Since the First Fleet brought horses here in 1788, racing has been a staple of Australian culture.
But smaller crowds on race day are a fact of life in the post-pandemic era, and jockey clubs are having to pivot to make the most of any opportunity in the decline, putting their prime real estate to a new use.
The latest club to realise the potential of its land is Morphettville Racecourse in Adelaide.
Last month, its owners, the South Australian Jockey Club, announced that after a five-plus-year masterplan and tender process, a new partnership is posied to move the major track redevelopment forward.
The club is planning to redevelop 7.5ha of rezoned land between the racetrack’s home turn and Anzac Highway. The $350-million project will deliver 150 apartments in mixed-use blocks as well as 250 townhouses.
Additionally, a supermarket, shops and hospitality outlets, as well as a club-owned tavern and office, will be delivered in partnership with developers Villawood and superannuation fund Hostplus.
It is not the first time underutilised race tracks have been identified and adapted for reuse, according to the club chief executive officer, Grant Mayer.
“The masterplan has been ongoing for 5½ years or so, after starting at a high level in 2015-2016,” Mayer says.
“Back then they decided to develop excess land at the racecourse. It’s not a new concept—there are a number of metropolitan race tracks that have looked at the land and realised that the days of massive crowds have gone or at least they are infrequently big.
“They have this underutilised or totally unused land and thought, ‘How do we best use this land in a way that complements the racecourse?’.
“We wanted a transit-orientated plan developed with local talent to put to the government.”
As Mayer says, Morphettville had a long line of examples to learn from.
Melbourne Racing Club is pushing ahead with plans for its $3.5-billion Sandown Racecourse redevelopment and developer Golden Group proceeded with its $3.8-billion Belmont Park project in Perth last year.
Mirvac broke ground on its Eagle Farm Racecourse residential development in September, 2022, and the ACT government is considering proposals for Thoroughbred Park in Canberra, which would scrap the racetrack fully or partially in favour of housing.
Brisbane Racing Club is also undergoing significant change with the delivery of its $1.5-billion masterplan.
As racecourse owners look to futureproof their sites, Morphettville and other projects across Australia highlight the challenges of effectively integrating new developments into historic working racecourses.
Racing at Morphettville dates back to 1875, but the area under development was underused, mainly as a race-day carpark.
The club applied to the South Australian Government to rezone about 13ha of land initially.
“The original plan would have delivered 500 homes on the racecourse and three towers on Anzac Highway of 12 storeys each,” Mayer says.
As with many major development projects, Morphettville has gone through a process of shifting funding models and configurations.
Permission was granted in 2020 to rezone the “urban core”, but the strip of land surrounding the tramway was excluded.
“It changed our plans initially, we basically remodelled our tender process in regards to that piece of land.”
Australian thoroughbred racehorse auction house Magic Millions, owned since 2011 by Gerry Harvey and Katie Page, was on the land and involved at early stages.
“Gerry and Magic Millions were keen to stay involved and had a financial offer on the table,” Mayer says.
“But they thought long and hard about it—for Gerry it was about maintaining a presence for Magic Millions, he needed a base and wanted to stay as close to Morphettville as much as possible, because the cost of rebuilding would have been considerable.
“The offer made initially was rejected, so we agreed to proceed without Gerry’s involvement. It was done amicably, and it was decided it would be a smaller 7.5ha development as a result.”
Developing a project on a working track was never going to be easy.
“A key element of the tender process was that we wanted works on the development site to be organised so we can continue to race 44 times a year,” Mayer says.
“We also have a current working pub and a sports bar and these hospitality venues are very important revenue streams for the club, so we wanted to keep that going through any build phase as long as possible, and Villawood found a way.”
Successful in the tender process for the pared-back site, these were the challenges Villawood was faced with, according to chief executive Alan Miller.
“We do projects all around Australia and there are not many sites that are this unique,” Miller says.
“But the whole concept of the racing industry developments combining hospitality with housing is the way of the future. It’s also important to remember that in terms of remaining metro tracks in Adelaide, this is the last one, so it has to be done right.
“Developing around racecourses is an interesting thing, it’s not like a greenfield development. You have to think about its functionality as a track, ensuring that there are no shadows over tracks, for instance, so that was an interesting process to go through.”
Next steps will follow quickly from the announcement of the partnership.
“Next up is planning approvals and development application approvals, but hopefully it will be on the market next February,” says Villawood’s Miller.
“We don’t want to take our time—South Australia is a really good market for us and everyone in general, and we think there’s high demand for product in that vicinity and given feedback from people Morphettville is such a great location for this.
“Add to that we can do 15 per cent affordable housing, as part of the rezoning requirement. It’s a good catalyst for innovation, it’s not easy to achieve in terms of architectural outcomes.”
The South Australian Jockey Club has now handed the project over to Villawood and once completed will mark a new age for the track, says Mayer.
“From a high-level perspective, this is a gamechanger for the club. While we’re talking about development for commercial and housing, the benefactor is the racecourse.
“We’re doing this to create ongoing revenue streams for the racecourse so we can continue to invest back into the racecourse.
“It’s done with the purest intention to continue strengthening our core product and create a community on our doorstep, and the opportunities that come from it are amazing and we have to make sure we work with our new community to what we do here.”
You are currently experiencing The Urban Developer Plus (TUD+), our premium membership for property professionals. Click here to learn more.