Story: Horse and greyhound racing

Page 9. Harness racing: late 20th-century trends

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The 1960s saw a number of significant developments in harness racing.

Night racing

Night trotting was well established in Australia and the US before being introduced to New Zealand by the Auckland Trotting Club in 1958. It proved an instant success. In the 2000s the five venues with facilities for night racing held well over 50% of the country’s meetings (although some were day meetings).

Mobile starts

The mobile starting system is unique to the harness code, and was used increasingly in New Zealand from the mid-1960s. It allows horses to get up speed, in their correct stride, before the race begins, making them less likely to ‘break’ (gallop). The runners line up behind the barrier arms of a moving vehicle. When it reaches the race start, the barrier arms fold away and the vehicle moves off the track. Mobile starts now outnumber standing starts by roughly two to one.

Women drivers

Harness racing permitted women to hold professional drivers’ licences from February 1979, but in the 2000s the majority of drivers are men. Surprisingly, some women competed in official races in the 19th century. Most prominent was Bella Button, who successfully trained and drove her own horses in Canterbury in the early 1890s. However, at the South Island Trotting Association’s first meeting in 1896, a rule was passed prohibiting women from driving in races.

International sales

During the 1960s New Zealand standardbreds, notably the extraordinary horses Caduceus and Cardigan Bay, achieved world recognition. For many years proven horses were sold to the US in their hundreds, though that market tapered off. In 2011 about 700–800 were still sold annually to Australia.

Modern breeding

Unlike the thoroughbred code, standardbred rules allow for artificial insemination, and it is commonly used by leading stud farms. They can obtain under licence semen from other sires, and can export semen and import it from other countries. Of the 14 commercial stud farms, 11 are in the South Island, with eight in Canterbury. Woodlands Stud and Alabar in Auckland, and Nevele R Stud and Wai-Eyre near Christchurch, are the most prominent.

Famous families

For much of the 20th century the Holmes name was synonymous with trotting. Freeman Holmes imported quality horses from the US as well as becoming a master trainer and driver. He retired from driving in 1944, aged 73, as the ‘Grand Old Man of Trotting’. His son Maurice became known as ‘the Maestro’ for his outstanding driving ability. He won 1,666 races, including 18 championships.

Roy Purdon and his son Barry won 17 trainers’ premierships between 1978 and 1995, adding to Roy’s four earlier ones. His total of 2,021 winners was a New Zealand record, but has since been overtaken by Barry’s 2,228 (by mid-2012). Another son, Mark, was the leading trainer from 2008 to 2012 (with Grant Payne) and from 2014 to 2019 (with Natalie Rasmussen). In April 2021 Mark Purdon had driven 1,632 winners, including 1990s star Il Vicolo.

Derek Jones and Wes Butt were leading trainer–drivers in the mid-20th century. Butt’s son Murray married Jones’s daughter Jenny, and two of their sons, Tim as trainer and Anthony as driver, have between them amassed over 200 Group victories in Australasia. Other family members to excel are Peter Jones, Robin Butt, David Butt, Mark Jones and Roddy Butt.

Barriers to growth

The main hindrance to growth in the sport was the restricted number of totalisator permits allocated to trotting, but from the 1980s onwards, new problems arose. Competition from other entertainment and gambling options affected all types of racing. Strong clubs, supported by local enthusiasts, adapted to changing trends and continued to flourish. Others became ‘tenants’ on bigger clubs’ courses, or reduced their number of race days. Some ceased racing altogether, notably the Wellington Harness Racing Club, once a major centre.

Trotting in the early 2000s

In 2012, 47 totalisator harness-racing clubs raced at 38 different locations – 22 in the South Island. Over the years, different regions were centres of trotting. In the 2000s it was strongest in Auckland, Waikato, Canterbury and Southland. Auckland’s Alexandra Park had the most meetings – 53 – followed by Addington, Christchurch, with 43.

Major races

In 2020 the biggest race, in terms of both prestige and prize money ($540,000), was the New Zealand Trotting Cup, run at Addington. Harness racing also provides a number of series races carrying high prestige, such as the Harness Jewels and the New Zealand Sires’ Stakes.

Cup week in Christchurch each November remains the most popular racing carnival. It includes trotting, galloping and greyhounds, and attracts visitors from afar, with the premier harness race the highlight.

How to cite this page:

Mary Mountier, 'Horse and greyhound racing - Harness racing: late 20th-century trends', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by Mary Mountier, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Nov 2015