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Woodman Point Racecourse, 1884-1899

The early racing industry in W.A.

The racing industry - usually known as ‘the turf’ - began to flourish in the colony of Western Australia in the late 1870s. In Fremantle, despite a growing population of businessmen and turf-followers, there was no racecourse laid out at all, and those who wanted to see horse racing had to travel to Perth, Canning, or further afield.

Fremantle had grown large enough by the 1880s to merit a new generation of turf-lovers trying once more to create a regular race meeting in the port town. For a brief few years in the early 1850s there had apparently been a racecourse near Fremantle, but there is no record of them trying to revive it.

Instead they chose Woodman Point as their location, though the reasons why are unclear. Race courses tended to be situated at least a couple of miles from heavily inhabited areas, and Woodman Point was easily accessible by boat and was at least connected to Fremantle by a road. The Coogee area was distant enough that news reports of the first races often appeared under columns headed ‘Country News’.

First races, 1884

The first race at Woodman Point was organised by ‘a few energetic sportsmen’ who spent the last weeks of December 1883 drumming up interest for a race on New Years’ Day. Though it was short notice, the event was well attended with 300 people turning up, 150 of whom were horsemen.   

A year later the race was moved to Boxing Day, when many people had a holiday and travelled to popular resort spots like Rockingham and Garden Island. As in many Australian sporting endeavours, the races were
Map of Clarence suburban lots, c1890
organised and administered from one of Fremantle’s many hotels. Entrants for the races had to meet the race stewards at the Freemason’s Hotel to pay their fees, and post-race meetings and dinners were held there.

Stakes, plates, and cups

All horses entered into the races had to be ‘the property of owners residing in the Fremantle District’. The first race, at 12.30, was a Pony Race (twice round the course), then every half hour after: Woodmans Point Stakes, Galloway Race, Fremantle Plate, Pony Race again (once round the course), Rockingham Stake, Consolation Cup, and the Hurry-Scurry. Mr. Hooper, a Fremantle craftsman, made one of the prize cups to be awarded: an emu egg mounted in   silver.

Transport to the races

The crowds on that Boxing Day were reportedly over 500 strong, and the heat was intense. Though there was a road to Woodman Point, it was not well used or easy to travel. The best way for racegoers to get to Woodman Point was by boat, and this remained the case for the lifetime of the course.

Fremantle shipping broker E.H. Fothergill offered his steamship S.S. Cleopatra as a ferry for those who wished to travel to the races in 1884. Departing Fremantle Harbour’s South Jetty in the morning, he made the trip to the Woodman Point jetty every half hour or so until 6pm, charging a very reasonable price of 2 shillings. Over the years, other shipping speculators would take on this role, and it was always a lucrative endeavour.

Grandstand

This second year of races also boasted a grandstand amongst its upgraded facilities. Though it was ‘of a somewhat primitive description’, wrote one journalist, ‘whatever the stand and the other appendages lacked in style and appearances, all shortcomings were amply recompensed by the excellent management of the stewards, who one and all worked, and with considerable success too, to make the day the great sporting carnival of the year.

Fremantle Jockey Club, 1885

After the success of the two meetings in 1884, many Fremantle men interested in the turf came together in 1885 to form the Fremantle Jockey Club. Their aims were simply to bring the interests of horse racing and breeding in Fremantle under a set of agreed turf rules, and at the outset were not affiliated with the Woodman Point races, though somewhat redundantly nearly all the members were active participants of both.  

This kicked off a 15-year period of failed attempts to make Woodman Point function as a profit-making race track, with three separate race clubs forming, trying, and collapsing beneath the struggle to turn sand into turf and an isolated site into a thriving race track.

Declining standards

For the rest of the 1880s the Boxing Day races at Woodman Point were a staple of the turf calendar. The primitive conditions, however, were viewed with less and less geniality as time wore on. In 1888, a commentator noted that the grandstand was still much the same as the year it was built, the course was neglected and that the nuisance of deep drifts of sand and trees obscuring the view was always acknowledged but never fixed by the race organisers.  

‘Disgraceful exhibition’

Two years later, in 1890, an attendee was scathing of the neglected state of affairs at Woodman Point, ‘the most disgraceful exhibition of mismanagement it has ever been my unpleasant duty to record’. Judges and stewards were absent or ignored their duties, with one more interested in selling beer from a stand, and another in charge of the Totalizator, ‘the use of which at such a racemeeting was altogether illegal’. Six men would end up in court for gambling illegally.

