautiful and ‘of the purest pedigree’. Another Mountain Maid, a grey, was racing well at Launceston at the same time.
Modern racegoers would find some aspects of the meeting hard to recognise.
The race, like most on the card, was run in heats. Mountain Maid had the prospect of running about 3400 metres (“2 miles and a distance”) three times in a single afternoon. It was a case of ‘the best of three’. Mountain Maid won the first heat. After taking a rest, maybe half an hour or more, the same field went around once more. Mountain Maid won again, securing the prize. Had she been beaten, a third heat between the winners of the first two heats would have been required. To ensure each heat was truly run, there was a “distance post” about 150 metres from the finishing line. Horses were disqualified if they could not reach the distance post by the time the winner passed the judge.
The races were famously described in the town newspaper the Port Phillip Gazette. Previously grumpy about the long trek from town, the reporters were quickly won over. Nowhere outshines Flemington on a perfect day. A sunny autumn afternoon saw the place sparkle – boats on the river, green undulating hills, tents, refreshment booths, flags, bands and cheering crowds, buggies, carts and carriages, mounted horsemen, picnickers, pretty girls, self-important men, and above all the steeds, the racers, the horses themselves.
Think of all the champions of the Australian turf who have won at Flemington. The Sydney horse Veno who won a great intercolonial match race in the gold rush era. Archer, Carbine, Wakeful, Phar Lap, Bernborough, Tulloch, Makybe Diva, Black Caviar, Winx. One hundred and eighty unbroken years. And it all began with Conrad and Mountain Maid.
THE LAND WE STAND ON
In a growing metropolis, the grand expanse of Flemington Racecourse offers a breathing space for Melbourne. Climb to the top of the Hill Stand and you have a geography lesson laid out in front of you, the explanation for why the racecourse is here.
To your right, as you look towards the Footscray Hill, flows the Maribyrnong River, known by early European settlers as the Saltwater River: they grazed sheep on the river flats.
Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West, the best source of local knowledge, tells us that, ‘The very name “Maribyrnong” gives clues on the Aboriginal way of life and their sources of food. The most common origin of the name is said to be “Mirring-gnai-birr-nong” – “I can hear a ringtail possum”. A second version is “Mirring-quai-birnong” – a kind of edible yam.’
The Museum does not offer specific evidence of the use of the site before white settlement in 1835, but it has plenty of information about the vital role that the river, valley and flood plains played in sustaining Aboriginal lives for thousands of years. Colonial authorities took the whole territory as Crown Land.
The Hill Stand, your vantage point, was built fifty years ago on a natural ridge. The railway running directly into the course from the city follows this ridge, and was first used in 1861, just months before the first Melbourne Cup.
Directly in front of you, the racetrack is laid out across broad alluvial river flats that were always subject to flooding. Fresh water from upstream meets the incoming high tides from Port Phillip Bay via the lower Yarra at this point. A ‘bund wall’ and on-course wetlands now help protect Flemington from floods.
The colonial government initially planned to subdivide and sell the land as small farms. Luckily this never happened, the site being reserved for a racecourse in 1840. It was a perfect choice, though work was needed to clear dead timber and prepare a racing track. Ten years later, the Governor appointed trustees to take charge. Under their regime, two competing race clubs held meetings here. In 1864 these clubs gave way to the new Victoria Racing Club.
An Act of Parliament in 1871 made the VRC the racecourse trustee. With minor changes to boundaries and legislation, this remains the case today. The Club never forgets the obligation it owes succeeding generations of committees, administrators, grounds people, gardeners, architects, builders, painters and cleaners who collectively can take the credit for making Flemington a jewel of a racecourse. Beneath it all you can still discern the land we stand on.
Credit: Grant from the Crown to the Trustees of the Melbourne Racecourse, 1859 and Distance Post, Flemington Racecourse. Source: VRC Collection.