With racing returning to Moonee Valley this Saturday, for the first time since March, it’s an ideal time to look back at the history of one of Australia’s most famous tracks.
Moonee Valley Racecourse, located in Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, holds a significant place in this country’s racing history. Established in 1883, it has become one of the most iconic racing venues in Australia and hosts the prestigious Cox Plate, known both as the “Race of Champions” and the weight-for-age championship of Australasia. The history of Moonee Valley is a tale of vision, determination, and evolution, reflecting the changing landscape of Australian horse racing.
Moonee Valley owes its inception to William Samuel Cox, a prominent pastoralist and entrepreneur. Cox recognized the potential for a high-quality racing venue in the Moonee Ponds area and acquired the land for this purpose. In fact, he had previously created Kensington Park racecourse on that land in 1874, which operated until 1882.
On September 15, 1883, the inaugural race meeting took place at Moonee Valley, drawing a large crowd and making a positive impression on spectators.
Cox himself died in 1895, but the family connection and legacy with the course lived on via his son Archie, who became club secretary in 1905.
During the early 20th century, Moonee Valley Racecourse faced various challenges, including financial setbacks and competition from other racetracks. However, with strategic management and improvements to the facilities, the racecourse managed to attract large crowds and secure its position alongside Flemington as a premier racing destination for Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs.
The creation of the W.S Cox Plate, named after the aforementioned William Samuel, in 1922, helped solidify the club’s standing. The inaugural edition was won by Violoncello, a horse that was almost a century ahead of his time given the proliferation of ex-European imports that we see today. He was bred and raced in England before being shipped to Australia, also winning the 1921 Caulfield Cup.
The interwar period saw the racecourse continue to flourish, but it also experienced disruptions due to the Great Depression and World War II. Despite these challenges, the racing community remained resilient, the Cox Plate was still run every year, including being further institutionalised by Phar Lap winning in both 1930 and 1931, and Moonee Valley remained a beloved institution among racing enthusiasts.
Through the 40s, 50s and 60s, champion horses like Tranquil Star, Flight, Rising Fast, Tulloch and Tobin Bronze took out the Cox Plate, furthering its credentials and ensuring the Moonee Valley racecourse would not be the subject of land development and redeployment.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Moonee Valley underwent significant modernization and infrastructure upgrades. The construction of new grandstands, improved spectator facilities, and enhanced amenities elevated the overall race-day experience. Moreover, advancements in technology further cemented Moonee Valley’s status as a premier racing venue.
The club’s unyielding ambition to be at the forefront of change in racing was best highlighted in 1998, when the Valley became Australia’s first metropolitan racetrack to embrace night racing, in the January of that year. Night racing on a Friday is now a staple of Victorian racing through spring and summary, including Group 1 meetings like the Manikato Stakes and William Reid Stakes.
As the 21st century dawned, Moonee Valley continued to embrace innovations while honouring its rich heritage. The Cox Plate, always the conversational centre of any Moonee Valley discussion, grew in international prestige, attracting competitors from around the world.
The racing amphitheatre and atmosphere created is unlike anything in the world, and racing fans were lucky to see the likes of Might and Power, Sunline and Northerly around the turn of the century. Who can forget Makybe Diva and the “wall of horses” in 2005?
The along came Winx to further solidify the course’s reputation as a venue of champions.
Amid increasing awareness of environmental and social issues, Moonee Valley Racecourse took steps to become a more sustainable and responsible institution. Initiatives to achieve carbon neutrality by 2027, water conservation, and waste generation were implemented, setting an example for other racing venues in Australia and beyond.
Over the years, Moonee Valley Racecourse faced various challenges, including increased competition from other sports and entertainment options. To stay relevant, the racecourse diversified its offerings, hosting concerts, festivals, and community events beyond horse racing. This adaptability helped maintain its status as a key cultural and social hub in the Moonee Ponds area.
Like many sports and entertainment venues, Moonee Valley faced disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, including for the All Star Mile there in 2021. Racing events were held behind closed doors for a period, impacting the atmosphere and financial viability. However, the racing community displayed resilience, and as restrictions eased, spectators returned, bringing back the electrifying atmosphere that characterizes racing at Moonee Valley.
As of the present day, Moonee Valley remains an iconic institution in Australian horse racing. The commitment to excellence, sustainability, and community engagement ensures that the racecourse will continue to be a focal point for both racing enthusiasts and the wider public.
With its rich history as a backdrop, the Moonee Valley racecourse looks forward to the future, which includes a racetrack upgrade, eager to embrace new opportunities and preserve its legacy as a place where champions are made and celebrated.