The racecourse at the Coogee Hotel was originally laid out by Walter Powell in 1899. He ran four races there between 1899 and early 1900, before passing the responsibility on to turf enthusiasts with more time to manage it. For 18 months between 1903 and 1904 races were run there regularly, but after 1904 they stopped forever, seemingly replaced with other sports more popular to the public.
Opening the hotel
When Walter Powell officially opened his Coogee Hotel
in late 1898, his mind must have been churning with the possibilities before him.
An avid sports lover, he would certainly have been active in the Fremantle horse racing scene and most likely attended the yearly races held at Woodman Point
. Those races fell into shambles after their July 1899 meeting, and Powell would have been conscious of a gap that needed filling.
First sports at Coogee
He wasted little time in turning the hotel’s attentions to sporting events in general. On 26 January 1899, known that year as Anniversary Day, Powell hosted the first of many sporting carnivals at Coogee Beach, including swimming races, a yacht race, and a greasy pole competition. In the evening there was food, drink and entertainment at the Coogee Hotel.
It is easy to imagine Powell - short, stocky, with a friendly face and neat white beard and moustache - happily in his element at his new hotel, organising races and greeting his new patrons happily from behind the bar. This was the blueprint of the next twenty years of sports at Coogee.
Coogee Racing and Sports Club
By March of 1899 Walter had formed the Coogee Racing and Sports Club. Their first meeting was held in the Beaconsfield Hotel (modern day Moondyne Joe’s, on Wray Avenue in Fremantle).
With Powell 'presiding over a very representative attendance of the residents of Coogee and South Fremantle', they decided that their first event should be a pigeon shooting match, and they also laid out the program for the first horse races, to be run on Easter Saturday.
Horse racing at Coogee
Though the Woodman Point Races
were run in 1899, there must have been a sense in the racing community that they were floundering: without a railway line to carry spectators and competitors, access to the remote location was becoming a sticking point. Though Coogee suffered from the same problem, they did at least have a road leading directly to the hotel. Powell seized his opportunity with glee. He had a racecourse laid out and invited members of the turf to submit entries for his races.
Until 1917 in Western Australia it was only gambling and not racing itself that was subject to government control. Powell’s course was unregistered, like many others were between the 1880s and 1910s.
It was common for private owners to run races on their properties at the time, and ‘unregistered’ simply meant that the club who put on the races was not registered with the official racing body, the Western Australian Turf Club (WATC), and therefore no on-site betting was legally allowed.
Unregistered races were reported consistently in newspaper racing pages, and they served communities who lived too far from large racing centres to easily travel to their favourite sport. They were also highly likely to be short-lived, transient operations, dependent on the funds of their promoters and the backing of a Jockey Club of local men who could combine their racing interest with administrative skills.
First races, 1899
Powell’s Easter Saturday races in April 1899 were modest. Run on ‘Powell’s Unregistered Course, Coogee Hotel Grounds’, the day consisted of one pony race and three handicaps, with buses chartered to leave Fremantle on the day.
Boxing Day Races
The second unregistered racing carnival was held on Boxing Day 1899, and by this time Powell’s club had morphed into the Coogee Turf Club, with a focus exclusively on horse racing. 300 people attended the races, picnicking on the hill behind the hotel to view the sport.
‘Shaped like a tennis raquet’
According to a report of the event, the course was ‘remarkable in appearance, being shaped like a tennis racquet, the "handle", of course, forming the home stretch. At first sight the turns look dangerously sharp, but this is not the case, and when the further improvements contemplated are carried out the Coogee course will form a very pleasant holiday resort.’
Coogee Turf Club, 1900
Under the name of the Coogee Turf Club, Powell seemed to settle into a routine. He held races on the January holiday (‘Anniversary Day’, now Australia Day) in 1900, and twice more in quick succession on February 7 and February 17.
According to the accounts, bookmakers were allowed to ply their trade at these events for a registration fee.
It is possible that the renaming meant Powell had registered his club with the WATC, as the name ‘Turf Club’ was generally reserved for registered groups. It seems as if Powell was gearing up for a bright racing future.
No more races
But it was short-lived: after February 1900, there were no more races at Coogee until 1903. This may have been to do with Letitia Powell’s illness and death in early 1901, or Powell may have found that hotel business needed more attention than he had been paying it: this lull in racing coincides with a large uptick in advertising of the hotel to travellers and daytrippers in newspapers throughout the state.
A new beginning, 1903
When racing picked back up again in March 1903, it was more formalised. Powell was no longer directly involved, and the Coogee Turf Club was taken over by a syndicate of interested turf followers who had an office in Higham’s Chambers, Market Street, Fremantle.
Around the same time, this syndicate also took over the unregistered racing at Kensington racecourse in South Perth.
At Coogee they planned to run races every second Wednesday beginning in March. By the end of April attendance had doubled, the course had been cleared and fenced in, and the road to the course behind the hotel had been flattened to make access easier. By September the races were a fixture of Fremantle life and the racing calendar, attracting crowds of 400 or more.
Horse-drawn cabs were chartered to leave Fremantle regularly from 1pm, taking punters out to Coogee. Advertisements blared: ‘COOGEE RACES - COOGEE RACES - COOGEE RACES - ROLL UP, YE SPORTS, FOR A GOOD DAY'S OUTING - LARGE FIELDS - GOOD RACING ASSURED'.
Decline of Coogee racing, 1904
1903 was the heyday of racing in Coogee, and it never again reached the same peak. Through 1904 the club held fairly regular meetings, and even made some improvements in the winter months such as erecting a ‘six-foot fence around the grand-stand enclosure’.
In mid-1904 it was explicitly stated that the club was ‘under new management’, which appeared to originate from some suspicions of poor sportsmanship and underhanded dealings.
However, by September 1904 attendances were being reported as ‘poor’, and the final race, held on September 7, attracted few visitors as it clashed with another race at Kensington.
After this somewhat abrupt end and without any discussion in racing columns or elsewhere, there were never races held at Coogee again.
The story of the races at Coogee may be short-lived, but for a brief period the small community near the beach enjoyed a star status. People met friends ‘on the way to the Coogee races’, papers declared that the Coogee racecourse was the place to be on a holiday, and the road and railway to Coogee were both improved partly due to the popularity of the course.
Powell turned his attention to other kinds of sports, particularly cycling which was enjoying a huge surge in popularity, and horse racing fell somewhat out of favour during the first decade of the new century.
In 1912, a little anecdote was printed to fill up a column in a very local Fremantle newspaper, The Golden Gate. In full, it illuminates a jovial little scene at Coogee which may be the closest we can ever get to a sense of what it was like during racing’s brief glory days.
Everyone remembers Old Joe McVeigh, who in the years gone by acted as secretary for the shortly lived Coogee Race Club, the course of which was situated right next to Powell's Hotel.
Joe was a very energetic secretary, but some times he went too far in his energy. On one particular race day, he had the "crowds" in the "grandstand" roaring as the result of perusing the following notice that was stuck up over a row of seats: "The chairs are for the ladies. Gentlemen are requested to make use of them till the ladies are seated."