Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Ex-CDA comments, suggestions, criticisms

The original owners of what became Sandown Park were Messrs David Boyd and John Langtree Reilly who were said to have purchased the land at £25 per acre.

Reilly, then a surveyor, was entrusted with the task of designing and laying the track and erecting the necessary buildings.  It was noted the whole property covered an area of 295 acres, 135 of which were being devoted to the racecourse   The track itself was a mile and three and a half furlongs in circumference - the same as Flemington - and from 73 feet to 100 feet  in width; most of the timber in the centre of the course was cleared and the track sown with couch grass; and a creek which cut through the centre of the land necessitated the construction of two substantial bridges.

Then known as , the course was leased to William. C. Cullen and the venue was opened in December, 1888, the first meeting advertised as the Hurlingham (Oakleigh Park) Races, the first part of the name brought forward from Hurlingham Park,  an earlier recreation reserve run by Cullen in Brighton, initially for pigeon-shooting, cycling, athletics and coursing, but later extended to hold three or four pony race meetings.

Reporters given a preview of the course noted a 40-minute trip via train and were pleasantly surprised to see four grandstands (two covered), substantial fencing and a grass-covered mound with a clear view of the winning post.

From day one, Cullen rattled more than a few cages - firstly by insisting that entries for pony races be on-course an hour before the meeting started so they could be measured, then riling bookmakers by insisting that only those officially recognised by the Tattersalls clubs in Melbourne and Sydney be allowed to field and then at a charge of six guineas.

It is not certain whether Cullen, the owners or perhaps the Railways Department were responsible for construction of the platform, but an Oakleigh Park station was in operation as part of the Gippsland line, the advertising for the early meeting having no less than five special race trains from Flinders Street at 15 minute intervals, stopping at Caulfield and Oakleigh, then the terminus of the metropolitan system.   There was also an earlier service with horse boxes.

In addition to the two main lines, there was a signal box and booking office, and two sidings each over 600 metres long on the eastern side of the tracks, for the stabling of the special race trains. The station had no platform on the up track to Melbourne, instead having an island platform on the down track, the other face serving one of the sidings on the eastern side.

Late in 1891, Cullen, noted as a licensed victualler, was declared insolvent, and after the forced closure of their Elsternwick Park course, Oakleigh Park was leased by the Victorian Trotting Club, the secretary then Thomas Haydon who soon passed the control of the new course to a clerk then in his employee, Michael Patrick Considine, who was to be associated with Sandown for just on forty years before operations on the original course ceased when proprietary racing was banned in 1929.

The freehold value at the time (according to Cullen's statement of assets), was £20,000 and the venue was renamed Sandown Park after the famous course in England. The railway station, also changed its name from Oakleigh Racecourse to Sandown Park in 1892.

Cullen, despite his financial demise, had a small claim to a piece of racing history by being the first course proprietor to allow the press into steward's inquiries, a controversy that continues today - one of Cullen's stewards named Cowell later related his experiences to a V.R.C. meeting considering the issue, suggesting "... to his astonishment, he found that the reporters commenced to cross examine the jockeys who came forward as witnesses". (Loud laughter). Cowell further added (perhaps unnecessarily)  that he "was decidedly against the practice".

The V.T.C.'s first meeting was held on the re-named Sandown Park on 14 October, 1891, just two weeks after Elsternwick closed and offered remarkable prize money for the time of £1,000 for the day, including the Oakleigh Park Cup of 350 sovereigns - despite its name the Trotting Club meetings also included gallopers, one of the races on the first day being a 13-furlong Hurdle, generally a bit tricky for trotters!  

The club itself changed its name about three months later to the Sandown Park Racing Club.

The course came under some scrutiny in 1893 after the deaths of two jockeys in race falls - one name Thomas Vanevery in January, the other Michael Jenkins in July, but a fortnight after the latter incident, the proprietors invited a gathering representative of owners, trainers, jockeys, punters, the ring and press to inspect what was termed the "reconstructed" Sandown Park, the group agreeing it was "one of the safest in the colony" despite the two recent tragedies.

The visitors were shown the spot where the horse Kalydor (who was leading the field) took off on the occasion of the later accident and it was measured as some 22 feet from the steeple, the unfortunate animal apparently landing on the wall toppling Jenkins and fatally injuring him.

