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Published November 1st 2017
Continuing my search for Phar Lap
My search for Phar Lap and what remains of his story led me to Williamstown Racecourse, where I was reliably informed that Phar Lap raced once in 1931.
With this knowledge, I set off for the Altona Coastal Park, as the old racecourse is now known. Obviously this suggests that the course is actually in Altona, which it is. The first clue to the Park's history is that it is located on Racecourse Rd - a road that runs from Kororoit Creek Rd to the Esplanade in Altona, and a road that must have one of the last fords over a creek in Metropolitan Melbourne.
Having come from Braeside Park, where Horse Racing history is understated to say the least, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted at Altona by a sign emphasising the racing history of the park. There's even a sculpture of a horse! Buoyed by the fact that this place actually seemed to care about its history, I pushed on down the path towards the prominent ruins.
There had been races at Williamstown since the 1850s, but the Williamstown Racing Club was not formed until 1868 and the grandstand (the ruins of which I was now walking towards) was not built until 1887. It burnt down (by some accounts, under suspicious circumstances) in the late 1940's. It's actually quite surprising then that the ruins have survived. There are plenty of other old racecourses in Melbourne that have no trace of them left at all. The ruins are actually quite substantial, although so were the grandstands here going by pictures and sketches of them.
The Grandstand at Williamstown, 1887 (The Australian Sketcher)
Phar Lap made his single appearance here in August 1931. Despite the Depression and the midweek nature of the meeting, a good crowd reportedly turned up to see him race. The Age felt it necessary to comment that there was £8742 spent on bets at the course. This is equivalent to around $760,000 in today's money, so clearly the club (and its members) were doing okay at this point. (Although in 2013, $800 million was bet on the Melbourne Cup alone)
Sitting on what remains of the Grandstand, it's hard to imagine this place as busy, or as a place where people gathered. It was cold and windy when I was there, although it was noted that the weather in 1931 was also "extremely unpleasant", (it's hard to imagine a place like this not being windy). Apart from the grandstand and various other ruins that are slowly being taken over by grass, the only remnant of the racecourse is a single palm tree. All signs of the track have disappeared, and it is incredibly hard to visualise a horse race taking place. If you are looking for the spirit of Phar Lap, he is certainly not here. What you will find is somewhere definitely worth exploring, even if you are not a racing fan.
Looking across what was once the finishing straight
The races that took place here survived when the course closed. The Underwood Stakes is now held at Caulfield, and the Williamstown Cup - once one of the four major Metropolitan Cups is held at Sandown, as the Zipping Classic. So the racecourse lives on in spirit at least - if not in name.
It's certainly worth a walk around places like the Williamstown Racecourse, although you are much more likely to see a pelican or a hornbill today rather than a horse on the banks of the Kororoit Creek.