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 Since the 1990s wooden battens have been replaced by brush hurdles.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
Betting has always been an integral part of racing. Before the totalisator was introduced in 1880, bookmakers, sweepstakes or private wagers were the only ways of betting. Initially regarded with suspicion, the ‘tote’ became popular. Clubs and the government realised they could collect a percentage of the wagered money, and supported the totalisator’s widespread use. Opposing it were bookmakers (who saw it as competition) and some Protestant church groups (who disapproved of gambling).
The totalisator was based on the French parimutuel system, where all the money bet on a race formed a pool from which the winning dividend was calculated. The more bets on the winning horse, the smaller the amount each successful bettor won. The reverse also applied, so effectively the public set the odds, rather than a bookmaker. Over time the totalisator developed from a crudely designed, manually operated device into an automated and ultimately computerised machine.
With public feeling over gambling running high, the Gaming and Lotteries Act was passed in 1881 to regulate what had been uncontrolled gambling. Totalisators were licensed and other types of gambling (on sport, card games and billiards) were banned, although bookmakers were still allowed to operate on horse racing. At first the tote calculated only win bets, but in 1901 split-pool betting, with the second horse getting 25% of the pool, was introduced. Next came doubles (for winners of two specified races). Further bet types were developed when an automatic totalisator was introduced in 1913. Meanwhile, in the face of more anti-gambling agitation, the government had banned bookmakers in 1910.
During the next 40 years, racing continued to boom and illegal bookies turned over millions of pounds. Finally, recognising the loss of tax and duty revenue, the government set up its own off-course betting agency. The Totalisator Agency Board (TAB), established in 1950, opened its first two branches in Dannevirke and Feilding in 1951. Their popularity was instant and more TABs quickly appeared around the country. They operated under stringent conditions. The idea was to allow off-course betting, not to encourage it. No advertising, no broadcasting of races, no seating (encouraging ‘loitering’) and no same-day payouts were permitted.
Gradually attitudes changed. From 1986 there were TAB outlets in pubs. New-style TABs offered an enormous range of betting options and provided punters with many home comforts, including television screens. After Sunday racing began in 1992, punters could bet virtually every day of the year. In 2011 the TAB offered betting on around 10,600 domestic and 42,000 overseas races (covering gallops, harness and greyhounds). An increasing proportion of betting was done online.
It is an odd fact that an Australian race, the 3,200-metre Melbourne Cup, is easily the most popular betting event for New Zealanders. It is the world’s richest handicap race (most big international races are run at set weights). In 2011 the prize money was around $6 million, an attraction for increasing numbers of foreign horses.
Legislation in 1995 allowed the TAB to operate more sophisticated forms of betting, including fixed-odds betting and betting on sport. Fixed-odds is the method bookmakers use, where the dividend is set at the time of placing a bet, whereas the tote dividend can change right up to the race start. From a modest beginning, fixed-odds betting on racing grew to around $150 million annually by 2011, though the totalisator, at $1,200 million, was still the preferred method.
Racing had a virtual monopoly on gambling before Lotto’s introduction in 1987, followed by gaming machines and casinos. By 2011 it had dropped to a distant fourth place behind these other forms of gambling.
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.
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.
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.
New Zealand has long been recognised as an ideal country for producing thoroughbreds, which thrive in temperate climates and on open pasture. This reputation grew through the shrewd judgement of the earliest breeders in selecting quality bloodlines from Australia and England.
All racehorses have their official birthday on 1 August (or, in the northern hemisphere, on 1 January). July foals are officially classified as yearlings when they are actually less than a month old (unless there is proof the mare was not served before 1 September the previous year), so breeders ensure no foals are born too early. The dates fit normal breeding seasons and provide practical uniformity for races restricted to certain age groups. The New Zealand racing season also begins on 1 August.
