Written by Jeff Powell, Cobb+Co Museum
The race named for George Watson is held at Flemington in July, but his name should also be linked with the Melbourne Cup. Northern Ireland born George made a name as a jockey and horse trainer back in the 1850s, soon after arriving in Melbourne. He was a founder of the Melbourne Hunt Club in 1853.
George Watson was the lessee of Kirk’s Horse Bazaar in Bourke Street where the best horses were bought, sold and stabled. (Gippsland Times 6 Jan 1868: p1) He was known throughout Victoria by 1860 as proprietor of Cobb & Co, along with American partner Cyrus Hewitt. They had coach routes to Ballarat, Bendigo and Beechworth at various times. As a racing committee member and horse owner it was also convenient for George that Cobb & Co’s office in Bourke Street was right next door to the Albion Hotel. ‘Acceptances’ were declared and handicaps were set at the Albion Hotel and it was a place to wage a bet. Its licensee John Cleeland catered to the racing community, and even owned a Melbourne Cup winner, Wollomai (1875). (The Argus Melbourne 28 Jan 1914: p9)
George Watson was a Victorian Turf Club (VTC) steward for the first Melbourne Cup, as was his Police Commissioner friend Captain Frederick Standish, who is credited with suggesting that a race should be called ‘the Melbourne Cup’ (in a VTC meeting at the Albion). George organised the Cobb & Co coaches which transported racegoers and also did ‘figure 8s’ in front of spectators. (The Argus 7 Feb 1933: p6) George even has a horse in the first Melbourne Cup, The Moor. (The Argus 8 Nov 1861: p5) George Watson may have even been the race starter! (Vashti Farrer ADB 2012)
Perhaps as important as staging the first Melbourne Cup was the decision by the VTC to make the two mile Melbourne Cup an annual event. (Bell’s Life in Victoria 11 Jan 1862: p3) The meeting was held at (Watson’s) Kirks’ Horse Bazaar. However if George Watson was important in the creation of the Melbourne Cup, he and Standish with the VTC may have come close to killing the race in 1863.
Archer, the champion horse from New South Wales, had won the first two Melbourne Cups. The eight length winning margin in 1862 is a record for the Cup that still stands. Unfortunately the application by telegram to the Turf Club for the 1863 Melbourne Cup arrived at Kirk’s Horse Bazaar on Victoria’s Separation Day holiday. The office was closed so the telegram boy had to drop it off the following day. By the time the application for Archer was relayed up to the VTC Stewards at the Albion Hotel, the paperwork was deemed to have missed the deadline. Stewards George Watson, Frederick Standish, Herbert Power and RF Greene ruled out Archer from possibly winning a third Melbourne Cup. (The Argus, 4 July 1863: p4) Archer’s trainer Etienne De Mestre and the rest of the New South Wales horse fraternity boycotted the 1863 Melbourne Cup vowing never to return. The 1863 Cup had only seven runners, its smallest ever field.
Fortunately a reorganisation of racing in Melbourne in 1864 under the Victorian Racing Club (VRC) healed the rift with New South Wales trainers. Watson and Standish as founders of the VRC produced a master stroke by asking fellow Irishman Robert Bagot to be Club Secretary. Bagot, who professed to know little about racing, was the surveyor and engineer who leveled and turfed the MCG and he soon did the same for Flemington. He had grandstands built, trees planted, and even got the government to declare Cup Day a holiday. Numbers at the Melbourne Cup increased from a few thousand in 1861 to one hundred thousand for the 1880 Cup. The Bagot Handicap and the Standish handicap are held at Flemington on New Year’s Day each year. ( Maurice Cavanough 1969 ADB)
On the business front George Watson and Cyrus Hewitt sold their Cobb & Co routes in 1862 and went their separate ways, but Watson maintained shares in Cobb & Co now run by his friends and fellow horse enthusiasts Alex Robertson and John Wagner. Always keen for any kind of horse activity, in 1868 George Watson drove a Cobb & Co coach from Wangaratta to Melbourne in a record 15 hours, which included a stop for dinner along the way. (Jill Eastwood 1976 ADB)
Watson was known as ‘The Prince of Starters’ and was in charge of most big races at Flemington, including the Melbourne Cup, until the 1890s. In the days before starting gates the race starter had to ride back and forth to ensure the horses were lined up, before dropping the flag. It was an art for which George Watson became famous . (The Leader Melbourne 9 Nov 1867: p10)
George Watson was a pioneer of Flemington, the Melbourne Cup and the Victorian Racing Club. He was even a pioneer of ‘The American Trotting Races’ at Flemington with fellow Cobb & Co proprietors Cyrus Hewitt, Henry Hoyt, John Wagner and AL Blake. (The Argus, 26 April 1861: p5) ‘The Prince of Starters’, and Cobb & Co pioneer George Watson died at home in St Kilda in 1906.
References: Maurice Cavanough, ‘Bagot, Robert Cooper (1828 – 1861)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 3, Australian National University, 1969. Jill Eastwood, ‘Watson, George John (1829 – 1906)’ Australian Dictionary of Biography Vol 3, Australian National University, 1976. Vashti Farrer, ‘First pas the post: The Melbourne Cup of 1861’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University, 2012. Australian Dictionary of Biography – http://adb.anu.edu.au