Bystanders distracted the horses, jockeys held back their mounts on purpose, and one horse’s handicap was changed in ink after the cards were distributed. The results of nearly every race were disputed, the crowds were unruly, and everything was covered in clouds of dusty black sand stirred up by the horses.

In short, the once-lauded races at Woodman Point had degenerated into a shambles, and the future of the races seemed uncertain. No races were run the following Boxing Day.

Fremantle Turf Club, 1891

In March of 1891, the Fremantle Turf Club was formed, making no reference to the earlier Fremantle Jockey Club. They set about a hectic schedule of newspaper advertising, with their intention to run a race day on June 1, Foundation Day. Crucially, this would be run under the official banner of a Turf Club, meaning the track was now considered 'registered', and gambling was allowed to occur at the races themselves.

Government land and lease

The Minister for Lands selected a new location ‘a little this side of the old one’ and bestowed it upon the Fremantle Turf Club, allowing them to clear a one-mile round course with two cuttings to make it flat. The next year, the club secured a 99 year lease on the land, and announced grand plans to grass the track and fence the whole enclosure. But it was a pipe dream, and the new Turf Club quickly petered out of existence.

Another new Jockey Club, 1895

Three years later, in late 1895, a new group of men were once more holding a meeting ‘for the purposes of organising a District Jockey Club’. The previous, defunct, Jockey Club had folded with £40 of debt, which was a barrier to begin with. 

James Davey, the convenor of the new club, wanted to call it the Woodman Point Racing Club, but he was emphatically shouted down by the attendees, who settled once more on the name Fremantle Jockey Club.

This was by far the most successful of the official clubs to hold races at Woodman Point, with an average of three per year for the next few years, turning a profit after a year, and once again embarking on even grander plans for the race course.

Grand plans for a grandstand

They resolved, as before, to fence in the course, and a tender for £72 was accepted in July 1895. In early 1896 they announced that an architect had already drawn up plans for a 300-capacity grandstand with a double staircase, refreshment rooms, a kitchen and bar, and dressing rooms for stewards and jockeys. According to maps showing the area there was a grandstand built on the coast side facing inland, and later reports mention several buildings on the site.

The course itself was never of a high quality, and in October 1896 the club was lampooned for a track ‘dangerous to the life and limb of both the jockeys and the horses’. The club had tried to alleviate the worst of the sandy track by top-dressing the sand with seaweed and rolling it in, but this only served to make matters worse, with ‘that portion of the running being calculated to cause runners to perform somersaults’.

Serious questions were raised about the suitability of Woodman Point to remain as a registered race course under the W.A. Turf Club, and many trainers and jockeys refused to return for the next race, held in January 1897.

The club announced its intention to improve the course, and for the next few race meetings attendance steadily grew, reaching nearly 800 in mid-1898. The annual meeting of the Fremantle Jockey Club that year was hopeful: they were making a steady profit and the course and grounds were being improved. Things were, apparently, looking up.

The end of Woodman Point

Need for a railway

In April 1899, members of the Jockey Club visited the Premier to ask for the railway to be extended to Woodman Point. It had been built as far as Robb Jetty the year before, and the difference was only a mile and a half over flat land. This would have allowed many more racegoers to reach the track with ease. 

The Premier was cagey: it was a solid idea, he said, but the colony was growing so quickly, and there were so many demands for improvements to open up access to natural resources, that he thought it would be hard to get Parliament to allocated the £1200 needed for the extension. He was correct in this assumption, though Parliament had no trouble allocating funds for an explosives magazine, including the railway extension, on the site three years later, which was a huge benefit to the burgeoning mining industry.

Three months later the Minister for Lands offered the club a 99-year lease on their grounds, just as he had their predecessor a decade earlier. The club enthusiastically accepted, hoping this meant a railway line in their near future. It did not, and they never recovered their momentum.

Jockey Club folds

The July race meeting of 1899 was the last ever held at Woodman Point. The following year the Fremantle Jockey Club openly admitted they were in recess, and would likely remain so until the railway reached Woodman Point. The year after that the club was ‘dead as the proverbial doornail’.  That year Walter Powell began running unregistered races at a course behind his nearby Coogee Hotel, which may have drawn some of the same crowds.

A suggestion was floated in 1903 that the club take over 100 acres set aside in the new suburban development of Palmyra, but it came to nothing. Instead, yet another new club was formed to hold race meetings at the newly-named Bicton Racecourse, which became the centre of Fremantle racing for years to come.

In 1906 the old Fremantle Jockey Club officially declared itself defunct and signed over the money it had saved to the Fremantle Municipal Council, to improve the Fremantle Golf Links.

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