Racecourse – whispering tales of times gone by

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

Colombo Racecourse to the Lankans of today is a big beautiful building with a mall full of high-end brands, overlooking a massive rugby field, and a McDonald’s.

A racecourse

However, Colombo Racecourse was once an actual racecourse, a place where horse races were held. At the time, about 125 years ago, it was thought to be one of the best racetracks in the East, considering its design and facilities.

Races were previously held at Galle Face Green, however, since the weather was harsh, managing the uneven inclines of the terrain proved difficult, and since it was a public area, it provided for an endless stream of obstruction as a result of the everyday comings and goings of the public.

Therefore, a considerable patch of land was procured by Ceylon Turf Club in Cinnamon Gardens, giving birth to Colombo Racecourse.

The venue was well equipped with an impressive grandstand, stables, a gentlemen riders’ club with a training ground and in 1922, it became the first in the East to be fitted with a totaliser – “The Tote”, an automated betting system.

The Second World War

Colombo Racecourse underwent a rather drastic transformation back when WW II was in full swing; when the British prepared an airstrip that went right across the racetrack during the height of the Japanese assault on Ceylon. This is where squadrons of the Royal Air Force were stationed.

It was done so hurriedly that when the Japanese attacked Colombo Harbour on 5 April 1942, they did not know the airstrip existed.

In “The Most Dangerous Moment”, a book written by Michael Tomlinson, he provides that “British Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered the most dangerous moment of the Second World War, and the one which caused him the greatest alarm, when the news was received that the Japanese fleet was heading for Ceylon.”

This is because if the islands defences were to fall, the Japanese would gain access to India and Africa. This was prevented largely by the pilots of the squadron stationed at Colombo Racecourse.

Racecourse today

When the war was coming to its end, Colombo Racecourse was reacquired and continued to function as a racetrack until gambling was banned in the country in 1956.

Up until 2012, the building remained in a dilapidated state; the grandstand neglected and the grounds unattended to.

Finally, under the Government’s project to modernise and beautify Colombo, together with the Ministries of Defence and Urban Development headed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, using the restoration of the Dutch hospital complex as its example, Racecourse was transformed into a shopping complex and state-of-the-art rugby field complete with a fully refurbished, spacious grandstand.

Today, the building stands tall as an example of our island’s colonial architectural heritage, preserving the British-style architecture in its restoration.

However, while at one point in time the venue was properly utilised as a notable attraction, well maintained, and was a place frequented by many, Colombo Racecourse has somewhat fallen on hard times.

Much like Independence Arcade, the allure of Racecourse grounds has somewhat dulled. As you walk through the corridors, you can easily notice how the place no longer has a lived-in feel and instead, feels slightly abandoned, despite there being fully functioning businesses within the premises. During daytime, it is crawling with school children and other crowds, who use the premises for everything other than patronising or providing business to the many outlets available.

As we strolled through the venue looking for a vendor willing to talk to us about their experience as a tenant at Racecourse, we were hard-pressed to find a business that is locally owned.

We came across Yamuna Kotambage, the owner of Malaysian Way, which is a Malaysian and Thai restaurant that happens to be one of the only individually owned businesses at the venue.

Yamuna has been a part of the Racecourse compound for eight years now, from the very inception of the project. Having started off as a clothing brand named “Colours”, Yamuna provided that her idea at the time was not suited to the vibe of the premises, because it is mostly sports-oriented and all most were really looking for was either a quick bite to eat or a place to wait. As such, she changed her space into a restaurant. She said they’re doing a lot better now.

However, Yamuna went on to share some of her concerns about the future of the venue and thereby her own business, considering how things were going at present.

Many of her concerns were echoed by the other managers at the compound, who were unwilling to share their details stating that they do not have authorisation to make statements to the media. However, they were willing to anonymously share some of the more pressing issues at Colombo Racecourse.

Yamuna also provided that because many tenants were in fact business chains and international names, the owners are not too encouraged to form a union and promote the venue similar to how the merchants of Dutch Hospital were doing.

She said: “In all my eight years, we were unable to form a union amongst the tenants. Primarily because all the other tenants are upmarket businesses and many were international chains. If there was somehow a union for the shop owners or if we are ever able to formulate such an organisation, I believe the venue can truly be developed to much more than what it is now.

