The magnificent colonial racecourse, complete with a colossal grandstand, boasting of British classic-style architecture in the most expensive precincts of the country’s capital is conspicuous to any visitor.
It has been transformed meticulously and pristinely into a leading mall in the heart of Colombo. The building is an excellent example of British classic-style colonial architecture. It has fine ornamental detail adorning the façade, exquisite windows, and large circular skylights. There is a corridor along the side that faces the street, which is obscured by an impressive colonnade with triple columns, within which the large racing rooms were located.
The racecourse area has also been modified into an international rugby ground, with facilities that conform to international standards. The spacious grandstand has undergone detailed preservation to serve rugby spectators while adjacent mini-pavilion, built in 1923 to house the jockeys’ rooms, stewards’ rooms, inquiry rooms and betting offices, has also been refurbished.
The 27 acre land on which the majestic building stands and the current rugby ground was acquired by the Ceylon Turf Club, formed in 1861, in the then suburb of Cinnamon Gardens. It was converted into a sizeable turf track, considered the best in the East in terms of design and facilities. The grandstand was imposing, the stables well-equipped, and there was a Gentlemen Riders’ Club with a special training ground.
The Colombo Racecourse was opened on June 22, 1893, and subsequently racing became a prosperous business with plenty of popular support, which made for great stakes. The stakes, golden sovereigns, were handed to the winner in brass pots. Legend has it that at one Governor’s Cup someone had carried off seven.
When going to the races in Ceylon in the last quarter of the 19th Century gentlemen wore long tail-coats and tall white hats and were accompanied by their equally elegantly-attired wives. The fashionable race-goers of the time included the anglicised locals, members of the Burgher community travelling in every type of vehicle available at that time. An event that was the cynosure of the rich and famous, the races in short, represented the cream of the crop of local society while workers were brought in to perform the menial tasks.
In 1922 the Colombo Racecourse became the first in the East to be fitted with the automated betting system, the Totalizer, more commonly called ‘the Tote’. It was a tremendous technical achievement at the time to install one in Ceylon. The Colombo Racecourse has been through many makeovers during the tumultuous years of WW II, when the country was under the threat of Japanese attack as a British Colony and then subsequently in 1956, horseracing being banned by the powers-that-be. Today, in the absence of the sounds of galloping, the immaculate structure reign supreme in beauty.