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September 8, 2022

Kensington Racecourse

Racecourses abounded in and around Sydney during the late 1800s / early 1900s. A racecourse at Kensington was in operation from 1893 through to 1942. Close to Randwick, it was the primary pony course for the area. This month Racing through Time looks back at the history of Kensington Racecourse.

The racecourse at Kensington was active from 1893. S. Ackman, George B. Rowley, and T. M. Alcock amongst others had established a company to lease the ground at Kensington located across the road from Randwick Racecourse on the site that is now the University of NSW. The idea was to form a recreation ground that would allow for horse racing, football, cricket, polo, and other outdoor sports to be conducted. The Kensington Recreation Grounds Company, as they were known, organised for a track to be laid and grandstand built. The original grandstand included space for a refreshment saloon, offices for secretary, committee, race day officials, and jockeys, a telegraph room, and an area set apart for the ladies. 100 stalls were included in the saddling paddock and the St Leger stand could include another 500 people.

The first pony race meeting at Kensington took place on 15 June 1893 with about 4000 people in attendance, according to the newspaper reports of the time. Six races took place. Zulander won the Opening Handicap by two lengths. She also started in the last, the Kensington Handicap, winning that race as well.

The racing was deemed successful and so it continued. Set up to ensure the 1500 to 2000 spectators had a comfortable day at the races, Kensington boasted a member’s stand situated opposite the winning post and included room for the jockeys and stewards with the judge’s box on the upper floor. For the public areas of the course a paddock stand, leger stand, and from 1917 a totalisator allowed increasing numbers of race goers space to enjoy the day. These facilities with the level of prize money, conduct of racing and administration at Kensington provided a high standard of racing not often seen at the proprietary pony racetracks.

George Rowley had been instrumental in establishing the racecourse and supervising the erection of grandstands. Rowley was active across the racecourses of Sydney. He had been the secretary at the AJC when they transferred their racing operations to Randwick in 1860 and was also the secretary of the Rosehill Race Club. Patrick O’Mara took on the secretary role when Rowley was killed when his horse bolted in 1894. O’Mara was in charge in April 1895 when a bookmakers dispute led to the formation of City Tattersall’s Club.

Though racing and recreation was the primary purpose of the course, Kensington was also used by the NSW Bushmen’s Contingents bound for the Boer War throughout 1899 and 1900. Then during World War One, it served as a recruiting station for the First Infantry Brigade which mustered and trained at the racecourse. During the 1920s, the tan track had a reputation as one of the best, especially in wet weather. Kensington was popular among trainers with about 95 using the track each month. ‘Baron’ Bob Skelton was a prominent pony trainer of the time. He could see the track from his home on Barker Street, keeping an eye on the 50 to 60 horses he had in training at any one time.

In the 1930s, the lease on the track was up for renewal and debate ensued. Representation was made to the Council for the area to become a park and general recreation area. The number of race meetings had been reducing from 18 a year to 14 and the reputation of pony racing was deteriorating. The track had held a variety of events apart from racing, including polo matches and athletic events. Despite all this, the lease for the racecourse to continue was renewed until 1942, subject to the infield being available for other sporting and recreation purposes.

By the time the lease was up for discussion again, World War Two was in progress. Race days were being stripped from the pony courses, the Sydney Turf Club (STC) Act was passed in August 1943, and the military occupied Kensington. Without realising it, they had had their last race meeting on 24 December 1941. Though the lease of the area was re-granted racing would not return. The trainers had already been given space at Randwick to use and the STC were wrapping up proprietary pony courses around Sydney. By 1947, the area was being prepared for use by a University of Technology which would become the University of NSW.

Hannah Hibbert, ATC Archivist

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