Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Rise and Fall of the Hippodrome

When you look at a map, you will notice that there is an unusual oval-shaped loop in Cebu City that resembles a race track. Well, it really was.

BW photo (not actual photo) used to contrast what the Hippodrome might have looked like

The Lost Landmarks of Cebu is an article series that features prominent buildings and monuments in Cebu that no longer exist. If you have suggestions or want to contribute, please feel free to message us on our Facebook page.

When you look at a map, you will notice that there is an unusual oval-shaped loop in Cebu City that resembles a race track. Well, it really was. That's why the place is called Barangay Hipodromo, after the old Hippodrome that the Spanish set up to entertain people then who had the money to bet on horse races. Nowadays, it's already a densely populated area with low-income residential structures that completely covered the race track where horses and jockeys ply their trade. Even the original layout of the race track now forms the Hipodromo Oval Road.

However, it's difficult to find actual photos of how the Hippodrome operated at that time since it ceased operations a long time ago. Although, it would be fair to say that it's quite similar to that of the San Lazaro Hippodrome in Manila. We can only imagine how it was before house covered that illustrious race track.

The Rise

There is no clear date as to when the Hippodrome in Cebu City was established but it was only in the late 1890s when the city opened up to world trade as the Suez Canal shortened the distance from the Philippines to Spain.

By then, the city has increased its population with most people residing in the adjoining San Nicolas, Pardo, Mabolo, and Talamban areas. Urban activities are centered in the central business district that included Calle Magallanes with all its shops and bazars, Carbon Market area with the Chinese shops, public market, and coaling station, Plaza Alcolea (later Plaza Washington, now Freedom Park), and Parian and rich residential area. With increasing personal income, the city has added new schools and street lamps thereby boosting further economic activities. By 1895, Teatro Junquera on Calle Colon and the Hippodrome in Mabolo was already established.

It is interesting to note that there were two distinct periods in the history of horse racing in the Philippines and that difference between the Spanish and the Americans may have played a significant role in its rise and fall in Cebu.

The Pony Era

It was in 1867 when the earliest records have mentioned the existence of competitive horseracing in the country. At that time, the event is held on a straight-way flat course measuring a quarter of a mile. During this period, horses of Suluan, Indian, and Chinese stock were used. In the same year, the Manila Jockey Club was established by Governor-General Jose de la Gandara y Navarro as the first racing club in Southeast Asia with members that included the prominent Ayala, Zobel, Tuason, Elizalde, and Prieto families. Also, a member was Edward Boustead, the father of Nellie Boustead where Jose Rizal and Antonio Luna almost came to a deadly duel over her. Horseracing remains a pastime for fee-paying members only.

Only the rich and influential people were allowed to be in horse races (not actual photo)

In 1881, Governor-General Eulogio Despujol supported the introduction of English-style horseracing as events were transferred to the oval race track of the Hipodromo de Santa Mesa. Unlike the straight-way course, the new format has horses running in an oval track clockwise. It became so popular that Cebu built one of its own to satisfy the demands for new entertainment for the local elites. By 1895, horseracing has become fully-established in the city.

The Arabian Horse Era

By the time the Americans took over the country, horseracing was largely put on hold because of the death and destruction brought about by the Philippine Revolution, the Spanish-American War, and the Filipino-American War.

In this postcard (dated 1909), the Cebu Hippodrome has the British consul as its president and sole judge.

Although races still run on the same oval track, the horses now run counter-clockwise. In 1901, Governor-General William Howard Taft (future US President) declared the "democratization of horseracing" thereby allowing "people from all social strata" to go to the hippodrome during horseracing days. This means anyone can now go to the hippodrome and enjoy the horse races. Despite opening it to the masses, it remained an expensive pursuit for the rich. After all, they're the ones who sponsored events and fund jockeys and horses alike.

Betting was introduced and permitted in 1903. In 1930, foreign breeds such as Arabian horses were imported by the Bureau of Agriculture.

According to long-time resident Mellie Ong Zack, a bell rang loud to signal the start of the races so that everyone living near the race track would rush to get a glimpse of the races. It was part of the lifestyle then. The starting point of the race was located near the entrance along M.J. Cuenco Avenue while the Pacific Foundry once housed the clubhouse where people watched and bet on horses.

The Fall

With war clouds looming, many of the racehorses were soon requisitioned to be used in war. By the time the Japanese firmly occupied the country, the Hippodrome was by then closed. When the war ended, horse racing commenced only to find out that it's no longer profitable as much of the city was destroyed and the citizens are not in the mood to squander their meager income on horse races. In the end, the business closed permanently and the oval was abandoned and fell into a state of disrepair.

In the late 1950s, there was a huge fire that hit Carreta and T. Padilla Street so then-Mayor Sergio Osmeña Jr. proposed to reuse the old Hippodrome as a relocation site for the people who lost their homes. However, more people have moved into the areas as well. Soon, the vacant area has become one of the most densely populated areas in the city.

Although that area was part of Barangay Mabolo, settlers have petitioned to secede from the barangay. In the early 1960s, Barangay Hipodromo was born. Ten years later, the former relocation site was converted into socialized housing by the National Housing Authority. The residential area was transformed into a new subdivision called Mary Immaculate Conception Village. It was named so because to the residents the oval and its interior roads reminded them of a rosary.

How It Looks Now?

You can no longer see horses running around, only kids playing and tricycles transporting people to and fro. It's even reinvented itself from once a refuge for thieves and petty criminals into one of the most peaceful orderly barangays in the city.

However, things have never changed. If you look at the map, you can see the gap between the rich and the poor. It's ironic that this area used to be the playground for the rich and the ordinary people outside can't even get in. Nowadays, it's the other way around. Cebu Business Park with its posh high-rise condominiums and modern shopping malls contrasts the obvious difference of the low-income residential area of Hipodromo.

The Pacific Foundry, along Real Street, is where the clubhouse used to exist with people placing their bets.

The starting line begins here where the horses are all lined up waiting for the bell to ring to start the race. Nowadays, you see a narrow road with houses lined up on both sides.

The upper part of the loop shows tall skyscrapers from the Cebu Business Park. Back in the day, you can still the mountains from a distance.

The other side of the oval goes through here.

The lower part of the loop completes the race track and going through it brings you back to the starting line, which also serves as the finish line.

St. John Street used to be the open space in the middle of the Hippodrome, now it's all occupied by houses.

References:

"Dakbayan": A Cultural History of Space in a Visayan City, by Resil Mojares

10 Amazing Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Cebu

Cebu's Racetrack, by Junald Dawa Ango

History of Philippine Horse Racing


COMMENTS

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  1. Thank you for your nicely written article, it's awesome!

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    1. I'm looking forward to feature least known Cebu history content soon!

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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Rise and Fall of the Hippodrome
Lost Landmarks of Cebu: The Rise and Fall of the Hippodrome
When you look at a map, you will notice that there is an unusual oval-shaped loop in Cebu City that resembles a race track. Well, it really was.
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