At first racing clubs or committees set their own rules, loosely based on English tradition. Later they operated under the rules of their nearest principal club. However, without overall regulation, disputes and devious practices were common. By the early 1880s the sport of racing had developed to the extent that a controlling body was needed.
Representatives from the metropolitan (major town and city) clubs began a series of annual conferences to establish uniform rules for all clubs. One of the instigators, William Russell from Hawke’s Bay, became the founding president of the New Zealand Racing Conference, when it was finally established in 1897. In 2017 it operated as New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing. An additional authority was the New Zealand Racing Board. It was first formed as the New Zealand Racing Authority in 1972, and from 2003 oversaw all three racing codes and betting.
Right- or left-handed?
Most New Zealand racetracks are left-handed, where horses run anticlockwise. However, in the northern half of the North Island tracks are almost exclusively right-handed. The reason may be simply that clubs copied the earliest courses nearby, which were constructed around existing topography. Hokitika has the only right-handed course in the South Island. All galloping surfaces are grass, but trotting uses both grass and ‘all-weather’ clay-based surfaces.
Development of the sport
Despite the 1880s depression, there was huge growth in the two decades up to 1900. Canterbury was the breeding and racing centre. Dunedin, Auckland and Hawke’s Bay were other strongholds, supported by the wealth and enthusiasm of landowners. From this period until the second half of the 20th century racing was a serious business. Regulations and etiquette permeated the sport, and there was a strict pecking order, with racehorse owners at the top and jockeys at the bottom. All the extra amusements of old-time race days were discarded – the focus was solely on racing. Major meetings of metropolitan clubs were three- or four-day affairs. Fields were large: lower-grade races were often split into two, run consecutively as ‘divisions’. All profits had to be re-invested in racing, so facilities improved, prize money increased and horses became more valuable.
By the end of the 19th century there was enough racing to support professional jockeys and trainers, some of whom worked solely for one owner. An early top jockey was Dick Mason. He later became a trainer, first for George Stead from 1886 until 1908, and then for George Greenwood. Horses under his care won major races on both sides of the Tasman in numbers never equalled since.
New Zealand followed the English example of placing most importance on races for three-year-olds. The Derby, Oaks, 2,000 Guineas, 1,000 Guineas and St Leger together made up the ‘classics’. The system was overhauled in 1973. While the first four continue to have Group 1 status, the St Leger has dropped to ‘listed’ status (the lowest order of prestige races) and has been opened up to older horses. In a departure from English custom, handicap races have always played a major role. The three distance cup races (Auckland, New Zealand and Wellington) were originally the richest and most prestigious handicaps, although in 2017 only the Auckland Cup was still classified as Group 1. New Zealanders also took a close interest in Australian races, particularly the Caulfield Cup, first contested in 1879, and the Melbourne Cup, first held in 1861. Many New Zealand-bred horses contested the latter, and by 2016, 42 had won.