The first thoroughbred brought to New Zealand, Figaro, sired the first thoroughbred born in New Zealand, from an English mare imported in 1842. The foal, named Il Barbiere, was a good racehorse and in turn became a significant sire. Horses descended from Figaro made up some of the colonies of wild horses that later roamed in the greater Wellington region. Astute settlers and Māori picked out the best for racing and riding.
In the 1840s and 1850s the hub of thoroughbred breeding shifted from Wellington to Nelson, with the arrival of several racing enthusiasts there. Henry Redwood, George Duppa and future premier Edward Stafford imported quality bloodstock. During the next decade Redwood established another large stable at Riccarton, reinforcing the gradual shift of thoroughbred strength to Canterbury. By the 1890s and 1900s, George Stead and Sir George Clifford were the leading owners and breeders in Canterbury.
Moifaa, owned by Spencer Gollan of Hawke’s Bay, won the 1904 Grand National Steeplechase, becoming the first New Zealand-bred racehorse to win a major event in England. King Edward VII’s own horse Ambush fell, and before the following year’s race, the king bought Moifaa to run in his colours. Unfortunately Moifaa developed respiratory problems, fell in the 1905 event, and failed to win subsequently. He appeared at the king’s funeral in 1910 – not, as has been claimed, as the riderless horse, but ridden by the king’s friend, Major General John Brocklehurst.
At this time, Sir William Russell, John Ormond and Tom Lowry were prominent breeders in Hawke’s Bay. One of the greatest mares bred in New Zealand, Desert Gold, was born at Okawa Stud, Hawke’s Bay, in 1912. Auckland had also become an important centre, with large-scale breeding establishments. Sylvia Park in Mt Wellington was home to the influential English stallion Musket, sire of New Zealand’s first undisputed champion, Carbine.
By the early 1880s Australians were buying young horses at sales in Auckland – the forerunner of a lasting trend. In 1927 the National Yearling Sales began at Trentham, near Wellington. The following year a youngster destined to become New Zealand’s greatest champion – Phar Lap – was sold to Australia.
Studmasters throughout the country have continued to select overseas horses astutely, with limited funds by international standards. The Waikato region has been especially successful, led by Cambridge Stud’s Patrick Hogan. Since 1986 his Irish-bred stallion Sir Tristram and his son Zabeel have been dominant. The most notable sire previously was Trelawney Stud’s Foxbridge, who was champion for 11 consecutive years from 1941. Windsor Park’s Volksraad was champion sire eight times between 2002 and 2010 for New Zealand earnings only. All three stud farms are near Cambridge. The greatest modern mare, Sunline, was also bred in Waikato.
Most stud farms gain fame through successful stallions, but an exception was George Currie’s Koatanui Stud at Whanganui. This was home to the legendary brood mare Eulogy. Imported in 1915, she founded one of New Zealand’s most prolific families, still flourishing in the 2000s.
During the boom period of the mid-1980s, several stud farms listed on the stock exchange, but after the sharemarket crash of 1987 they reverted to private ownership.
Yearling sales are highly sensitive to economic fluctuations and fashions in stallions, but they still provide the main source of earnings – over $88 million in 2011. Many go overseas. While Australia remains the biggest market, in recent years Asia has also become important, for proven racehorses as well as yearlings. In 2017 the Karaka Million for two-year-olds bought at the Karaka Yearling Sales was one of New Zealand's richest races. The other million-dollar race was the Vodafone New Zealand Derby for three-year-olds. Both races are run at Ellerslie.
New Zealand lagged behind most racing nations in granting women jockeys full licences in 1977, but in the 2000s it had one of the highest proportions of female riders in the world. In 2012 almost half of all apprentices were female and several had become leading jockeys. Lisa Cropp was champion jockey for three years in succession, to 2007. Lisa Allpress topped the premiership in 2012, 2016, 2019 and 2020; Sam Collett was victorious in 2018. Several overseas women have come to New Zealand for riding careers they would have struggled to achieve at home.