“The shop managers are not concerned with promoting the venue because many of them are just employees and those who manage the outlets. Because they are all international chains and will have their business one way or the other, it is irrelevant to them whether we try to elevate the venue. Most of all, as they do not have the authority to do so, it is not their prerogative. So as an independent business owner, it is difficult.”

Construction site

An issue that recently arose is the ongoing construction adjoining Racecourse; the noise and rubble are a major hindrance and a deterrent to any customers who may come that way to relax. It takes away from the otherwise appealing allure of the venue.

However, we spoke to Good Market Co-founder Achala Samaradiwakara, who has a five-year contract with Urban Development Authority for the Good Market to feature their vendors every Saturday at Colombo Racecourse. Achala said that while the construction may appear a nuisance, it is necessary considering that during the rainy season, the premises flood. She said these constructions were necessary for the sustainability of the venue.

Parking space

The most widely expressed issue proved to be how the Racecourse car park is utilised.
The car park has become the resting place for any and every one who comes to the Colombo 7 area, to do everything but shop.

“The attendance of all the mothers who come to drop off their children at the many schools around here, due to the convenience of the location, has done wonders for business, but it has also detracted from the potential, mostly because whomever may be coming to visit will be discouraged by the lack of space to park their vehicles,” said Yamuna.

It appears that the problem is at its peak during the school hours, that is, from around 6 a.m.-2 p.m., then again from 5 p.m.-10 p.m., when people enjoying a night out come to Racecourse to only park their vehicles and then go elsewhere to have dinner.

Yamuna added: “If you see for yourself, even now, you can notice how the car park is packed, but there’s barely anyone here.”

The fact that just about anyone can come to the venue and utilise this car park is a primary concern, and the vendors believe that if a better solution can be found in how the space in the car park is allocated so that those who patronise the businesses get preferential treatment, it would be truly fantastic.

Many vendors, who wished to remain anonymous, added: “We have toyed with the possibility of issuing tickets, but that will only further discourage people to come. Even the very few who come to stroll around and then maybe grab a bite to eat would just not bother anymore.”
It appears that at Racecourse, there’s no lack of crowd, only that they do not spend.

Promote its historical value

Malaysian Way owner Yamuna stated: “We don’t and shouldn’t really expect the UDA to do everything, and to be honest, there’s not much they can do. They are part of his venture as a landlord at most, and they have done us the service of allowing a fantastic venue to be utilised in such a way and making it a possibility for businesses like mine to take part.” However, she provided that it would be great if the authorities took into consideration the history surrounding the venue and took tangible steps to promote that in their capacity. She especially highlighted that the Tourist Board should really be a part of this conversation.

It was proposed that the authorities should take measures to make this a central point or at least make it a stop in the cultural tours offered for foreigners.

She suggested that when tourists are brought to Laksala (located opposite), they should also be brought over to these structures which hold our country’s past.

Foreigners are almost always directed to Laksala without fail, if they are about to return to their home countries.

The building has history and can therefore be easily promoted as a tourist attraction, as somewhat of a heritage site. This will also work to eradicate the common opinion that Racecourse is just a sports arena and mall.

And when such an arrangement is made, there should also be a dedicated presence – possibly a guide –who knows the history of the building and will explain its history and the importance of its edifice.

We should really draw attention to the fact that this is a truly unique structure. There is only one racecourse and that fact can be really driven as a great tourist attraction.

Some creativity

Good Market Co-founder Achala also added that while the historical importance of the venue should be promoted, the management should attempt to be a little more creative in their promotional attempts.

She stated: “There’s so much that can be done here – the venue is fantastic and I believe that Colombo Racecourse can become a real hub of activity for this Colombo 7 area. We just have to come up with creative ways to promote it.”

It’s not all upmarket

There was also a suggestion that they must eliminate the belief that Racecourse, much like Arcade, consists of the upmarket range of businesses not affordable to average Sri Lankans.

Thankfully, this is somewhat negated as KFC and McDonald’s have come up so prominently at these venues and are more accessible and familiar to the masses, which somewhat takes away the intimidating nature of some of the other stores occupying the space.

Pictures by Pradeep Dambarage