The Singapore Sporting Club was formalised on 4 October 1842 and subsequently given a grant by then Governor Samuel George Bonham to set up a racecourse a mile away from town.
Prior to the construction of the racecourse, gharry pony races were known to be held at the Esplanade as early as 1834 during the first New Year Land Sports. In the 1840s, William Henry McLeod Read, co-founder of the Singapore Sporting Club, began advocating for races to be held regularly in Singapore. Along with merchant Charles Spottiswoode and lawyer William Napier, Read initiated early horse racing in Singapore, and he supported racing for more than four decades.
The racecourse was built at the junction of Bukit Timah Road and Serangoon Road, where Farrer Park is today. It covered 50 acres (20 hectares), reaching as far as Buffalo Road. The swampy land had to be drained, trees felled and tall grass cleared to make the course usable for racing. The course stretched for 1,722 m, and on its inner side was a special training course. Later, the grandstand with a second-class platform and separate seats for native spectators was built on the northwestern side of the course. Stables were built on the side nearer to Kampong Java Road, as well as a training paddock and a bandstand. Drainage laid out for the course would later become Rochor Canal.
Once the administration of the Straits Settlements was transferred to the Colonial Office in London in 1867, the racecourse was officially leased for 999 years to the stewards of the Singapore Sporting Club at a low rental, with effect from 31 March 1867. A condition was that the grounds had to be kept clear and ready for races and rifle practice.
The first race at the racecourse was slated for 19 February 1843 to mark the 24th year of Singapore’s founding, but was rescheduled to 23 and 25 February. A national holiday was declared for the first race day and the festivities concluded with a race ball on 27 February. Read, who rode the horse Colonel, won the Singapore Cup, and a prize of $150.
Races were organised twice a year, in May and October, often spanning three to four days. Races were patronised mainly by the Europeans and Malay royalty, although several well-to-do Chinese also joined in. The honorary patron for the races was the governor, then Cecil Clementi Smith, although the sultan of Johor was seen as its chief promoter. Representatives of the different communities would also offer prizes – the “celestial plate” was in honour of the Chinese empire, the Arab cup was presented by wealthy resident Arabs and the coromandel vase by Tamil merchant leaders. Race days were half-day holidays, with banks, mercantile offices and government agencies closing at noon. The ladies would be dressed in the latest styles, while military bands or the sultan’s band would play before the races started at 3 pm. The races ended by 6 pm with some patrons lingering for drinks at the bar below the grandstand.
Some of the first ponies used in these early races were Batak ponies from Deli, Sumatra, which descended from Mongolian and Arabian ponies. They were often mistaken for Dilli ponies from Timor. Breeds from China and Burma were later brought in but they proved too troublesome. The ponies and horses were cared for by Boyanese syces living at Kampong Kapor, a stone’s throw away from the racecourse. In 1896, the Straits Racing Association was established to manage racing in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh.
By 1927, the racecourse grounds proved inadequate and moved to Bukit Timah, which would in 1933 become the Bukit Timah Racecourse. The Singapore Sporting Club was renamed the Singapore Turf Club in 1924.
1. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore (p. 16). Singapore: Bukit Turf Club. Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN; Onraet, R. H. (1938, June 19). Rickshas, moneylenders and five-foot ways ‘Malaya’s major disasters’. The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Turf Club. (2000). Singapore racecourse, 1842–2000 (pp. 6, 8). Singapore: Singapore Turf Club. Call no.: RSING 798.400685957 SIN.
2. Untitled: New Year Sports. (1839, January 3). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Tan, 1992, p. 16; The Free Press. Singapore, Thursday, March 2nd 1843. (1843, March 2). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Tan, 1992, pp. 17, 21; Lulin, R. (1993). The eagle and the lion: A history of the Singapore Island Country Club (p. 18). Singapore: The Club. Call no.: RSING 367.95957 REU; Horses, horse breeding and sport in the East Indies. (1893, March 29). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Reith, G. M. (1892). Handbook to Singapore: with map and a plan of the Botanic Gardens (p. 56) [Microfilm: NL 7522]. Singapore: Singapore and Straits Printing Office.
5. Tan, 1992, p. 20; Makepeace, W., Brooks, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 2, p. 348). Singapore: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE -[HIS].
6. Singapore Turf Club. (1983). Fifty years at Bukit Timah: 1933–1983 (p. 4). Singapore: Singapore Turf Club. Call no. RSING 798.400655957 FIF; Tan, 1992, pp. 18–20; The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 2 Mar 1843, p. 3.
7. Reith, 1892, p. 56.
8. Singapore Turf Club, 2000, p. 6; Tan, 1992, p. 24.
9. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 29 Mar 1893, p. 2.
10. Onraet, R. H. (1938, June 12). Malaya’s first horses were sent from Sumatra. The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Singapore Turf Club, 1983, p. 4; Tan, 1992, pp. 20, 25.
12. Singapore Turf Club, 1983, pp. 6, 8; Singapore Turf Club, 2000, p. 8.
The information in this article is valid as at July 2015 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.