This used to be a go-to place for horse riding and coffee drinking. Tucked at the end of Fairways Drive, off Eng Neo Avenue, the horse stables and rustic surroundings resemble a quiet countryside unlike other parts of Singapore.
But the decades of peace and tranquility ended in 2023 when the area was earmarked for the redevelopment and tunneling works of the new Cross Island Line, Singapore’s eighth Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line. A new Turf City MRT Station will be built under the former racetracks during the Phase II of the project and is expected to be completed by 2032.
The history of horse-racing in Singapore went all the way back to the mid-20th century, when the Singapore Turf Club was founded in 1842 at Farrer Park. The first race was organised in the following year.
Singapore Turf Club went on to acquire the Bukit Timah Rubber Estate in 1927 and built Singapore’s second racecourse in 1933, which became commonly known as the Bukit Timah Turf Club.
In 1941, due to the impending war, the British military took over the turf club’s premises and converted the grandstand and adjacent buildings into a convalescent hospital. The stables and syces’ quarters were used to store military transport. Obstacles were placed on the racetracks to prevent the Japanese planes from landing.
During the Japanese Occupation, the turf club’s premises was taken over by the Japanese to be used as a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. The finest horses were confiscated and shipped to Japan, whereas the lawns were planted with banana, papaya, tapioca and other vegetables.
When the British returned after the war, they found the racecourse and buildings in shambles and filled with damaged military vehicles and equipment. It would take several years to repair Singapore Turf Club before it could return to its pre-war glory days.
In 1948, a British horse owner and trainer Jack Spencer, who had been living in Malaya since 1923, decided to lease some 30 acres of land at Bukit Timah Road to start his private club. At first, the club had only 10 members, but by the Christmas of 1950, it had expanded to 59 members.
In the early fifties, the club, officially named Bukit Timah Saddle Club, had possessed 22 horses and 13 ponies. It also assembled its own team of blacksmith, mandor and 30 syces to take care of the horses. A training centre was also established to train talented young boys into apprentice jockeys. The club’s horses, many of them old retired racehorses from the Singapore Turf Club, became training horses for the new and amateur riders.
Many local movies had loaned horses from the Bukit Timah Saddle Club, which also provided basic riding lessons to the actors and actresses.
After its establishment, Bukit Timah Saddle Club actively participated in gymkhana events at other parts of Malaya. In 1951, it sent nine horses to Penang, competing with other jockeys from Ipoh and Taiping in a number of equestrian events. In Singapore, the club frequently collaborated with the Singapore Polo Club to organise local gymkhanas consisted of walking races, high jumps and obstacle courses.
By 1953, Bukit Timah Saddle Club’s members had grown to 152; most of them were British, expatriates and wealthy locals. It would cost the members an annual fee of $25, with additional $5 for each hour of riding.
In 1975, Bukit Timah Saddle Club, Singapore Polo Club, Singapore Civil Service Recreation and Sports Council and the Singapore branch of the Pony Club jointly organised the first ever international Horse Trial, where Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines and Hong Kong were invited to send their junior riders to take part in this equestrian competition of skills and courage.
Equestrianism was added to the 12th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in 1983. Hosted in Singapore, it was the first time there was an equestrian competition event in the SEA Games, delighting the equestrian fans. However, squash, cycling, rugby, softball and gymnastics were omitted from this major biennial and regional sporting event, upsetting many of their associations and societies.
The Singapore team won four gold and one bronze medals in the equestrian competitions at the 1983 SEA Games.
Bukit Timah Saddle Club in 1988 fell into an internal strife when the club was divided into two camps, one by the locals and the other by the expatriate members, over accusations of double standard practises in the reallocation of stables and resources.
Some members were threatened to have their horses put down and stables closed. This was because by the late eighties, the club had only 82 stables to serve 250 members, resulting in extremely tight space and a long waiting list.
Singapore Turf Club was dissolved in 1988, replaced by the new Bukit Turf Club under the management and regulation of the Singapore Tote Board (Bukit Turf Club changed its name back to the original Singapore Turf Club in 1994).
Bukit Turf Club opened the Green Fairways (Champions Public Golf Course today), the first public nine-hole golf course in Singapore, in November 1990. It was located just beside the Bukit Timah Saddle Club. A minor road was built off Eng New Avenue as a direct access to Green Fairways. It was called Fairways Drive, named after the new golf course.
With the new road, it also became easier for the public to access Bukit Timah Saddle Club. Bukit Turf Club went on to open Greendale Riding School, Singapore’s first public riding school, in January 1991.
The new riding school was meant to promote affordable horse-riding interest among the ordinary folks, hence it offered zero annual membership fees and only charged hourly riding fees. During its peak, it had 300 members. But Greendale Riding School could only manage to last for a few years before it was closed in 1997 due to a lack of qualified riding instructors.
Since the eighties, there were proposals to shift the Singapore Turf Club to other areas – some had suggested Tuas – in order to free up the prime lands at Bukit Timah, as well as to improve the heavy traffic conditions along Dunearn and Bukit Timah Roads.
Singapore Turf Club was eventually relocated in 1999 to a new $500-million racecourse at Kranji. Even though its Bukit Timah site was designated for future residential use in the government’s 1998 Master Plan, the area remained untouched for years and has since evolved to become a place known for second-hand car dealerships and seafood restaurants.
On the other hand, Bukit Timah Saddle Club stayed on for another 24 years after the relocation of the Singapore Turf Club. The retired race horses continued to be re-trained for activities such as show jumping and dressage. The club also became an approved riding and examination centre for the British Horse Society (BHS) in the 2010s.
In end-February 2023, at the time of the closure of its old premises, Bukit Timah Saddle Club had as many as 78 horses. They were all transported to their new facilities at Kranji.
The popularity of this rustic area was also partly due to the Riders Café, which was established in 2007 and housed in one of Bukit Timah Saddle Club’s buildings in front of the stables. The little restaurant was especially crowded during the weekends, where its patrons could enjoy their brunch and coffee in a relaxed lush “countryside” environment. With Bukit Timah Saddle Club’s shift to Kranji, Riders Café decided to cease its business after 16 years.
Similarly affected by the coming redevelopment works is a cluster of old single-storey buildings. It is likely that most of the buildings – 19 of them – will be torn down in the near future. These were the former staff quarters of the Singapore Turf Club. They were built in the fifties to accommodate the turf club’s apprentice jockeys, syces, workers and their families.
The interiors of the buildings were made up of bedrooms and kitchens. The bathrooms and toilets were housed in an external octagonal-shaped building, built to serve the sanitary needs of the residents. During its peak, there were more than 100 residents living in this cluster of quarters. The community even had its own religious places of worship such as a small surau and shrine.
The staff quarters had been abandoned since the relocation of the Singapore Turf Club. The loop around the buildings, which is linked to Fairways Drive, is called Harmony Lane. It still has its old street signage standing at the entrance, but the road is no longer listed in official maps.
Published: 21 March 2023