Flemington Racecourse is one of the world’s great racecourses, and is home to the Melbourne Cup. It is one of Melbourne’s four racecourses, the others being Caulfield, Sandown, and, nearby, Moonee Valley. Flemington Racecourse is bounded by Epsom Rd, Smithfield Rd and the Maribyrnong River. Racecourse Rd starts/ends at the racecourse. Today Flemington is a spacious pear-shaped course with sweeping turns and long straight. There is also an integrated 1200-metre straight course, sometimes referred to as the “Straight Six” (because of the old six-furlong measure).
The first “official” race meeting in Melbourne took place in 1838 at Batman Hill (where Spencer Street railway station now stands). From March 1840, racing was moved out of the city to “Saltwater Flat” on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, with meetings held over three days.
The racecourse was set up on land owned by Robert Fleming and the property was used at the time for farming cattle and sheep and running a butchery. According to sources, the property became known as Fleming Town, and this soon attached to the racecourse on it. Today, the Flemington Racecourse site is Crown (state) land, and encompasses 127 hectares (320 acres).
The first racing club was the Port Phillip Turf Club, but the course was then leased to the Victoria Turf Club in 1848. In the next decade the course was well placed to share in the great expansion of population and wealth in Melbourne and Victoria due to the 1850s gold rush. One can imagine a lot of money earned from digging or mining being won and lost at the course a short time later. The first Melbourne Cup was run in 1861, establishing a tradition that would later see it become Australia’s most famous horse race – “the race that stops a nation”. Winners have included Archer (the first winner in 1861), Carbine (1890, to this day the carrier of the greatest handicap weight of 10.5 stone), Phar Lap (1930), Rain Lover (1968 and 69), and Think Big (1974 and 75). That first Melbourne Cup attracted about 4,000 people, but within 20 years there 100,000 people flocked to see the race, a figure that is regularly beaten today. Today the Melbourne Cup is promoted as part of the Spring Racing Festival which has many of its features races at Flemington. Meanwhile, in 1864, the Victoria Turf Club merged with the Victoria Jockey Club to form the Victoria Racing Club. With the passing of the Victoria Racing Club Act in 1871 the VRC got state approval to legally control Flemington Racecourse.
In the more than 150 years of its existence, Flemington has been transformed from rough paddocks to a world-class facility.The first Secretary of the Victoria Racing Club, R.C. Bagot, for whom the New Years Day Bagot Handicap is named, introduced training facilities and upgraded both public and administration facilities. The Old Members Grandstand was built in 1925, and in 1977, the Hill Stand was completed on the site of the old grandstand and cost $8.5 million. The four-tiered stand is situated opposite the winning post and consequently is the best position to view a race.
A well known part of Flemington was the “Birdcage”, so named in less politically correct times because it became the area where gentlemen paraded their “birds” (lady friends). It was sectioned off from the rest of the course and a fee had to be paid to access it. This lasted until the late 1960s. Today the Birdcage consists of 130 stalls and remains in the same original layout but houses the competing horses. Each horse is allocated a stall by the VRC the day prior to the racemeeting. Before a race, horses are paraded in the Mounting Yard, off limits to all except jockeys, trainers and some officials.
Just over the last five or six years, over $26 million worth of improvements have been made to the racecourse and environs. This does not take into consideration the new Grandstand opened in 2000 and costing $45 million.