There is some dispute, but it is also contended that the first strand barrier replacing the somewhat chaotic open "flag fall" starts which at times delayed races by up to twenty minutes was a device invented by George Sharpe, a Mallee farmer and tested several times at Sandown Park before it was later patented by John B. Scott of the Sherwood Park course in Burwood.

The first noted use of the strand barrier at a registered course was at a meeting at Sandown was on 23 January, 1894, "after experiments at Sherwood Park, Fitzroy and Aspendale", then all pony tracks.

Despite the apparent success of the earlier trials using the strand barrier for all pony races, it was noted that the machine would be used at Sandown for one race only and that entries for the event would only be taken on the understanding that field would be started with the aid of the machine. The operation of the device for a nine-horse field was described as "faultless" with several V.R.C. and V.A.T.C. officials observing the experiment.

The course was closed along with the other proprietary tracks on 31 July, 1931 when it was noted that a 10 year lease held by Considine was due to expire the following year, although it was suggested that a new lease had been agreed between the parties should Sandown Park survive.

There was considerable debate as to whether the course should be one to be close; several proponents suggesting that both it and another doomed course at Aspendale were somewhat superior courses to Epsom and Mentone, both of which survived.

Horseless Carriages

The modern Sandown Park was synonymous with motor racing but it will surprise even the keenest follower of the sport to learn that the link to the course dates back over 110 years!

The Automobile Club of Victoria hosted what is believed the state's first race “for heavy automobiles” at Sandown Park on 12 March, 1904, the winner Colonel Harley Tarrant in an Argyll, covering the three-mile course in 6 minutes 55 seconds averaging 26 miles-per-hour; runner-up  Thomas Rand’s Decauville,  

The "heavy automobile" race was accompanied by a race for cars under 6 horsepower and a motorcycle event; all three were handicap events based on the horsepower rating of the vehicle. Tarrant's 10 h.p. Argyll received 450 yards start from Rand's 16 h.p. machine..

The Auto Club put on the events in response to an invitation from the Commercial Travellers Association to be present at their annual picnic on the Sandown Park Racecourse

Around 1,400 people attended in total,  25 cars left  from Alexandra Avenue, South Yarra with the number swelling to 85 with many motor cycles as well by the time the convoy reached Springvale. Another report suggests that there were just 300 cars operating in Victoria at the time.

Closing Time

With the Government crack-down on proprietarry racing, the last meeting at the original Sandown Park was conducted on 9 May, 1931. The Australasian, whilst welcoming the closure of some of the smaller tracks, gave Sandown Park a glowing, if somewhat belated final tribute :-

The passing of Sandown Park will be regretted, because it is by far the most picturesque of the numerous Melbourne racecourses, and the track, from a purely racing point of view, one of the best". 

Despite the commendations, the compensation for the closure was set at £7,207, by far the lowest of the four courses - the figure was based on three percent of gross turnover for the year ending 1 July, 1929 on licensed clubs where the average figure was over £1,500, or two percent where the total was between £600 and £1,500; the low compensation for Sandown was simply because significantly fewer meetings were held - the Fitzroy course at Northcote raced weekly and was next lowest at £19,150, but paradoxically, one of the arguments put forward for Sandown's continuance was that it generated more revenue for the railways than any of the other "down-the-line" courses.

Although dormant, the Sandown Park Racing Club appears to have continued in part for training  and there was a suggestion in April, 1939 that the Sandown Park Racing Club would approach the State Government with plans to revive the course if the Epsom track which had suffered the loss by fire of its newly renovated grandstand was permanently closed.

Although undoubtedly somewhat optimistic, one trustee of the club suggested that the straight had been kept in perfect repair, as well as the buildings, and could be ready for racing "in a month", but the appeal fell on deaf ears, especially with a Government actively seeking to reduce the number of race meetings, if not courses themselves, over the oncoming war years.

See Sandown Park (Coursing) for the history of the course 1935 to circa 1950.

Slow Recovery

With the post-war closure of the Ascot and Williamstown courses, the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association (the original Victorian Trotting Club after being revamped in 1919) made a move to buy the track under a Government ruling that each club must own its own course. The V.T.R.A. had been allowed to temporarily use Ascot for trotting prior to the Second World War, but newspapers and journals suggested that it was in such bad condition that it would take years to get it back to standards of the day.

