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HARNESS SCRIBES AND SEVEN OF THEIR PAPER STEEDS
Everything changes so it is said (though sometimes "and nothing changes at all" is an added proviso) and few things have altered over more than a century of racing publications. They start, they thrive and than they die - onlt for replacements more suited to the times to spring to life.
Some regard this as a weakness when it is a strength. Adapting new ideas is an essential for any business. So we thought we would say goodbye to Harnessed by recalling the valiant and successful attempts to market harness racing in previous eras. And especially the talented scribes who rode the publishing waves.
As you will see many survive long after their flagships eventually sank.
THE NEW ZEALAND REFEREE
The first publication to dedicate space to trotting it was a weekly founded in 1884 which later became the Office Calendar for both racing codes. The Christchurch Press bought it in 1891 to merge with its Weekly Press and it stasyed that way until the middle of the 1920's when i shifted base to Wellington. It "died" after a lengthy illness in 1939.
One of the main suppliers of copy in it's heyday was Fred Thomas (writing as "Templar") a breeding and racing expert who also produced the first volume of the Trotting Stud Book in 1905, All of this was incredibly difficult then. He was still contributing features on the sport into the 1950's.
Another standout was a contributor and later editor, John Olliver, whose cricketing family was closely connected with the founding of trotting in Christchurch. His early death accelerated the end of the Referee era.
Some early trotting writers were men of influence. W G Garrard was a rugby test referee and a leading cricket journalist on first name terms with some of the greats of that game. He was still supplying season statistics to the Trotting Calendar shortly before his death in 1944. Thomas Davey, another early trotting scribe, was a Member of Parliament and also Mayor of Christchurch.
THE TROTTING ANNUAL
Moa Publications discovered a mini goldminein the 1970's producing hard-backed, easy to read reviews of the season in several different sports. The Trotting Annual, sponsored for many years by Bominion Breweries, kicked off in 1972 with Auckland Star identity Ron Bisman as editor and contributions fron Norman Pierce, Mike Grainger and even Lord Langford who led a movement to make the sport popular in England.
The Annual was on most harness fan's wish list for Xmas for many years and sets were carefully collected and stored. Some still are. Dave Cannan, a highly regarded harness writer for the Christchurch Star and author of Unhoppled Heros, was a remarkable compiler of statistics and took over the editorship in 1981 with Don Wright the man from the south along with Otago's Taylor Strong and northerner Leo George among those adding support. He handed over to Jeff Scott, later trotting editor of the Christchurch Press ans now a website editor, in 1985.
Bisman returned in 1990 as public interest started to waneand Moa the exited. With Alan Meadows (Meadowset Graphics), Bisman produced a colourful 1994 edition and then a handsomevolume in 1998 with the highlights of intervening years. But it failed to sell and the game was over. In its time however, the "Annual" was hot property and the volumes remain a great source of ststistical information today. Televised racing and video recording however, started a terminal bleeding that could not be stopped.
THE TROTTING CALENDAR
A pubilication called Racing and Trotting Digest briefly carried industry essentials (programmes) through the 1930's until a frustrated Trotting Conference established the New Zealand Trotting Calendar in 1938 under contract with top journalist Karl Scott and his brother Wattie. They produced and printed the paper and Charlie Craig (NZ Herald) and his successor Pat Naden were among contributors along with southerner Norm Pierce. Harry Jarden was another leading trotting journalist in Christchurch at that time and also a member of a famous racing family.
Karl Scott, a man of many talents, was the first to write a book in this country specifically on harness racing back in 1949 (Pillars of Harness Horsedom) though he later claimed he made more from his rural activities than from printing publications.
The Calendar was a rather simple volume of limited pages full of official notices and annoted results. Meetings were covered, an economical easy to read "pithy pars" style popular in that era covering a meeting with many titbits rather than a lengthy article. It was only sold to the public from a few outlets. In later years it broughtin new blood like Ron Bisman and Mike Grainger but the focus remained very much on the needs of industry participants.
The Trotguide was a controversial move in the early 1970's with the familiar aim of widening the appeal of the industry publication. It involved the "Calendar" to Lower Hutt where it was produced under its new title by INL Print, publishers of the Friday Flash, NZ Racing Calendar, Turf Digest and the once very popular monthly Hoof Beats which was also seeking a new audience. It also now produced the Year Book of results a printing contract previously held by the Scotts. HRNZ discontinued that many years ago.
Tony Williams was the chief Canterbury contributor with enthusiasts such as Peter Larkin, Shelley Caldwell etc among the freelance supporters. The decision to move the publication caused resentment in Canterbury with a suggestion the Conference Executive at the time had been overly swayed by northern interests. The experiment was not a success from several points of view and especially the ill feeling which followed it from Christchurch.
THE NZ TROTTING CALENDAR(2)
In 1977 the Trotting Conference negotiated a contract with Tony Williams to edit the weekly publication in Christchurch with the proviso it regained its old title of the Calendar - reflecting earlier tensions. The venture, with Frank Marrion as a long time assistant, proved a success and especially from an advertising perspective, classier presentation along with lively content. Williams also reprinted the early Stud Books. Richard Turnbull provided a lot of northern content.
