At first, race meetings were organised by committees. In the main centres, committee members were mostly community leaders, with sufficient wealth to contribute to prize money where necessary. Later, the wealthy elite of businessmen, landholders and politicians led the way in forming racing clubs. Being a club steward carried high social prestige.
Residents of some small towns in the 2000s would be surprised to learn that their towns once held race meetings. In the North Island these places include Clive, Coromandel, Drury, Helensville, Kaukapakapa, Kawakawa, Manaia, Matakohe, Ōmata, Ongaonga, Raglan, Tīnui, Turakina and Warkworth. In the South Island they include Coal Creek, Duntroon, Ettrick, Fortrose, Hyde, Lake Tekapo, Lowburn, Mandeville, Mount Somers, Nevis, Ōtemātātā, Pine Bush, St Bathans, Waikaia and Wreys Bush.
Racing committees or clubs sprang up wherever communities formed, such as in the Otago goldfields during the 1860s and 1870s. Most of these clubs bloomed briefly and vanished, but others existed for many decades.
In country districts, a day’s racing on public holidays was the most common form of entertainment. Most people went to their nearest race meeting, since travel was slow, by horse or on foot. Small centres often organised races specifically for local working men, such as a ‘butchers’ race’.
The oldest clubs
Nelson was the first centre of thoroughbred racing and breeding, with annual races held on courses in Waimea, Stoke, Hope and Richmond from 1843. The Nelson Jockey Club began in 1848, but closed in 1997. The details of the formation of the Wanganui Jockey Club are obscure, but it also celebrated its centenary in 1948. The club has raced on the same land since 1848, and in 2012 could claim to be New Zealand’s oldest surviving racing club.
The cheroot scurry
A novelty race popular at the smaller meetings in the 1860s (and one that is unlikely to be revived) was the ‘cheroot scurry’. The riders had to complete a circuit of the course – sometimes including a hurdle – while smoking a cigar. First home with the cigar still alight was the winner.
Unlike their overseas counterparts, almost all New Zealand clubs were non-proprietary (not for private profit). However, this was not formalised until the Gaming Amendment Act was passed in 1924. By 1884 nearly 250 race meetings were held annually, 40 of them on Boxing Day.
From the time horses landed in New Zealand in 1814, Māori saw their value and became involved in ownership. When horse racing got under way, often a ‘Māori’ or ‘native’ race was part of the programme – usually meaning the horses were both owned and ridden by Māori. Chiefs and iwi bought, bred and imported their own racehorses, and some set up their own clubs.
Te Rauparaha and racing
In a description of Te Rauparaha’s last days in November 1849, politician William Fox noted the presence of two settlers and a missionary at the great chief’s bedside. Once the missionary had delivered his religious message and left, Te Rauparaha changed the subject to the Whanganui races, where a horse belonging to one of his guests had been racing. This would have been the second year of this race meeting.
The lower west coast and East Coast regions of the North Island were main centres of organised Māori racing, but informal meetings were common throughout the country, even in remote regions. One is recorded at Rānana, on the upper Whanganui River, in December 1885 (where a home-made ‘totalisator’ operated). Races run almost exclusively by Māori were held from 1854 near Ōtaki, and attracted not only locals, but settlers from as far away as Wellington and Rangitīkei. Of the handful of Māori clubs formed, only the Ōtaki-Māori Racing Club remained in 2012.