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.