Warwick Farm: The Picnic Racecourse in The City


(This page also contains extracts from the forthcoming book Sydney Racing in the 1970s: A Racegoers' Companion, due for publication Christmas 2021.)

Introduction


Here’s one out of ‘left field’: I find similarities in the histories of Sydney’s Warwick Farm racecourse and US baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers (‘Dem Bums’) one-time home, Ebbet’s Field. Both were, despite the injection of large sums of set-up capital, poorly laid out initially and victims of infelicities of design. They were situated in locations that had serious disadvantages. They have been depicted as ‘white elephants’, ridiculed, compared unfavourably with cross-town big brothers (Randwick/Yankee Stadium), repeatedly threatened with demolition, and beset by transport problems.  Neither was ever the most glittering stage, more-so the bread-and-butter venues, of their sports. And yet, there was something about their subalternation, their battler status, that endeared them to the fans. The scenes in Ken Burns’ seminal documentary Baseball, wherein Dodgers fans recall their sense of loss when Ebbet’s Field was demolished in 1960, and the Dodgers were despatched to the American west coast, are among the most emotional of the film.

The Farm however remains in operation to this day—albeit currently stripped of its signature races and demoted to a mid-week course—despite a history punctuated by closures and hiatuses, re-openings, re-purposings and re-imaginings. It seems that none of its administrations, proprietary and non-proprietary alike, have ever been entirely happy with their utilisation of it, or their return on investment from it. It has suffered from the tyranny of distance – distance from the CBD, and more recently, distance from the powerbase of the AJC and the ATC, the eastern suburbs. And yet, despite its many gainsayers, this beautiful picnic racecourse in the city, (now) surrounded by some of Sydney’s most kicked-about suburbs, has the city’s most loyal following. And despite too having been starved of Saturday meetings for twenty years, with the relocation of the Inglis sales yards to the older Leger reserve in 2018, Warwick Farm looks set to pull off another Lazarus-like resurrection.

Through most of its existence Warwick Farm has appealed to its admirers as an Arcadian delight hidden in a sylvan setting in Sydney’s near hinterland. In the 1950s auctioneer Clive Inglis called it the ‘AJC’s rural retreat’. If Daniel (Robinson Crusoe) Defoe had been on the AJC Committee he might have styled it his ‘country bower’. It does seem that at times the AJC was trying to make it a sort of country club, though this aspiration slowly retreated as urbanisation advanced on it after World War II. But Warwick Farm’s promotion as Sydney’s picnic racecourse persisted at least until the end of the twentieth century. The Daily Mirror’s racing writer Tom Brassel was known to be a passionate supporter of the track and the surrounding racing precinct. He was in particular an advocate of the Chipping Norton Stakes, then still run at 11 furlongs (while Rob Kent of Turf Monthly singled the Stakes out for the quality of its winners and the number of favourites successful). In March 1970 Brassel wrote a wonderful feature article on the track and race. So beguiled was he by the Farm a racing writer’s quotidian prose was transformed into something quite lyrical:

In a quiet bush setting some 20 miles from Sydney, Warwick Farm provides an ideal training set-up and some great horses have been prepared there…[w]ith quiet back streets contrasting with the hustle and bustle of other racing centres [it] has the atmosphere of France’s famed Chantilly…it is a common sight to see some of Sydney’s most valuable thoroughbreds quietly exercising around the streets, stopping here and there to pick at lush grass while the only traffic is an occasional child on a dinky or a bike…there is an air of intimacy between horse and human…[it provides] one of the most pleasant settings for horse racing in the country.

‘Dad’s affinity with The Farm stemmed from us living nearby, so that was his first port of call most workdays enroute to News Limited’s Surry Hills office,’ Tony Brassel recalled in 2018. ‘Unlike the Randwick-based journos he had Warwick Farm all to himself! He always presented the place in a good light—local trainers, jocks, owners etc. considered him the go-to man al la the media.’

Brassel was not alone among the racing media in his admiration of rustic Warwick Farm. Arnold Rodgers, editor of Turf Monthly, praised its picturesque nature and suggested trials be held there in Easter on a Sunday, along with a polo match. Jack Pollard in 1988 wrote about its barbeque facilities, as though it were possible to ‘cook your own’ steak on course, like you could at Warragamba Dam.  So far as I can determine that was never the case, though it was certainly possible to purchase a barbecued t-bone from the catering outlets.

Journalist Max Presnell, though an eastern suburbs stalwart himself, is a racing renaissance man and bon vivant. He appreciated that in racecourses, as in life in general, variety is the essential spice. He wrote this in 2001 when rumours of the Farm’s closure were afoot:

Many would go to The Farm because of its rural feel, taking food and considerable drink to party after the last in the car park. This became popular to the extent trees were in danger of being over-watered. A campaign for a toilet block in the car park was mounted and the project finished about the time booze buses came into prominence [about 1984].

So while the Farm has had its good share of influential apologists in recent times, in fact the appreciation of its utility as a ‘rural retreat’ extends right back to its earliest utilisation as a racecourse.


The Warwick Stakes 1982


Undoubtedly the highlight of the early years back at the Farm after the 1981 re-opening was the win by the undisputed Sydney champion of the era, Kingston Town, in his third Warwick Stakes on 21 August 1982. The King was first up from a spell of nine months following his rank and mysterious failure in the previous year’s Melbourne Cup. It was largest Warwick Farm attendance since the 1975 Warwick Stakes, and much larger than the last two Kingston Town had won run at Randwick. 19,500 men, women and children, laid siege to the course, so that every good vantage point was contested and occupied by the time that the field left the birdcage enclosure.  The crowd cheered Kingston and Malcolm Johnston onto the course, they cheered him in the run, they cheered him at the post, and they cheered his return to the winner’s stall. When some unusually bright spark arranged for the infield semaphore to be lit up with the words ‘The King is Back!’ they cheered again. Owner David Hains was moved to say, ‘I have never seen anything like this.’ Warwick Farm was no longer Ebbet’s Field, but a foretaste of the ‘Field of Dreams’: Build it [a decent attraction] and they did come. Next day Presnell reflected, ‘these days it [Warwick Farm] is a very popular racecourse’. He added wryly, ’I still don’t rate the new stand in the top six in Australia’

 He had good cause not to. Some of the thinking behind its design, and its surroundings, was hard to fathom. The exits at the western and eastern ends of the stand were (and in fact still are) solid wooden doors of a single-man’s breadth—like closet doors in a small house. The entrance to the men’s toilet on the causeway between the new stand and the old paddock stand was also a single-man’s width; what’s more, it features a ‘chicane’ between the doorway and the main chamber. As a consequence, if one man enters as another is leaving, they are bound to collide, or else turn sideways to shrug past one another. Still, these puzzling features are consistent with the topsy-turvy architectural history of Warwick Farm!


(Like to read more? Watch for the book at Xmas 2021!)


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Warwick Farm today

Warwick Farm c. 1930

Warwick Farm c. 1900

Silver Shadow wins 1975 Warwick Stakes

Ebbet's Field c. 1946