There have been many notable racing families, but only a few have produced two champions in their field. Dave O’Sullivan of Matamata started out as a jockey, then turned to training. He won the trainers’ premiership 11 times from 1979 until his 1998 retirement. His son Lance, who retired in 2003, still held the record of 12 jockeys’ premierships in 2017. He also held the record for most winners in New Zealand races – 2,358 in total. His record was later broken by David Walsh and then by Chris ‘Magic’ Johnson, who by April 2020 had ridden 2,468 New Zealand winners.
Women’s acceptance as equals owes much to the skills of pioneers such as Linda Jones. Supported by her trainer husband Alan, she fought a two-year battle with racing authorities to gain the right to ride in totalisator races, succeeding in 1977. Because of her pregnancy, her riding debut was delayed until August 1978 and her career was cut short when she broke her neck in a training gallop in March 1980. However, in her brief but spectacular career she won 65 races, including the Wellington Derby and a stakes race in Australia. Many of her wins came on little-fancied horses, proving her ability to get the best out of even ordinary animals.
Linda Jones was not the first woman to ride as a professional in New Zealand. That was the visitor Joan Phipps, a veteran of 400 wins in her native Canada, who rode (and won) at Te Awamutu in November 1977. Apprentice Sue Day became the first New Zealand female jockey to win, a week after her debut in July 1978.
An internationally recognised classification of races known as ‘stakes’ or ‘black type’ (because in sales catalogues they are printed in bold type) applies to all three racing codes (gallops, harness racing and dog racing). Group 1 carries the most prestige, followed by groups 2 and 3, then ‘listed’ races. Of the thousands of races run each year, only a tiny percentage have group status. These high-profile events carry the biggest prize money and add significant value to the animals’ breeding careers.
For about three decades after legal off-course betting began in 1951, racing enjoyed golden years. The saying ‘rugby, racing and beer’ reflected the main pastimes of adult male New Zealanders. Races were broadcast on the national radio network and huge crowds flocked to racecourses. The need to get rid of illegal practices such as race fixing and doping became more pressing with this growing popularity. Filming of races, photo finishes and routine swabbing were all introduced at about the same time as the TAB.
Gradually other sports and activities grew popular, televised racing began and race-day attendance began to fall. Steeped in tradition, most clubs were slow to change. Even commercial sponsorship was frowned upon at first. In the 2000s, without sponsorship and the income from TAB betting, racing would scarcely exist. Unpaid committees and voluntary community efforts kept many clubs afloat, though in 2012 their number had dropped to 63, racing on 49 courses.
The Skelton family from Greymouth produced five jockey brothers, of whom Bill and Bob are the best known. Bill, nicknamed ‘Bustling Billy’ for his busy riding style, was champion jockey seven times, and when he retired at the age of 54, he had ridden 2,156 winners. Bob, renowned for his quiet, long-rein method, suited stayers, and won distance races, most notably three successive Wellington cups on Great Sensation. He also won the 1976 Melbourne Cup on Van der Hum. Like Bill, Bob competed into his 50s, finishing with nine premierships.
In the 21st century weekday meetings are mostly low-key events, but on premier days racing has reinvented itself as light entertainment, with side amusements for all.
Big Cup carnivals attract fashionably dressed patrons, and at the other end of the scale, summer country racing appeals to families and holiday makers. Even dual-code meetings (trots and gallops) – common in the 19th century – have made a comeback. Some tiny clubs, such as Kumara, have almost a cult following for their annual race day as the place to meet and party. Race-going has come full circle: it is once again essentially a social occasion.
Harness racing was formerly known as trotting, because that was the gait originally used. Pacing, a faster gait, came later, and the widespread practice of pulling carts, or sulkies, later still. But the term ‘trotting’ is still often used, meaning both trotting and pacing in harness. Harness racing has ancient origins, but developed as a modern sport in Russia, parts of Europe and the United States at the end of the 18th century, with further refinements introduced in the 19th century.
