Frank McGrath

The Disappearance of Racing Randwick

We like to think that racing is age old, and it is. The ‘Sport Of Kings’... named after a time when there were kings. And of so many sports, perhaps this one thinks it honours its past better than most. We remember Phar Lap and Carbine, Persimmon and St Simon, all the way back to the three foundation sires eons ago. We celebrate 150 years of great races. We preserve racing. Or we think we do.

The photograph above was taken Monday last, on a very warm, spring-like day in Kensington, racing suburb of Sydney. The elegant, Federation home pictured is 158 Doncaster Avenue, rested on a large block on the western fringe of Randwick suburb. Leap the back fence and you’re on racecourse land.

Eighty years ago, on the same Monday afternoon in spring, you might have seen Banjo Paterson tugging on a cigarette on that front verandah. After all, this was the home of racehorse trainer Frank McGrath, and McGrath and Paterson were friends. You might have seen Eric Connolly or Bill Pierson, and you most certainly would have seen the men that owned such racing legends as Peter Pan, Amounis and Beau Vite. And in a matter of months, the only thing surviving of this house will be this photograph.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. To understand this issue, you must first know a little about Doncaster Avenue.

Flanking the western perimeter of Randwick racecourse, the busy street has been an artery for horse racing since racing began here, and that’s a while ago by Sydney standards. As recently as 60 years ago, Doncaster Avenue and its offspring (Bowral, Goodwood, Carlton streets) were alight with racing livelihoods – feed merchants, farriers, jockeys, and trainers like ‘Master’ McGrath. Harry Telford was here, and Peter Riddle. Some of the great horses of our nation sprung from this place. At these times, the street came alive every morning to horse iron on footpaths and the smell of molasses and hay in the wind. There was nowhere in Sydney like it.

The racecourse remained, but sadly the livelihoods did not. From my guess, the great push out of Doncaster Avenue began in the 1970s, and the land grab is well and truly under sail. Take a look at the photograph above. This is two doors north of McGrath’s home, the former stables of trainer Harry Darwon. The 1954 Queen Elizabeth winner Blue Ocean (the race’s inaugural winner) came from here, as did countless others.

On any week in any month of the year, I drive around the suburbs that circle Randwick racecourse and see where Randwick’s racing heritage is headed... down a long black hole under forgettable modern design and Hebel and glass facades. McGrath’s home and Harry Darwon’s old yard are next, to be rubbled for a development arrogantly tagged ‘The Stables’. It was sold by John Messara. And I’ve been told that McGrath’s yard won’t be long following its fate. At 158A Doncaster Avenue, it is currently home to the Waterhouse ‘Tempest Morn’ string. But for how long?

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve written two big racing biographies, and the stables and training homes associated with both horses remain. Peter Pan’s not for long, but Shannon’s trainer lived in a still-present home on Norton Street (which sat behind the long-gone Kensington pony track), while his yard on Bowral Street is now the HQ of the Waterhouse operation. I’ve stood in all these places, soaked up their chafed weatherboards and scarred stable doors, picturing them 70 and 80 years ago. But I know they won’t survive my lifetime, so I savoured them even more. McGrath’s home is the first to go. I suspect his yard, and hence the yard that spawned Amounis, Peter Pan (pictured there below in 1935), Beau Vite and Russia, will be next.

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So why is it that racing Randwick is disappearing before our eyes?

I’ve been told the locals are complaining about the rodents and early-rising horses. I’ve been told UNSW has tripled the value of land. Why keep horses when you can go up, commanding $470K a pop (and that’s cheap for this neck of the woods)? Pulling the thoroughbreds off Doncaster, I’ve been told, is safer, more viable for the future of horse racing. And like so much in life today, ‘viable’ has little tolerance for history. Randwick is the great racing suburb of this city, but off the course (and often on it, let’s be honest), there’s not a preservation order in sight.

And so, gradually, slowly, the roots of our sport crawl into the imagination.

Max Presnell has written on this subject many times, most recently this weekend in the ‘Herald’ (
click here to read). He has an elephant’s memory of who lived up and down Doncaster Avenue, from the earliest McGrath days to the later Tommy Smith era. But at any stage you can access the ATC archives, and there discover just about every racing name that ever lived around the racecourse. And pretty soon this will be the only way to know, because McGrath’s home will be gone, probably soon his yard, and then every box and broom along Randwick’s famous avenue. People will die, until the only record of who was where is on paper.

As with most things in life these days, the bottom dollar is everything in horse racing. And while admitting that I am in the business of racing history, it is certainly the case that the betting dollar and the real-estate dollar come well before the preservation of times past in Randwick. It doesn’t always need to be this way. At Saratoga and Churchill Downs, racetrack tours transport paying visitors over the course, through the stands and into the backstretch homes of the horses. History is front and centre of these tours, and they operate almost every day. So, a little ingenuity anyone?

If there is anything Black Caviar reminded us of in this country (and Atlantic Jewel is starting to do the same), it’s that racing can crawl deep into the national affection... more than league or union, more than cricket. So why are we so reluctant to save its past?