The term ‘horse racing’ refers to gallops, as distinct from trotting or harness racing. It is one of New Zealand’s oldest organised sports, introduced by English visitors and settlers. A pastime of ancient origin, horse racing developed as a professional sport in 18th-century England. The Jockey Club, established in 1750, introduced regulations, and the General Stud Book, first published in 1791, recorded the pedigrees of thoroughbred horses. In England the sport was run by the nobility, but in New Zealand it was set up by ordinary citizens, using their own horses. As in England, race meetings attracted people from all sections of society.
From the beginnings of racing in New Zealand, hurdle races and steeplechases formed part of most race days, even in summer. Gradually jumping was restricted to autumn and winter, when tracks were generally softer and slower. Hurdles are lower and the race distances are shorter than steeplechases. Since the 1990s wooden battens have been replaced by brush hurdles. Paradoxically, there are fewer serious casualties with bigger fences, because horses travel more slowly and require better jumping skills.
Provincial anniversary races
Some early races were held as part of festivities to celebrate the arrival of settlers in an area. On 25 January 1841, Wellington’s first anniversary, a hurdle race was held at Te Aro. Contested by four horses for a prize of 15 guineas (£15 15s.), the race was won by Calmuc Tartar, ridden by his owner Henry Petre. Nelson’s first anniversary in February 1843 was celebrated with races and other sports, as was Dunedin’s in March 1849 and Canterbury’s in December 1851.
First race meetings
The first recorded full-scale race meeting took place at Epsom, Auckland, on 5 and 6 January 1842. In October that year, a ‘grand race meeting’ was held on Petone beach, near Wellington. A public holiday was declared, and most local inhabitants, both Pākehā and Māori, attended.
The first racehorses were ordinary riding mounts, not the speedy thoroughbreds developed specifically for racing, and eventually used exclusively in official races. The first thoroughbred was Figaro, bred in Australia and brought to Wellington by James Watt in March 1840. Figaro easily beat Calmuc Tartar and others at the 1842 Petone meeting.
What is a thoroughbred?
Thoroughbreds evolved as a distinct breed in England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Today every thoroughbred’s ancestry can be traced to one of three foundation stallions imported from the Middle East and mated with English mares. The other male lines have all become extinct. Thoroughbreds are renowned for their speed, courage and beauty and are bred almost exclusively for racing. Fine-boned and often high-spirited, they can gallop at up to 60 kilometres per hour.
Early breeding industry
More thoroughbreds were imported and a breeding industry began. By the 1850s rules stipulating that thoroughbreds must carry an extra 7 pounds (3.2 kilograms) weight in races showed they were making an impact. One of the first English-bred stallions to arrive was Riddlesworth, in 1843. Mated mainly with non-pedigree mares, he lifted the quality of stock. His daughters Sharkie and Sybil still have descendants in the New Zealand stud book.
A popular sport
In the 19th century race days were held wherever sufficient horses, people and opportunity existed. They often took place on public holidays – even Christmas Day – and were sometimes the reason for a public holiday, since businesses closed and most of the population attended, including children. Courses were formed on any available land, and grandstands, if they existed, were rudimentary. Mostly spectators followed alongside on horseback or watched from carts or carriages, or other elevated positions.
Gradually race days became better organised. They usually included races for ponies, donkeys, cart horses and even bullocks, and novelty running races for children and men. Courses were not enclosed, and with no admission fee, funds came from leasing rights to refreshment stalls, liquor and gaming booths, sideshow operators and fortune tellers. Musical entertainment was provided by brass bands.
Types of races
The races themselves were tests of endurance. They were mostly run in heats, with horses competing up to three times over the same distance until an overall winner was found. Soon heats were replaced by single races, but even then, horses often ran more than once on the same day. Hurdle events were held at nearly all meetings, and owners often rode their own horses.