Trotters have a diagonal gait: their front and opposite rear legs move forward at the same time. They are nicknamed ‘square gaiters’. Pacers move both legs on the same side forward together. Pacers are slightly faster than trotters, and nearly always wear hopples (loose straps) to help keep them in stride. Pacing was originally seen as the poor relation to trotting, but in the 21st century pacing is more popular. About three-quarters of New Zealand harness races are for pacers.
In New Zealand the earliest races were ‘saddle trots’, with the rider seated on the horse. A few races were advertised as optional for either harness or saddle, but sulkies were seldom used, being regarded as a peculiarity. They were heavy, high-wheeled, clumsy contraptions – nothing like the lightweight, low, aerodynamic sulkies of the 21st century. Saddle trotting is still popular in parts of Europe, and continued sporadically in New Zealand until the 1960s.
Trotting races and matches (between two horses) were initially included in galloping programmes. Matches on ordinary roads were also popular. The participants often laid large bets – £100 a side was not uncommon – and spectators also gambled on the outcome. Another type of match was a single horse against time.
The animals used in early racing were everyday steeds, carriage horses and farm hacks. What they lacked in speed they made up for in stamina. This suited the rules of the day: most races were run in heats, so horses normally competed two or three times over distances up to three or four miles. Trotting events occurred all around New Zealand, but from the 1860s became increasingly prevalent in the South Island, especially Otago and Southland.
The first recorded trotting meeting was held by the Wanganui Trotting Association in January 1881, although reports suggest they ran even earlier meetings. The programme included races for ‘vehicles drawn by one horse’ and ‘vehicles drawn by two horses’. The latter turned out to be a short-lived fad, but the former was the forerunner of today’s harness racing.
Standardbreds evolved in America from around 1800. The term comes from measuring how fast a horse could trot over a mile, thus meeting a ‘standard’. They were originally bred from thoroughbreds (for speed) and carriage horses (for their smooth trotting gait). The stallion Hambletonian 10, great-grandson of the English thoroughbred Messenger, is the ancestor of 99% of today’s standardbreds.
In 1881 the first American standardbred, named Berlin, was imported by Cantabrian Robert Wilkin. Berlin, a stallion who never raced in New Zealand, was soon followed by a succession of imports to Canterbury and Nelson from the US and Australia. These horses laid the foundation for the standardbred breed in New Zealand.
The emergence of trotting horses kept solely for racing transformed the sport. Canterbury became the trotting centre for both racing and breeding – a position it retained in the early 21st century. Along with the improved horses, new American-style racing sulkies were introduced, resulting in higher speeds. Trotting became fashionable in its own right, not just as an adjunct to galloping.
By 1890, 15 trotting clubs were operating, holding races specified for saddle or harness (or sometimes ‘optional’ in the same race). However, the line between trotting and galloping was still blurred, as clubs often included events from the other code on their programmes. Big fields for trotters – sometimes over 20 – showed how popular the sport had become, especially in the South Island. By the start of the 20th century, trotting was firmly established as a rival to thoroughbred racing, although it never surpassed it.
In the early 1900s Ribbonwood became New Zealand’s first pacing superstar. Owned, trained and driven by Dave Price, he set Australasian records and made headlines in a match series with the Australian champion Fritz. Monte Carlo, winner of the first New Zealand Cup in 1904, aged 14, was another crowd idol. Author Dillon was the acclaimed ‘personality’ horse of the 1910s, noted for his speed and courage. The next batch of champions came in the 1930s, with Indianapolis (three times winner of the New Zealand Cup) and Harold Logan, followed by the 1940s star Highland Fling.
The annual inter-dominion competition between Australia and New Zealand was first held in Perth in 1936 (when both countries were known as dominions). It is a series of races for pacers and trotters to find the overall champions in each gait, culminating in grand finals. Considered the supreme test of horse and driver, it was traditionally shared between six Australian states and Auckland or Christchurch, with New Zealand holding it every four years. The final contest under this format was in 2012, after which it moved to New South Wales for three years. Many New Zealand horses have triumphed, most recently the trotter I Can Doosit in 2011 and 2012.
