Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Ex-CDA comments, suggestions, criticisms

Courses For Horses - Ascot

The Ascot racecourse, rather pretentiously named after the grand course of England was between Union Road and Ascot Vale Road in Ascot Value, immediately opposite the Showgrounds with separate tracks for racing and trotting.

It opened on 77-acres in October, 1893 after an intense political battle when a protest group fighting Essendon Council elections claimed the seven-furlong track was too small and therefore dangerous to horses and jockeys and would "affect the morals of the rising generation".

Melbourne's leading Melbourne sporting paper of the time, The Sporting Judge countered arguments by pointing out that the Oakleigh track (later known as Sandown Park) was smaller, yet had held 116 meetings without any major accidents, and as for the morals of the local youth "    if not already corrupted by Flemington, Moonee Valley and Maribyrnong, there's not much fear of the Ascot Vale track acting as a soul-degrading germ"

The opening day was scheduled for Friday, 20 October, but like several other meetings around Melbourne, it had to be postponed to the following Wednesday after torrential rain made the surface unsafe  Despite the delay, the the opening was a spectacular success with around 3,000 punters in attendance, the feature race the Ascot Cup of 100 sovereigns in gold and "and a handsome trophy" valued at £40

Ascot throughout its early life was a proprietary racecourse run by private owners as a profit making venture and catered purely for pony racing. It was originally established by John Langtree Reilly, also the founder of Mentone and later proprietor of Oakleigh/Sandown Park (above), but with the dramatic slump in Melbourne land prices which had been at record levels and the severe resultant economic depression, it appears Reilly closed down the track for a number of years before it re-opened in September 1899 under new management.

Ascot was purchased in 1906 by John Wren and along with his Richmond and "Fitzroy" tracks enabled him to run his own pony races targeted at working class gamblers, as opposed to the thoroughbreds racing at the elite clubs.

In 1915 and with restriction being placed on racing - both by licensed clubs and at proprietary tracks - Wren offered Ascot to the Defence Department for use by the military amid calls for the license of Ascot and other privately-owned tracks to be revoked permanently. Ascot from August of that year was used as an isolation camp  in conjunction with the Showgrounds depot across Epsom-road.

Despite the partial occupation by the military, race meetings (reduced to three or four per year in line with overall restrictions) continued, and in 1916 and 1917, the course played host to a short-lived Ascot Vale Football Club in the first division of of the Victorian Football Junior Football Association.

The request for immediate closure of the proprietary tracks was refused by Chief Secretary John Murray, but it was suggested that their abolition would be considered after the was, Wren, perhaps foreseeing the end of of racing interests, nominally sold his Victorian interests in 1920 to the Victorian Racing and Trotting Association (which he effectively controlled anyway). (The Association was a re-jigged form of the Victorian Trotting Club which had existed since the early 1880's, initially at Elsternwick Park before moving to Sandown Park after their ten-year lease on public parkland in Elsternwick expired).

With the mooted closure of all other proprietary tracks in 1929, the Government decided that if the V T R A agreed to construct a trotting track, then it could remain in operation as the sole course available for the sport (the galloping track appears to have been over an undulating route and was considered unsuitable for trotting)

Fifteen meetings were allocated to the course - seven on Wednesday, three on Tuesday, and for the first time, five on Saturday

The project was extensively delayed due to a lack of finance and tenders to construct a trotting track did not appear until September, 1931, some two months after the original deadline for completion  The pony meetings continued at Ascot, but trotting events remained at Richmond until August of the following year when the Ascot trotting course finally opened, although it seems likely an alternative plan of construction was used to facilitate the completion.  

Left : “Modern and pre- war tanks at the Ascot Racecourse depot of Motor Transport Vehicle park, Group 1a  The Vickers Mk II (special) medium tanks in the foreground, dating from the 1920's, were in use up to the commencement of World War II for training  Grant M3 medium tanks stand in the background   (Australian War Memorial 052194)

Centre : Interior of the totalizator house at Ascot, December, 1933 showing the A.T.L. “Premier” designed by Sir George Julius. The first Ascot meeting after resumption saw a win dividend of £128/2/6 (533/1) declared in one race where there were just two winning tickets, one report suggesting the crowd rushed the pay-out window to see who the lucky punters were, only to be disappointed when one ticket holder declared he would collect his windfall at Automatic Totalisators Limited's offices, and the other, a woman, collected hers from the totalizator office on course.

Right : The Ascot site mid-1950’s following the Housing Commission redevelopment. Flemington (top left) and the Showgrounds (top centre)

Like Williamstown, Ascot was taken over by the Defence Department during the Second World War and used as a depot for a Motor Transport unit, but with nearby tracks at Flemington and Moonee Valley, the State Government decided in August, 1945 against the resumption of racing at the Ascot Racecourse, with the Victorian Racing and Trotting Association to be relocated to Sandown Park which it had purchased for £41,000 and which it planned to re-develop as a major new metropolitan course.

Wren and his V.T.R.A. partners still held the freehold on the land, and after negotiations between them and the State Government for the purchase of the land broke down, Ascot was compulsorily acquired under the Slum Reclamation and Housing Act in March, 1946.

Wren rejected the Government’s offer of £117,000 in compensation, suggesting the land at commercial values was worth £174,000 and lodged a claim in the County Court in mid-September, 1946.  The case was settled around a month later when State Cabinet agreed to acquire the site for £142,618, roughly half-way between the two valuations.

The Housing Commission intimately constructed accommodation for between 2,500 and 2,6– Altogether homes for 2,600 people were built on the 77 acre site by the Commission, made up of 400 flats, 100 villa pairs and 50 single villas, along with 5 acres of parkland. Most of the streets were ultimately named after war-time political and military leaders - Churchill, Blamey, Dunlop and Vasey Streets among others.