(Any major improvements in the short term would have been impossible in the short term anyway – following the war and with a huge influx of immigration, there was chronic shortage of housing, building materials and manpower which seriously disrupted plans for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics).

In 1948, the State Government legislated to reduce the number of racing clubs in Melbourne to four - the two under threat were the V.T.R.A. whic raced at Mentone for nine days a year, and Williamstown, allocated seven days, but which had not raced since before the War when used as an Army camp and having lost their main grandstand in a fire in January, 1947. As a secondary requirement, it was a requirement that each club must own its own course.

With the pending closure of both its Ascot and Mentone courses, the V T R A  bought the Sandown Park course along with 90 acres adjoining Princes Highway late in 1947, the price suggested as £41,000, and announced grand plans to restore the site to become Melbourne's fourth track, although several commentators queried whether another course was really required.  However ambitious the Association’s plans might have been, building a grandstand or anything else of significance over the next five or six years would have been impossible with a chronic shortage of both housing and building materials.

A number of discussions on a potential merger of the Williamstown club with the V.T.R.A. early in 1948 failed to reach any agreement on either terms or which course might ultimately be used, although both the Government and V.R.C. were expressing a preference for Sandown with Williamstown under pressure from encroaching industrial development.   The Chief Secretary (Mr. Dodgshun) who had called a crucial conference between the two parties suggested that there was no reason why both organisations could not continue, but emphasised that only four courses would be allowed - Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley “and one other”.

Mentone was due to close on 31 July, 1948, and in a shock move in June, the V.T.R.A. announced that it intended making a gift of Sandown Park to the Victoria Racing Club, along with its nine racing dates, said to be worth many thousands of pounds.

The Chairman of the Association, Mr. William Beckett, M.L.C., explained that the development of the new course would probably require £500,000 to £750,000 over several years and that he felt the leading racing body in Victoria should be the one to carry out the work. There was just one proviso attached to the gift - that the course was for the exclusive use of the V.R.C.

With little chance of resurrecting racing on their course and no sign of an amalgamation with the V.T.R.A., the Williamstown club was forced to seek a merger in June with the V.R.C., offering the seven race days allotted to it as a trade-off and thus giving the senior club potentially a total of 33 race days and having to conduct some of its meetings at Caulfield or possibly Moonee Valley until Sandown was brought up to scratch.

Both the transfer of Sandown and the merger seemed likely to proceed until the legal advisers to the V.R.C. discovered that under the club’s constitution,  accepting Sandown Park from the V.T.R.A. was in fact illegal due to a clause that stipulated that the club could not accept gifts which had conditions attached, i.e. in this case, exclusive use by the Victoria Racing Club only (precluding possible W.R.C. members and with suggestions that the V.R.C. may have been “only too willing” to hand Sandown Park back as the premier club regarded the running of Flemington, and the overall control of racing more than enough for its committee to handle).

After several conferences, the V.R.C. reversed its decision to accept Sandown and the V.T.R.A. again approached Williamstown with a proposal to effectively merge the two bodies - the V.T.R.A. to provide Sandown pending its transfer back from the V.R.C and Williamstown £200,000 in cash or kind - and create a new club with the same constitution as the W.R.C., the two bodies having equal representation of the committee for five years, the W.R.C. to select the president for the first year (ultimately Mr. W. P. Mein), the V.T.R.A. the second, and thereafter election by committee.  

The proposed merger was accepted by a somewhat embarrassed V.R.C. within days and the name of the Melbourne Racing Club (M.R.C) agreed around a month later ( the other name considered was the “Metropolitan Racing Club”).   

Although a sensible compromise (perhaps the only one available), the deal surprised many as the Association had just 27 members and Williamstown, 700.  The move prompted one Labour politician to slam the deal, suggesting it had been brokered by the entrepreneur John Wren (one of the originators and power brokers of the V.T.R.A.) and the merged club would be effectively under his control.

Given the chronic problems with building, commentators suggested correctly that Sandown was in such bad condition that it would take years to get it back to standards of the day.   The M.R.C. held most of its early meetings at Flemington, the first on 21 August, 1948, but later with the pressure on Flemington, more so at Caulfield where it instituted a highly popular Invitation Stakes at their Show Day meeting, the race involving up to eight or ten international riders and sometimes attract crowds of 40,000 or more..

