Troops listening to Melbourne Cup during WWII

Troops listening to the Melbourne Cup during WWII in Papua New Guinea. Source: Australian War Memorial

The quiet philanthropist

BY ANDREW LEMON
 
AT THE HEART OF THE VICTORIA RACING CLUB’S VALUES IS A COMMITMENT TO MAKING A POSITIVE CONTRIBUTION TO THE COMMUNITY THROUGH DONATIONS AND PARTNERSHIPS. THIS CULTURE OF PHILANTHROPIC GIVING GOES AS FAR BACK AS THE VERY BEGINNING OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR IN 1914, WHEN THE VRC SO GENEROUSLY DONATED TO THE PATRIOTIC FUND.

 
When war in Europe between Germany and Great Britain was declared at the start of August 1914, who could have guessed that the disaster would continue for four years and cost 60,000 Australian lives?
 
The first response of authorities at the Victoria Racing Club – the principal racing club in the State – came within a week of the outbreak of war. The Club announced a generous donation of £1000 to the Lord Mayor’s newly established Patriotic Fund.

The Australian Jockey Club, the VRC’s counterpart in Sydney, conspicuously announced it would donate ten times as much to a comparable fund in New South Wales. The VRC never wanted to be outdone. It promptly declared it would contribute one third of the profits of the forthcoming Melbourne Cup meeting.
 
A year further on, the grim reality of a long, expensive war was sinking in. VRC Chairman R.G. Casey addressed the VRC annual meeting in August 1915 and made two profound announcements. The committee planned to invest its reserve funds into the Federal Government’s war loan. Amidst applause, he said, ‘We regard that as patriotism and a national duty.’

Wounded soldiers watching 1945 Melbourne Cup

Patients of the 115th Heidelberg Military Hospital, watching the running of the 1945 Melbourne Cup at Flemington. Identified personnel are: Lieutenant F.K. Bice (left); Captain R.L Matthews (right). Source: Australian War Memorial

The Chairman then asked approval from Members ‘to devote all profits from meetings held at Flemington to patriotic and war relief funds.’ To maximise these gifts, ‘expenses would be kept down, and no improvements but those absolutely necessary would be carried out’.
 
The VRC was a not-for-profit organisation with an unpaid committee. By law it was custodian of Flemington as a racecourse reserve on Crown Land. As principal racing club it administered the rules of racing. All VRC income was invested back into the sport including upkeep of the racecourse. To forgo the surplus for the duration of the war was no meagre sacrifice.
 
By the Armistice in November 1918, the VRC could boast that it had indeed slashed costs, including prizemoney, spending a bare minimum on maintenance. It had provided £102,000 to the war effort, more than any sporting institution in the nation. Evidently the club had outspent even the AJC.

The number of pounds donated by the VRC in the First World War is meaningless today unless we look at equivalent values, incomes, or what you could buy for that money.

The VRC donation was about 11 times the 1914 value (about £9,500) of the Melbourne Cup, then as now among the richest horse races in the world. The Club cut the prize to £7,000 in 1916.
 
By standards of today, let’s multiply the $7.3 million prizemoney for the 2018 Lexus Melbourne Cup by 11. We reach an equivalent figure exceeding $80 million for the VRC’s efforts. It was a huge contribution.
 
Two decades of peace ensued. Then in September 1939 the Second World War began. It would last even longer than the First. It brought anxiety and heartbreak into everyday Australian life.
 
The Club had set itself the precedent. This time, without delay, the previous policy was resumed. Again, VRC reserve funds went into government war loans. Again, all surplus income from racing at Flemington would go towards patriotic funds, regardless of how long the conflict lasted. And again, the VRC cut spending and abandoned building improvements. It would take a further decade after the war to begin replacing decaying facilities and put Flemington back towards its brilliant best.
 
There was no ulterior motive here. Later in the war, as dangers to Australia itself became evident, Prime Minister John Curtin actively contemplated closing racing down altogether, but the VRC decision to donate its profits to patriotic funds was made long before that.
 
The committee under chairmen Sir Alan Currie (a First World War veteran) and Richard Turnbull were no less patriotic than R.G. Casey. They were determined that, whatever the difficulties, racing must continue at Flemington. In the spirit of ‘keeping the home fires burning’, Currie and Turnbull and their Sydney counterparts successfully argued that the best-loved traditions of life in Australia should be kept alive – not least for the men on the front.
 
When it was all over, the VRC released official figures. This time the Club’s war-time contribution was £117,502, distributed between the official Patriotic Fund, the Australian Red Cross and the Australian Comforts Fund. A further £100,000 went into war loans.
 
The Melbourne Cup prizemoney in Rivette’s year, 1939, was £10,000. The official VRC donation over the six years of the Second World War was 11.7 times the value of the Cup. Applying our comparison with today’s values, it translates to $85 million.
 
Much more was given in kind. In both wars the VRC admitted soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses in uniform free of charge to Flemington. At Cup time in 1943 alone, this amounted to 8,000 free tickets. And portions of the racecourse grounds and stands were given over to the RAAF for training purposes. But that is another story.
 
The VRC continues to honour the sacrifices of all who have served the nation in time of conflict. Flemington’s ANZAC Day meeting, first authorised under State law in 1961, is now a traditional fixture featuring the classic VRC St Leger.
 
Through the ANZAC Day races, the VRC continues to contribute annually to the ANZAC Day proceeds fund, while Racing Victoria materially supports the fund on behalf of Victoria’s racing industry more widely.
 
Who could add up this history of patriotic fund-raising over the past 105 years and convert it to a modern dollar value? What can be said for certain is that – even discounting funds that went into war loans and which ultimately came back to the Club – the VRC quietly donated, by today’s values, at least $165 million over the course of the two world wars alone. An effort worth honouring.