Of the several Canterbury clubs vying for supremacy, the Lancaster Park Amateur Trotting Club won. In 1899 it became the New Zealand Metropolitan Trotting Club and began racing at Addington. Meanwhile, the Auckland Trotting Club held its first meeting in 1890 on grounds in Epsom now known as Alexandra Park. In the 2000s these remain the two leading venues, followed by Cambridge and Forbury Park (Dunedin).
Once trotting became a serious sport involving serious investment, the somewhat haphazard rules and dubious practices needed sorting out. The New Zealand Trotting Association was formed to take control in 1890. It was then divided into separate North and South island associations, before re-forming in 1899. The New Zealand Trotting Conference was set up in 1900 as the overseeing legislative body. In 1950 it took over the day-to-day administrative duties of the association, and in 1993 was renamed Harness Racing New Zealand.
The first proper trotting racing was handicapped by time, with the best horses starting up to 75 seconds behind the front line. Starts were often shambolic and unfair, so handicapping by distance was introduced – from 10 to 500 yards (around 9 to 460 metres). Such huge handicaps meant top horses were often set impossible tasks, and the ‘free-for-all’, with all horses off a level mark, was introduced. Both systems are still used, although on modern fast, all-weather tracks, handicaps are seldom more than 30 metres.
Scottish-born Andrew Rattray became the driving force behind the sport’s rapid progress in Christchurch. Among his many roles he was secretary of the New Zealand ‘Metro’ from its inception in 1899 until 1941. Another notable leader and innovator was Harry Nicoll. Such was his influence that some fellow Cantabrians assumed he had invented the sport of trotting.
Harness racing grew rapidly in the first part of the 20th century, with the number of trotting horses tripling in the first two decades. Breeders continued to import good-quality stock from the United States and Australia.
A notable early breeder was Etienne Le Lievre from Akaroa. He imported from the US the great Harold Dillon and Nelson Bingen, among other stallions that left lasting dynasties. A son of Harold Dillon, Author Dillon, who raced in the 1910s, was considered the greatest racehorse of his time in the southern hemisphere.
John McKenzie, who founded Roydon Lodge in 1927, also selected prime American horses, notably U Scott and Light Brigade, and became one of the country’s most successful standardbred breeders.
While American horses of both sexes were most sought after, the sire line stemming from Australia’s Globe Derby also became popular. His champion son Johnny Globe helped break the long-standing prejudice against ‘colonial’ stallions.
The 1960s saw a number of significant developments in harness 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Greyhound racing evolved from the ancient sport of coursing, where dogs (two at a time) chased hares across fields. Coursing developed in New Zealand when hares, imported for hunting in the 1860s, became pests. Coursing clubs soon sprang up, mainly in the south of the South Island and around Auckland.
Coursing continued until 1954, when it was banned on grounds of animal cruelty. However, before then, some clubs had begun using fenced tracks and artificial lures.
Even after modern greyhound racing became the norm, clubs were hampered by the refusal of authorities to allow totalisator betting on their races. Repeated petitions were turned down and there was vigorous opposition from the horse-racing codes to full licences being granted.
Clubs experimented with different types of artificial lures. The first public exhibition of ‘drag lure’ racing (using a rabbit skin attached to a line, operated by hand) was held in 1934 at Auckland’s Western Springs. More satisfactory was the ‘Hannan hare’, invented by coursing enthusiast Jack Hannan about a decade later. Known as a ‘tin hare’, it used a metal arm projecting from a rail around an oval course, and was powered by an electric engine. It was first used in Christchurch in 1948, and variations on the design were adopted by other clubs. More sophisticated versions on the same principle are still used today.
