The old racecourse (Farrer Park)
The old racecourse at Farrer Park, or the Serangoon Road Race Course, was built in 1842. The racecourse became a sports and recreational hub for the Europeans and created employment for the early settlers from Java and India. The racecourse also witnessed significant events, such as Singapore's Centenary celebrations and the earliest plane landing in Singapore. The racecourse moved to its new premises in Bukit Timah in 1933.
The old racecourse had its beginning in the formation of the Singapore Sporting Club, which was founded on 4 October 1842 by a few amateur racing enthusiasts including William Macleod Read, Charles Spottiswoode and William Napier. They made a request to the Government for a piece of land for horse racing and were not disappointed. The answer to the gentlemen's call was a "patch of swampy land on the edge of a stream", which lay a short distance from the junction of Bukit Timah and Serangoon Roads and away from the commercial and residential heart of the island.
As news of a new racecourse spread rapidly among the Europeans, the pace of clearing the designated land for the horse tracks doubled. The owners of well-bred horses wasted no time in grooming their horses for the fast gallop. All available manpower, recruited from Indian convicts, went towards felling of trees and clearing of thick lallang. On 8 December 1842, the Singapore Free Press announced that the first race would be held on 19 February 1843, to coincide with the 24th anniversary of the Colony founding. By the time of the announcement, the course and the stand were almost completed.
The First Race
The first horse racing meet was rescheduled to 23 and 25 February 1843 and the European community turned up in throngs, all dressed up for the occasion. The first race was for the Singapore Cup which promised a respectable prize of $150. The locals also joined in to watch the races from the far side of the course. The meet was rounded off by a Racing Ball held on 27 February at the Government House.
The racecourse became the nerve of European social life in Singapore. For the first 25 years of horse racing, the sports was confined to the Europeans, mostly amateurs who trained and rode their own horses. The Malay royalty was also keen on racing, with Sultan Ibrahim making regular appearances at the grandstand. Slowly, the wealthy Chinese became interested and offered prize money for races. Chinese-named Cups included the Cheang Hong Lim Cup, Confucius Cup, Kangchu Cup and the Kongke Cup. In 1867, Singapore was transferred from the Indian Government to the Colonial Office in London. By then, the Sporting Club had made improvements to the grandstand and tracks of the racecourse. In appreciation, the Government gave the Club a 999-year lease on the site "at a pepper corn rent", provided that the field was cleared of brushwood and maintained in good order for public races, and rifle practice by the troops.
Initially, little sturdy Java ponies were used in the races, but in the 1870s and 1880s, ponies from China and Burma were brought in. However they were found to be unsuitable. By the 1880s, imported horses from Australia were introduced and they dominated the racing scene by WWI. Racehorses were kept in the stables under the care of Boyanese syces who lived at the adjacent Kampong Kapor. In the mornings, buffaloes mowed the field to make it neat and ready for races.
The races which lasted two to three days were held twice a year, usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Races in May were known as the Spring Meeting while those in October the Autumn Meeting. Being one of the few places with open field, the racecourse was also used as a golf course, rifle range, polo field and grazing pasture on non-racing days. The local population also had their picnics at the field. Some Europeans built their houses in the area and named the streets after themselves (for example, Dunlop Street, Cuff Street and Dickson Street).
As horse racing became more popular, the racecourse was upgraded. In 1904, the old stables and other buildings were torn down to make way for new ones. In 1910, a new tote, which replaced the old attap-roofed shed, and a new imposing grandstand were built. Mr Bleackley, a tourist visiting the racecourse in the 1920s, had this to say about it:
WWI slowed activities at the racecourse. The War also affected the sale of horses. Races were still held, to raise funds for the War. Recovery after the War was slow.
Other Memorable Events
The old racecourse was also used as a runaway. On 16 march 1911, Frenchman Joseph Christiaens flew and landed one of the earliest planes on the racecourse. Another landing which attracted thousands of crowds to the racecourse was by Captain Ross Smith who, on 4 December 1919, gracefully grounded a Vickers-Vimy to safety at the field. The plane was making a pioneering flight from England to Australia.
The racecourse also hosted grand parades, including the King's Birthday Parade and the Centenary celebration of Singapore's founding, the latter held on 6 February 1919. On the last year that the King's Birthday Parade was held at the old racecourse in 1923, crowds witnessed for the last time the Sultan of Johore, Sir Ibrahim, galloping on his charger (horse trained for battle) along the line of the Malay infantry that he kept as his State troops.
Move to Bukit Timah
In 1924, the Singapore Sporting Club renamed itself to Singapore Turf Club, signalling a renewed enthusiasm in horse racing. In 1927, the Turf Club's committee decided that the present racecourse was too old and too small to meet the growing popularity of races. The growing city boundaries reaching around the racecourse also made it impossible for the Club to extend its grounds. After negotiating with the Chairman of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), Mr R J Farrer, Farrer agreed to let the Club sell off their original home to SIT for $1.5 million. The Club bought part of the Bukit Timah Estate for its new and bigger racecourse. Singapore Turf Club shifted to the new racecourse at Bukit Timah on 15 April 1933. In 1935, the old racecourse was renamed Farrer Park, after R J Farrer, who was President of the Municipal Commissioners from 1919 to 1931.
Farrer Park Stadium
On 26 July 1957, Governor Robert Black officially opened the Athletic Centre and new cinder track at Farrer Park. The new stadium cost $200,000 and its first event was the 440 yards hurdles of the Amateur Athletic Association championships. In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the stadium was the hub of the country's track and field. Later, the stadium was leased out to a soccer club, and later it became an exclusive venue for hockey matches.
On 7 August 1971, a new Sports House was officially opened at Farrer Park by Tan Sri Runme Shaw, chairman of the Singapore Turf Club. Inche Othman Wok, Minister for Sports, was also present at the occasion to open the 1971 Pesta Sukan. The Sports House had been home to 14 sports association and seven affiliates, including the National Sports Promotion Board, when it was razed to the ground by an early morning fire in June 1985.
Today, the site of the Farrer Park stadium is occupied by Farrer Park Primary School.
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia & Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman
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The information in this article is valid as at 2007 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.