Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey

Ex-CDA comments, suggestions, criticisms

Lost Racecourses : St Kilda

#top

The first race meeting in St. Kilda appears to have been held on New Year's Day, 1847, a week or so beforehand a group of licensed victuallers from around the seaside village applying to have their licenses extended for the day to cover the racecourse, the location of which is uncertain.

By 1849, reports suggest that the annual meeting was attracting much greater interest, and by 1850, a new course was noted as ""a very marked improvement" on the previous venue.

This track was established at the reserve still existing today under the quaint name of the Peanut Farm, then bordered on the south and west sides by swamp land, and said a couple of years later to be "about a mile below the township and upwards of four miles from town".

Just who the organisers were was not revealed, but for an out-of-town meeting (now spread over two days), the stakes were very respectable - the rather optimistically named St. Leger and the St. Kilda Cup on the first day both carrying £20, the Maiden Stakes the second day the same, while there were three other races of £15.  As at meetings of the time, a couple of the races were run in heats and there were a few private challenge to fill out the afternoon.

The 1851 meeting was ambitious enough for entries to be advertised as early as September, the stakes for the two main races now £30 and £25 respectively, but the main attention came when the victuallers were refused permission to set up booths at the course, a move much lauded by the proprietors of the conservative Argus  newspaper who implored licensing magistrates in other districts to follow suit.

Licenses were again refused the following year, although this appears to have been more the result of a technical flaw in the application rather than on moralistic grounds.

The two-day New Year meetings continue until 1857 simply shown as the ""St. Kilda Races", but in April, 1858, a change came on the scene with advertisements appearing for the Village Belle Steeplechase, the name taken from the hotel of the corner of Acland and Barkly streets and overlooking the course.

Being a steeplechase, it was probably not indicative of the regular track layout, but the event was of three miles - twice around the course - with ten 3-rail fences to be overcome on each circuit.  Later anecdotal reports place the winning post as "near the hotel entrance" (hardly a coincidence!).

The Village Belle itself was somewhat remote from the main part of the village of the time, but was the last "port of call" for travellers to the thriving town of Brighton before a rather arduous journey across the swampy lands of Elwood.

From that point, the annual events were always advertised as the Village Belle races, but faced some opposition that year with the proprietor of the Bay View Hotel on the corner of Carlisle and High streets (the latter now St. Kilda Road) promoting New Year's races ""on a course marked out in the vicinity".

Notices for the 1862 Village Belle races rather optimistically suggested the course was half-a-mile from the course, but perhaps as a sign that the races were losing their attraction with a number of competing events by advertising "the first attempt in the colony at a genuine donkey race".   

The last Village Belle meeting was on Boxing Day, 1868 - four main races, the principal the Village Belle Handicap of 30 sovereigns, a hurdle for 20 sovs., the other two at 10 sovs. supported by three other races of just five sovereigns.  

The Argus suggested a crowd of above 4,000 assembled on the beach for the races, but :-

"we do not believe more than ten per cent of them cared one iota for the racing, the course in every part being covered with groups of pic-nic parties, who whiled away the time with kiss-in-the-ring and other such innocent amusements, quite oblivious to the dangers of running across the track of a dozen horses going at full speed, and how the day went by without an accident is a wonder".

The report went on to a that sandy nature of the track was a problem with horses almost indistinguishable in clouds of dust, the racing itself "below mediocrity" and well beneath the standard at previous Village Belle meetings.

There appears no obvious reason for the abandonment of the annual events, but it is known that the publican of the Village Belle from 1863 to 1869, Mr. Robert Henry (shown as the treasurer of the last meeting) moved from the Village Belle to the Crown Hotel at Lilydale early in 1870.

The other contributing factor may have been hinted at in The Argus report - the hazards raised in attempting to hold a race meeting at what had become a popular spot for passive recreation perhaps implies that the course needed to be fenced off, raising queries as to the financial and perhaps even legal ramifications given the area was public parkland.

The origins of the name "Peanut Farm" are a little obscure - the area was originally the Nelson Gardens, but "Peanut Farm" is noted back as early as 1945 when home of the St. Kilda City football club.

According to "St. Kilda : The Show Goes On", an 1980’s update of two volumes of the history of St. Kilda published circa 1930, the gardens were a favourite haunt for illegal starting price bookmakers, the suggestion in reference to one of the bookies being allegedly involved in a murder in 1947 being that the name came from "… gamblers have bet there with peanuts for as long as anyone could remember".  The land was permanently reserved for recreational use and as a racecourse in December, 1862.