The National Coursing Association, formed in 1908, became the New Zealand Greyhound Racing Association in 1954. Since 2009 it has been called Greyhound Racing New Zealand. Gordon Kingston was a leading administrator from the 1950s until the 2000s, after starting as a trainer. One of the first professional trainers was Ray Adcock – the only human in Greyhound Racing’s Hall of Fame.
A royal visit in 1970 boosted greyhound racing’s status – it had previously had a poor public image. The Duke of Edinburgh, a keen follower of the sport, accepted the offer of a dog to race in New Zealand in his name. In return, he presented a trophy known as the Silver Collar, to be contested annually. The inaugural race at Kumeū in 1971 was attended by the governor-general and other dignitaries. In 2012 its stake money of $75,000 was exceeded only by the New Zealand Cup, and it had Group 1 status.
Greyhounds are a much more ancient breed than thoroughbred or standardbred horses. They were revered by the Pharaohs and depicted in Grecian art. In medieval Britain, killing a greyhound incurred a penalty of death. Then as now, greyhounds were prized for their speed (up to 65 kilometres per hour), agility, intelligence and strong hunting instinct. Although they wear muzzles while racing, greyhounds are not naturally aggressive – in fact they are renowned for being docile, somewhat lazy pets once retired.
In 1971 permission was given for a limited form of official betting. However, new facilities were needed, and money was scarce, so it was not until 1978 that on-course totalisators were established. The breakthrough came in 1981, when finally greyhound clubs gained full access to off-course betting through the TAB, and the much bigger audience that provided.
Since 1981 numbers of racing dogs have increased along with race-day allocations and events. Because most dog races take less than 30 seconds to complete, they lend themselves to television coverage between horse races, which further increases their exposure.
In 2012, 11 clubs raced on seven tracks, of which two – Manukau and Wanganui – were purpose-built for dogs. The other tracks shared facilities with harness racing, and Ascot Park, Invercargill, hosted gallops as well. Greyhound tracks are smaller than horse tracks (440–600 metres), and have a sand-based ‘all-weather’ surface, developed to provide cushioning for dogs’ feet. Until 1997 greyhounds raced on grass, but that surface cannot stand up to the frequent racing of the 2000s.
Every racing greyhound has a weight record, which must be produced and kept up to date before it can start. All dogs are weighed before each race. If a dog’s weight varies by more than 1.5 kilograms from its last race start, the trainer may be fined, or the dog disallowed from starting. The reason is that a racing dog’s weight is an indicator of its fitness and therefore its chance of winning. All dogs’ weights must be available to the betting public on the day.
The quality and speed of greyhounds has improved with judicious imports from Australia. About 200 of the 2,000 greyhounds racing in 2012 are from Australia, but many more have Australian heritage. Many owners train their own dogs, but there are also large, professionally run kennels. The most prominent is the Dunsandel establishment of John McInerney. He has won the premiership 14 times, the first two in partnership with Ray Adcock.
In 2011 two Australian-bred dogs, Little Mother and Swift Fantasy, had achieved high earnings. However, locally bred Misty Anna was generally regarded as the best greyhound to race in New Zealand.
Greyhound racing is a minor sport compared with horse racing. Betting turnover is roughly half of that of harness racing, which in turn is about half of that of galloping. Costs of breeding and racing greyhounds are substantially lower than for horses, and prize money is correspondingly smaller. Of the 4,200-odd races held annually, only 11 carry the exclusive Group 1 status. The $100,000 New Zealand Cup, run at Addington, is the richest. The oldest is the Waterloo Cup, worth $20,000. Another 16 races carry five-figure prize money.
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Costello, John, and Pat Finnegan. Tapestry of turf: the history of New Zealand racing, 1840-1987. Auckland: Moa, 1988.
Fletcher, Sam. Auckland Greyhound Racing Club: from drag hare paddock to Bramich hare stadium. Auckland: S. Fletcher, 2002.
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