The return of the Elms Handicap

9 February 2022 Written by Andrew Lemon

Named after the elm trees that populate Flemington and provide botanical beauty, the Elms Handicap is set to race once again on Black Caviar Lightning raceday. We examine the history of the race.

Think Flemington – think roses. Sixteen thousand rose bushes, mostly primed for spring.

Think Flemington again – think elms. “Ulmus procera” is the botanical name for the English elm, “procera” meaning “tall” in Latin. But at Flemington Racecourse, elm trees were first planted 145 years ago not just for height but for their spring and summer shade, their autumn colour and their sculptural winter form.

In 1876 the Secretary of the Victoria Racing Club was the very practical Robert Cooper Bagot. Here is a report in the weekly paper, the Australasian: “One of the improvements contemplated by Mr Bagot is the extension of tree-planting … It is his intention to plant a line of elms, pines, etc., along the banks of the river, whereby the beauty of the Flemington racecourse will be greatly enhanced.”

His famous successor, Henry Byron Moore – who held the chief executive job for an astonishing forty-four years – was an expert in everything. Among his many talents, he was an accomplished horticulturalist, intent on making Flemington into a true garden racecourse. Flowers were part of the story. So too were trees.

Byron Moore oversaw the mass planting of elms in three parts of the grounds. Some were set out in an avenue, with other species, along what was called the carriage drive from Epsom Road to the grandstands, the origin of today’s Members’ Drive.

Some were planted with oaks and conifers to create grassy shade towards the back of the Hill Reserve for picnickers. It’s part of what now becomes “The Park” in the Melbourne Cup Carnival.

And plenty more were planted towards the river end of the racecourse. Byron Moore in the 1880s created Flemington’s original Birdcage, or raceday stalls and saddling enclosure, in that vicinity. A betting ring for bookmakers and a picnic area were all planted out with elms. The trees grew quickly, and soon people imagined they had been there forever.

That precinct was simply The Elms. It remained the heart of Flemington until the betting ring, mounting yard and raceday stables were relocated to around their current vicinity in the 1920s. Many of the trees remained. Made over again around 1960, the Elms Precinct has always been among the most relaxed and roomiest parts of the public reserve.

Back in 1900 as the trees reached maturity the VRC created a race called the Elms Handicap of 7 furlongs (1408m) for two- and three-year-olds as a feature of a four-day autumn carnival, supporting act to the three mile (4828m) Champion Race. The winner of the first running of the Elms, was a colt named Cornquist, son of the Australian Racing Hall of Fame horse, Abercorn.

There was also a Pines Hurdle and a River Handicap, all ways of directing attention to the natural beauty of this grand racecourse.

How have the racecourse elms fared in the meantime? Many succumbed to building extensions, drought and old age, while there have been replacements planted over the years. An expert arborist might be able to determine which is the oldest English elm at Flemington, but “Ulmus procera” can reach extreme old age in Melbourne. Specimens a century old or more continue to thrive in the avenues in Royal Parade and the Fitzroy Gardens. One in the Royal Botanic Gardens was planted in the 1846 when Victoria was still part of New South Wales.

Nothing in racing stays the same forever. After a decade the Elms Handicap was restricted to three-year-olds and in 1916 the distance was extended to one mile. The marathon Champion Race disappeared in the 1920s, but the Elms Handicap remained part of the autumn card for most of the rest of the century.

There was one historic variation, in 1954, when the VRC autumn carnival was brought forward by two weeks to coincide with the Royal Visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. In an extravaganza of racing, the Newmarket Handicap (won by Birdwood), Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Cromis) and Duke of Edinburgh Australian Cup (Sunish) were all run on that royal day, with the Elms Handicap, in two divisions, opening the racing. It was a precursor of Super Saturday.

The Adelaide filly Waltzing Lady (VRC Oaks winner) and a colt named Gold Milla took the two divisions of the 1954 Elms Handicap. Des Coleman and Bill Williamson were the winning jockeys.

The VRC retained the February race fixture in 1955, introducing Flemington’s very first 5 furlong (1005m) weight-for-age race, the Lightning Stakes. The Elms Handicap reverted to its customary March autumn carnival spot, the distance increased to 10 furlongs (2010m). For a few years in the early 1970s the race was run over 12 furlongs (2414m) before returning to 2000 metres.

In the 1980s the weight-for-age Leonard Stakes of 1400 metres, another Flemington autumn race with a long history, was altered to open handicap conditions. The Elms Handicap, no longer needed, transferred to January before disappearing altogether. Subsequently the Leonard underwent several changes of names and conditions, officially under the registered race name “VRC March Stakes”.

This year the VRC March Stakes has been repositioned to February, to Black Caviar Lightning Stakes Day, as an open $161,000 Listed Race over 1400 metres. Naturally it needed a different name. And so we welcome back the Elms Handicap. Yes, 122 years after Cornquist, son of Abercorn, won the very first version, the VRC Elms Handicap returns to Flemington.

Image caption:1890 in The Elms (VRC Collection)