George John Watson became one of the most influential figures of the turf in 19th century Australia. He played many roles: horse dealer, trainer, coach proprietor and driver, and daring rider. Above all, Watson was an admired racing official and steward: his primary unpaid role earned him the respectful label ‘the prince of starters’.
Before starting barrier machines were invented in the 1890s, Watson’s craft demanded expert horsemanship, marshalling sometimes more than 30 horses into line before sending them on their way by waving a large flag.
Born in County Carlow, Ireland in 1827, Watson was already an expert horseman when he arrived in colonial Melbourne in 1850. He quickly established a reputation among the racing fraternity, becoming an early member of the Victoria Turf Club. He founded the Melbourne Hunt Club in 1853 and became Master of the Hounds, a position he retained until his death in 1906. Particularly in the early years he frequently rode his own and other people’s horses in cross-country steeplechase races. Among his many trophies collected, one of the earliest was for winning the 1853 Prahran Steeplechase.
His well-known racing contemporary, Herbert Power, described him as “the finest horseman I knew”.
As an entrepreneur in the world of horses, he leased the existing equine market in Bourke Street, Kirk’s Bazaar, and several of the lucrative Cobb and Co. coach services connecting Melbourne with the Victorian goldfields.
George Watson acted as a steward at numerous early race meetings in Victoria, including the inaugural races at Caulfield in 1859. He was an advocate for this new course on the ‘sandy heath’ and helped resist moves to have it converted into a public cemetery. Watson was appointed a trustee of Caulfield until the course was placed in the control of the new Victoria Amateur Turf Club in 1875.
Meanwhile in 1864 the two rival racing clubs in Melbourne, the Victoria Turf Club and the Victoria Jockey Club, disbanded and re-formed as the Victoria Racing Club. Watson was one of the 25 foundation members of the new VRC and one of the 12 committeemen elected from those members. Watson’s Irish school-mate, Robert Bagot, was appointed the first Secretary of the Club.
Watson started the first Melbourne Cup in 1861, and was formally designated as official starter for the VRC in 1867, a position he retained until 1895.
“Possessing a strong will, he could never brook opposition, and woe betide a delinquent who incurred his displeasure, whether at the starting-post or in the hunting-field.” (The Australasian. 14 July 1906)