The approach of Spring Carnival, in whatever form it takes this year, started me thinking about the horse-racing history of the Heidelberg district. I’ve often pondered the trotting track on the outer perimeter of what is described as the Cricket Oval, Heidelberg in this coloured postcard from around 1910.
There is some doubt as to the precise location of the first track where races were held from the early 1850s. However racing was a feature of the area even before then. The Port Phillip Gazette (26 February 1840), contains an advertising spiel by the auctioneer for the sale of the Rosanna Estate which includes a report of “All the Gentlemen on the Heidelburg, Banyuille and adjacent runs” subscribing for the “Heidelberg Cup” to be run at the races.”
The Port Phillip Gazette (31 December 1845) carried an article on “HORSE RACING AT THE PLENTY. The neighbourhood of the Plenty on Boxing Day was one vast scene of bustle and excitement owing to it being the first attempt to get up a horse race in that locality and we are glad to state that the attempt succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectations of its projectors.” There was one difficulty though, as the report outlines, “The third race was for a side of meat, but the heat and flies made the prize unacceptable.”
By 1853 there is a record of horse racing at Heidelberg and by 1855, of a trotting match held at the Heidelberg Racecourse. The Argus (13 February 1860) gives a detailed account of the second day’s events at Heidelberg Races which included the Handicap Hurdle Race, Publican’s Purse, Shilling Stakes, Consolation Stakes and the Pony Ride. The “shortness of the course” was suggested as the reason for the jockeys doing an extra lap in one race and the lack of organisation “as we generally find to be the case at non-metropolitan horse gatherings” meant that the meeting “was probably wound up by moonlight.”
According to one source, there was also another race track which operated during the mid-1850s which included a steep downhill section and a natural water jump. This was associated with the then Ivanhoe Hotel which was situated where the Civic Centre now stands. This suggests that the course ran down to, and over, Darebin Creek.
The breeding and training of trotters became a feature of the district. In 1903 the Leader newspaper featured an article on the Riversdale Stud Farm, described as 500 acres on the Lower Plenty Creek on what was previously Preston Hall Estate, later to become the Heidelberg Golf Course. The stud was described in glowing terms, “in a picturesque position … [with] a long range of stabling, loose boxes, coach houses … while a trotting track is to be found in close proximity … altogether a model breeding establishment.” Although not specified, it seems very probable that the track at Heidelberg was the one to which this referred.
Other well-known local horse breeders included the Bartram family at View Bank Farm. Harold Bartram organised shows to raise money for charity at Warringal Park. Events included a jumping race called the Old English Plate which took its name from the Old England Hotel. The Bartrams also hosted hunts at View Bank. Hunt clubs had used the Old England Hotel as their meeting point since the 1890s, as seen in the photograph below.