The Red House had shown enough promise as a sporting venue to prompt a syndicate of four ‘gentlemen’ to take over the hotel and racecourse with the aim of further developing it as a major sporting venue for Melbourne. The leading figure in the syndicate was a Mr. Hitchens, already well known in Melbourne as a champion billiards player. Famous as he may have been, the same newspaper that labelled him famous, The Australasian, also spelt his name variously as Hitchens, Hitchen and Hitchin. It is likely that he was William Charles Hitchen, the licensee of the Croxton Park from 1869 to 1870. The new owners borrowed the name of an established English club, and renamed the Red House “Croxton Park”, establishing the Croxton Park Racing Club. The club was the first privately owned commercial racecourse in Victoria and was located behind the hotel between High St and St Georges Rd. In later years the railway line would be laid down through the old course.
Croxton Park represented an attempt at major change in the landscape of horse racing in Victoria. Prior to this time, most other racecourses in Melbourne were subservient to the Victoria Racing Club at Flemington, by this time well established. The VRC were able to dictate terms in Victorian horse racing. The sporting press initially embraced Croxton Park, which looked set to challenge the hegemony of the VRC and would add more race meetings to a calendar at a time when Flemington was hosting meetings once every three weeks. Croxton Park’s owners were committed to hosting a monthly meeting, which would be governed by VRC rules but remain independent.
The old Red House course was extended to ten furlongs or 2000 metres, to match the track at Flemington. It also included a special 1200 metre section with only one turn, making it easier for inexperienced horses. A new grandstand was built with a capacity for 400 people and two sections, members and public. There were also new refreshment rooms built and a saddling enclosure for competitors.
Hitchen was determined to upgrade the poor quality of racing that had drawn criticism on Goyder’s Red House events. He offered minimum prize money of £50 to try and attract quality fields and the first day of racing was promising. It was the Queens Birthday Holiday, May 24 1869. The weather was not kind, cold and wet, it was a typical Melbourne May day. Nevertheless a reasonable crowd turned out, curious about the new development. An estimated 300 people paid four shillings for a seat in the grandstand while a further 1,500 paid one shilling to sit on the lawn. Such was the interest on the day that it was estimated by the press that 500 more stood from the edge of the fence watching the day’s events for free. At this time, the population of Northcote was only about 1,000 and there was still a toll to cross the Merri Creek coming from Melbourne, so the attendance was considerable.
The second race meeting attracted a crowd only half the size of the first. In this case though there were exceptional circumstances. The “velocipede” was to make its debut appearance at an athletics meeting scheduled for the MCG in July of 1869. This new contraption would later be known more widely as a bicycle. The velocipede had caused a craze in Europe and the news had spread to the distant colony. As such there was a lot of hype surrounding the event in the local press. Tragically for the Croxton Park, the event was washed out on its original date and was rescheduled for the same date as the second meeting at Croxton Park. The MCC did receive some criticism from the press, but it was little consolation for Hitchen and the Croxton Park club.
The race meetings at Croxton Park continued despite this setback, with trotting races introduced to the program, but still the races were blighted by poor organization. The sporting press were scathing, particular a writer for the Melbourne Leader ‘Falcon’, after a meeting on August 21 1869. It had been nearly a month between race meetings anywhere in Melbourne, so the Croxton Park Club hastily organised a series of cross-country events. Unfortunately one of the riders got lost and ‘Falcon’ left no doubt as to where he thought the blame lay, condemning the Croxton Park Club for using the “primitive custom” of placing the directions for the riders in the trees, forcing them to take their eyes off the trail, a particular danger in a steeplechase event. ‘Falcon’ may have excused this at a meeting in “Essendon or Dandenong” but not at a supposed “model racecourse” like Croxton Park.
For a November meeting, Hitchen planned a mile and a half race and advertised for 20 entries to pay 10 sovereigns for a total purse of 150 sovereigns. Unfortunately no entries were forthcoming and the race meeting only went ahead after a two-week delay. This made five race meetings, each having offered 150 guineas in prize money, with probably only the first having made any money for the club.
The Croxton Park changed hands in 1871, with Hitchen moving onto the Sir Robert Peel Hotel in Collingwood while a Mr. Turpey took over at Croxton Park. Turpey found himself in court in 1872 following on from the Boxing Day race meeting in 1871. Turpey had sold the rights at auction to sell liquor from booths under the grandstand. He had obtained no liquor licence as he felt the area still qualified as part of the Croxton Park Hotel. Unfortunately the presiding judge did not agree, saying that the stewards of the race track were in control of the race meeting and that Turpey did not have the right to authorise liquor sales on course. It was a rival publican, George Plant, who was in part responsible for drawing the matter to the attention of the authorities.
Meanwhile the Croxton Park Club, in the opinion of ‘The Australasian’, was on the verge of collapse. The horses were of poor quality, given that most came from the local area. The price of admission was prohibitive and the public transport to the venue was inadequate. In addition the course was plagued by rowdy behaviour by elements of the crowd, which made it even less attractive as a day out.
Following the winter meeting of July 12 1873, the Racing Club collapsed. ‘The Australasian’ reporter described the day as “one of the worst day’s sport ever witnessed”. While the Croxton Park’s grounds were still used by local football and cricket teams, the promotional sports and racing had completely disappeared by the mid 1870’s.
Membrey, Brian (2003?). The pubs, the parks and the Rose. [unpublished manuscript]
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen
The Australasian (Melbourne), Newspaper, Melbourne 1864-1946