Old racecourse (Farrer Park)

by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia

The old racecourse (at what is today Farrer Park), or the Serangoon Road Race Course, was built in 1842. The racecourse became a sports and recreational hub for Europeans and created employment for early settlers from Java and India. It also witnessed significant events, such as Singapore’s Centenary Day celebrations and the earliest aeroplane 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 (SSC), which was founded on 4 October 1842 by a few amateur racing enthusiasts, including William Macleod Read, Charles Spottiswoode and William Napier. The men’s hunt for a racetrack ended when they found a “patch of swampy land on the edge of a stream”, which lay a short distance from the junction of Bukit Timah and Serangoon Road. They made a request to the government for the piece of land for horse racing and their request was granted.1 

As news of a new racecourse spread rapidly among the Europeans, the pace of clearing the designated land for the horse tracks quickened. Owners of well-bred horses wasted no time in grooming their horses for the upcoming races. All available manpower was channelled to fell trees and clear 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’s founding. By the time of the announcement, the racetracks and grandstand were almost completed.2

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.3

The racecourse became the hub of European social life in Singapore. The first 25 years of horse racing were reserved for the Europeans and Malay royalty. The Europeans were mostly amateurs who trained and rode their own horses. Racehorses were kept in the stables under the care of Boyanese syces who lived at the adjacent Kampong Kapor. The Malay royalty was also keen on racing, with Johore’s 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 Kongke Cup. In 1867, the administration of Singapore was transferred from the Indian government to the Colonial Office in London. By then, the SSC 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.4

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 would hold picnics at the field.5

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.6

World War I slowed activities at the racecourse. The war also affected the sale of horses. Races were still held, but these were to raise funds for the war. Recovery after the war was slow.7

Other memorable events
The racecourse was also used as a runway. In March 1911, Frenchman Joseph Christiaens flew and landed one of the earliest planes on the racecourse. Another landing was by Captain Ross Smith on 4 December 1919, who was making a pioneering flight from England to Australia. 

The racecourse also hosted grand parades, including the King’s Birthday Parade and the Centenary Day celebrations, the latter held on 6 February 1919.9

Move to Bukit Timah
In 1924, the SSC was renamed Singapore Turf Club (STC), signalling a renewed enthusiasm in horse racing.10 In 1927, the STC’s committee decided that the present racecourse was too old and too small to meet the growing popularity of races. The growing city boundaries 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), R. J. Farrer, the club was allowed to sell off its original home to SIT for $1.5 million. STC then bought part of the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate for its new and bigger racecourse.11 The club shifted to the new racecourse at Bukit Timah on 15 April 1933.12 

In 1935, the old racecourse was renamed Farrer Park, after R. J. Farrer, who was President of the Municipal Commissioners from 1919 to 1931.13 

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-yard hurdles of the Amateur Athletic Association championships.14 In its heyday in the 1950s and ’60s, the stadium was the hub of the country’s track-and-field. Later, the stadium was leased out to a soccer club, and became an exclusive venue for hockey matches.15  

On 7 August 1971, a new Sports House was officially opened at Farrer Park by Tan Sri Runme Shaw, chairman of the STC. Minister for Sports, Othman Wok, was also present at the occasion to open the 1971 Pesta Sukan.16 The Sports House was home to 14 sports associations and seven affiliates, including Ten Pin Bowling Association, Singapore Squash Association and Singapore National Olympic Council, before it was razed to the ground by an early morning fire on 6 June 1985.17 

Today, the site of the Farrer Park Stadium is occupied by Farrer Park Primary School.18

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia & Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman

1. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, pp. 16–17. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN)
2. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, p. 17. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN)
3. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, pp. 18, 20. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN)
4. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, pp. 20–22, 24. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN)
5. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, pp. 21–22. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN); Then and now. (1992, September 22). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN)
7. Singapore Turf Club. (1983). Fifty years at Bukit Timah: 1933–1983. Singapore: Singapore Turf Club, pp. 4, 6. (Call no.: RSING 798.400655957 FIF)
8. Maiden flight at Race Course. (1988, December 16). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. The day’s news. (1919, February 7). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Dunlop, P. K. G. (2000). Street names of Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, p. 82. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS])
10. Singapore Sporting Club. (1924, January 26). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, p. 25. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN)
11. Tan, S. (1992). The winning connection: 150 years of racing in Singapore. Singapore: Bukit Turf Club, pp. 25, 27–28. (Call no.: RSING 798.40095957 TAN)
12. 5,000 at brilliant Turf Club opening. (1933, April 16). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Dunlop, P. K. G. (2000). Street names of Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, pp. 82, 258. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS])
14. Cinders now: Sir Robert gives word “Go”. (1957, July 27). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Rai, H. (1992, April 15). SAAA wants Farrer Park Stadium as its home. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Teoh, E. T. (1971, August 7). A new era for S’pore sports begins today. The Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Ng, W. H. (1985, June 7). Sports House gutted. The Straits Times, p. 1; Nair, S., & Frida, E. (1985, June 6). Sports history up in smoke. Singapore Monitor, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Yeo, A. (2001, June 20). Moulmein set to become part of CBD. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

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.

Horse racing--Singapore--History
Sports, recreation and travel>>Equestrian sports
Horse racing (Events)
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Streets and Places