Black Heart Bart

Underwood Dreaming

I have a confession – I’m a lot slower these days. I used to love to run to keep fit, but now it’s more like I love to jog or walk.

One of my favourite jogging paths takes in the old Williamstown racecourse. It’s actually almost in Altona, tucked away alongside the Kororoit Creek in low-lying land, adjacent to the Altona railway line. 

A path has been laid around where the old track would have been. A small part of the grandstand remains and paving is apparent where the bookmakers ring would have been situated. Some rusty old fencing and a lone palm tree; further evidence of days gone by.  As I jog or walk through this area I often allow my mind to wander away and think what it would have been like to be here when Williamstown racecourse was alive and bustling. 

The greatest ever, Phar Lap raced here. Imagine being transported in time for just one hour to watch the ‘Red Terror’ live… Resuming for his final preparation that would include nine wins, he started in the Underwood Stakes on August 25, 1931. Burly in condition, the bookmakers took one of the few risks ever with Phar Lap and sent him out at 2/1. What a fillip for the punters! He ambled along behind his rivals and gathered them in at the turn coasting to a two-length win over his fancied and fitter stable mate Rondalina.

It was Phar Lap’s only appearance at Williamstown. He’d go on to win another eight races that preparation including the Agua Caliente in Mexico before his untimely death.

As I think about the Underwood Stakes I’m drawn to one year in particular. It was 1996 and Octagonal was at the crossroads of his outstanding career. He’d come off his brilliant three year old season where he’d swept his rivals aside taking the Rosehill Guineas, Mercedes Benz Stakes and AJC Derby. But he’d flopped in three runs in the Spring and frustrated punters sent him out virtually unwanted at 7/1. 

Enter Darren Beadman. The champion Sydney jockey was recalled, replacing Darren Gauci who’d been on board for all three Spring runs. Beadman was preparing to leave racing to study to be a pastor. He managed to resurrect Octagonal that day – a stunning return to form. As he was being interviewed on television post race in the weighing area larrikin Greg Hall passed by in the background and draped his arm over Darren’s shoulder. Hall said, ‘That was unbelievable… you must be God!’

The comeback was short-lived, Octagonal flopped in his next three starts before his Spring was halted.

The Underwood Stakes of today is a terrific race. The footy finals are well and truly done and racing holds centre stage. It points to the Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate winner more often than not.

The ghosts of Phar Lap and Octagonal will be there at Caulfield. The races are calling loudly now, make sure you’re a part of it.