Sir Gilbert Dyett, the V.T.R.A secretary for nearly twenty years, rather optimistically suggested the club might stage its opening meeting at Sandown not later than August, 1949, perhaps earlier with the track thoroughly reconditioned, but with no grandstands “and it will be some years before the plans are finalised.  Whether the tote will be in operation depends on directions from the State Government”.

Perhaps prophetically (although it was to take a long time), The Argus predicted "Sandown certainly offers the scope for a dream of a racecourse" and at one point, William Beckett - a prominent owner who had been connected with the V.T.R.A. since its inception - used his parliamentary position to suggest that with its own railway station, it would be an ideal site for hosting the 1956 Olympic Games should Melbourne’s bid of 1948 be successful.

The plans never came to fruition although the M.R.C. did spend around £136,000 on improvements, mainly drainage works and clearing the track which was overgrown in places with scrub.

By 1954, newspapers and journals were still predicting a new course was still some five years away.  

In 1955, the secretary of the Melbourne Racing Club, Mr  John C  Reilly (a grandson of John Langtree Reilly, who was largely responsible for development of the Mentone course, embarked on a tour of the U S  to study modern racetrack design, but progress at Sandown was slow with the M.R.C. meetings continuing to be held at Caulfield and Flemington.

In February, 1963, it was revealed that the Melbourne Racing Club had approached the Victorian Amateur Turf Club with a proposal that the two clubs merge, despite the Chairman of the V.A.T.C. Sir Norman Robinson at one point claiming the M.R.C. was insolvent, a suggestion hotly denied by the M.R.C., a spokesman putting the club's assets at £2,671,000 and liabilities of £566,000.  

The merger was ultimately approved by V.A.T.C. members, 807 to 721, allowing Sandown to be completed; the V.R.C. remained opposed to both the merger and the redevelopment of Sandown while Flemington, Caulfield and Moonee Valley were available.

The funds of the clubs by this stage were being substantially boosted by dividends from the Victorian T.A.B. which had commenced operating in March, 1961 - the merged V.A.T.C. received £218,007 for the 1962-63 racing year.

It wasn't until 1965 that the new course finally opened under the auspices of the V.A.T.C. and in conjunction with the Light Car Club of Australia who had financed the construction of a motor racing track outside the turf track.  Motor racing actually preceded the Sport of Kings, commencing in 1962 with the Sandown International Cup, which featured world-famous international drivers including Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss and Bruce McLaren.

The re-introduction of horse racing came in June, 1965 when the opening meeting attracted a crowd of 52,000.  

On 12 May, 1951, The Sporting Globe carried an interview with Bill Jacobsen, then 88 years of age and claiming to have held a trainer's license for 65 years.

"I rode under the first barrier ever made at a course called Oakleigh Park. It was built on the venetian blind system and was pulled up by a rope. I was on one of three ponies that were used to try it out. The animals took fright, jumped in all directions and sent the starter sprawling from his stand.

Oakleigh Park was under VRC control, but a dispute caused a breakaway, and unregistered meetings started at a place Sherwood Park near Box Hill …"

Courses For Horses - Sandown Park

Fangio??? Fangio be damned! Harley Tarrant roars down the back straight at Sandown Park, 12 March, 1904. Many sports fans will equate Sandown Park with motor racing, but certainly not from 1904 when Victoria’s first motor race meeting was held on the course.

Below : Tarrant (left), runner-up Thomas Rand on right.

All 1904 images ex Algernon Darge collection, State Library of Victoria. the Darge Photographic Company had the concession to take photographs at the Broadmeadows and Seymour army camps during the First World War. The Australian War Memorial purchased all rights to the collection in the 1930’s and most of the images of servicemen on the AWM site originate from that source.

 Two  ‘Curved dash’ Oldsmobiles arrive at Sandown Park, and below, Visitors line up at Sandown Park

Motor Racing : The Sandown 500, September 1971 and the legendary Peter Brock leads in his LC Torana XU-1

Left : Sandown Park under construction, circa 1963; the greyhound racing track on the opposite side of the railway.

Right : Racing returns to Sandown after 34 years - Opening Day and part of the crowd of 52,000