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.
A racing family
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.
First women riders
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.
‘Black type’ races
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.
‘Rugby, racing and beer’
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.
Decline of racing
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.
Bill and Bob Skelton
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.