Waikato has produced champion sportspeople such as Don and Ian Clarke (rugby), Linda Jones (horse racing), Lorraine Moller (distance running), Tawera Nikau (rugby league), Mark Todd (equestrian sports), Daniel Vettori (cricket), Rob Waddell (rowing) and Elsie Wilkie (bowls).
Horse racing was one of the first sports enjoyed by both Māori and Pākehā. There was a racecourse at the Māori village of Rangiaowhia in the 1840s and 1850s, and Māori organised races on remote Ruapuke Beach in the 1870s. After military townships were founded, racing, hunt and later trotting clubs were formed. The Alexandra Racing Club at Pirongia, established in 1866, is one of New Zealand’s oldest, and its annual Boxing Day races are a Waikato institution. The Waikato Racing Club has its course at Te Rapa, Hamilton, and there are also regular racing and trotting events at Te Awamutu, Cambridge, Matamata and Te Aroha. Other equestrian events, such as polo, are also popular.
Waikato’s rivers and lakes provide opportunities for a range of aquatic sports. There were rowing and sailing events on Lake Rotoroa (also known as Hamilton Lake) from the 19th century, and in the later 20th century there were power-boat races on the Waikato River. Boating events took place on Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa) in the early 1900s. An annual regatta has been held at Ngāruawāhia since the 1890s. With its mix of sports, including waka events and Māori cultural activities, this draws large crowds.
From the late 1940s Lake Karāpiro, a hydro lake on the Waikato River, became an international rowing and canoeing venue. The world rowing championships were held there in 1978 and 2010. From 2002 the Gallagher Great Race, an annual rowing contest between the University of Waikato and a team from Cambridge, Harvard or another overseas university, was held on a stretch of the Waikato River through Hamilton.
The symbol of Waikato rugby, Mooloo, was the creation of local radio station 1XH. In 1951 announcer Alan Burcher played the lowing of an anonymous cow during his breakfast session. In a children’s competition, she was named Mooloo, and soon the provincial rugby team made her its mascot. Her effigy was paraded through the streets before games, and her bellow greeted every try scored by the home team.
Waikato rugby began in 1874 when the ‘Hamilton Bounders’ played ‘Cussen’s Elephants’, a team of surveyors. In the 1920s the Waikato Rugby Football Union, based at Rugby Park in Hamilton, grew in strength, rising to glory in the 1950s, when they began winning most of their games. In 1951 they won the Ranfurly Shield (symbol of provincial rugby supremacy) for the first time. Support from around the region was wildly enthusiastic: the Mooloo mascot was paraded down Victoria Street before each match and cowbells were rung by supporters. Waikato’s finest moment came when it beat the South African Springboks at Rugby Park in the first match of their 1956 tour. The cheering could be heard across the city.
Rugby Park was replaced by Waikato Stadium in 2002. Used for a range of sporting events, it is still the home of Waikato rugby, including Super Rugby team the Chiefs.
Rugby league was introduced to Waikato in the early 20th century and soon caught on with Huntly miners and in nearby Māori communities. North of Hamilton, there are three main clubs: Taniwharau, Ngāruawāhia and Tūrangawaewae.
Car and motorcycle clubs were formed from the 1920s, and Waikato roads provided ample scope for rallies. Drag-car racing took place at Meremere from 1973, and in the early 2000s the Maramarua Forest, with its steep logging tracks, proved ideal for trail-bike riding. In 2008 the annual Hamilton 400 event for V8 Supercars began. Central city streets were closed off as a track for races over several days. However, after controversy over the funding of the event, it moved to Pukekohe from 2013. In 2009 Hampton Downs, a motor-racing venue, opened north of Te Kauwhata. The biennial New Zealand round of the World Rally Championship often included several heart-stopping stages in the Raglan area.
Outdoor sports grew in popularity after the Second World War. Raglan’s left-hand breaks and The Reef at Port Waikato attracted surfers. Rock climbing started at Wharepapa. The annual Balloons over Waikato festival drew visitors to the region. Kayaking, canoeing and jet-boat tours began on the Waikato River. Once seen as a place you passed through to get to holiday spots elsewhere, by the 2000s Waikato had become a destination for adventure tourism.