The arrangement lasted nine years but again there was not complete happiness in the camp when it ended. Terms could not be agreed. The advertising growth William had achieved was a major attraction and HRNZ decided to "bring the Calendar home".
THE HARNESS RACING WEEKLY
The new publication, under the editorship of Marrion and with pro-active former daily newspaper reporter Matt Conway among a livewire team, made another attempt to widen the market, publishing late in the week with full race day coverage to match the big boys along with hard hitting stories. Ther HRW was a competitor production-wise but again it didn't make the progress hoped for and so distribution costs, the cause for many closures over the years, became prohibitive.
Marrion left in 1987 for a breeding industry position (he would return later) and eventually Mike Grainger was appointed editor and Michael Guerin continued the tradition of NZ Herald contributions from the north. Michele Harris later became another important cog in the wheel and laterly Katie McNamara and Stacey Markham (nowMedia Manager) assisted among others the same general content was retained but in reduced form with earlier deadlines and lower costs. Printed by the Ashburton Guardian for many years if rarely, if ever, went over budget.
The Weekly remained a popular read for fans until, again because of increasing costs, the decision was made to move to a monthly under the editorship of Matt Markham with input from Michelle Harris, Courtney Clarke and Stacey Markham in 2015. It was a professional publication and gained strong reviews but there were practical disadvantages. Mainly, however, the "Weekly" proved too strong a tradition to erase and is niw due to return.
Newspapers increased their coverage of racing before and following World War II as a result of growth in the industry never since matched. 25 years ago city newspapers had full racing departments and a staff of at least six, sometimes with three reporters covering one code on race day before computers took over much of the routine work.
Even smaller provincial papers (Timaru Herald etc)had a specialist racing winter. Few papers now even carry full time specialist racing writers in what is a dramatically different working canvas. The wheel has gone full circle but the dailies retain somewhat basic coverage and fields.
Geoff Yule(The Press) and Pat Naden(NZ Herald) served 37 years and 35 years respectively as harness editors until the late 1980's, Yule being the first Kiwi daily journalist to cover an Australian InterDominion for a daily.
Bisman was ever present and Pierce and Wright spent similar stints in Southland and Strong in Otago. A number of their pupils moved on to greater things. Ron Bisman was an instition at the Auckland Star and also wrote several books, including a biography of Cardigan Bay and the momumental Salute to Trotting. With Taylor Strong he also wrote a history of the InterDominions.
A number of scribes from 30 years ago are still active in some way but the era of the full time specialist writer is almost over. Ironically many early trotting writers were known as "sporting writers" reflecting how they needed to cover more than one area to gain work. John Ollivier in the Referee, for example, covered trotting topics but was also the theatre critic for the paper.
THE OTHER WEEKLIES
Two of the best-known - the Friday Flash and the Truth were hugely popular at their peak but neither survive, though industry support helps The Informant and Turf Digest to carry on the Flash traditions.
Truth had a comprehensive racing coverage pushing controversy and more colourful writing as its point of difference. At its peak it sold 200,000 copies but gradually declined as "sensational" subjects (divorce; sex crimes) previously avoided by leading dailies, became part of the mainstream reporting. Truth demanded controversy and colour and woe betide the reporter who tried to avoid it. Some of its anonymous form par writers used codes(one, using a par such as "Good Day finding it difficult to regain form" actually meant to be on Good Day next start).
Its most notable modern editor was Ray O'Connor who balanced the news and the controversy fairly. In some ways Truth was a victim of its own success as vastly improved structures and systems removed a lot of controversy from harness racing.
The Friday Flash reached a Cup Week print peak of 35,000 in the 1970's but was down to around 3000 at the time of its demise in 2006. Those numbers are about on par with leading current publications. It offered superior previews and trial form as well as trackwork to punters along with a dash of colour and newsy columns. Des Coppins is most remembered among the editors and was followed by colurful Aucklander Bob Lovett who increased trotting content but unhappily, not sales.
The Sunday papers featured racing with full time staff writers for many years but none now employ them. When Barry Lichter took charge of the Sunday Star Times harness coverage increased even it proved a two edged sword for some of the more sensitive in the game. Again blanket television coveragemade even Sunday's news seem out of date.
Harness racing was quick to adapt to the computer age dating back to the 1980's and has continued to provide most of what fans and professionals need in the modern age. Victor Rolton(HRNZ) has been an industry leader in that field and Colin Steele od Addington Raceway has placed thousands of stories from times past on the Addington Raceway Timeline.
Frank Marrion posted another first with his online only news and tipping site Harness Express which eliminated distribution costs and pointed the way to the future.
Leading players also established their own sites carrying stable or industry news. This has been a challenge for commercially printed and sold news and form guides though "holding on to the page" still strongly appeals especially to older readers.
Early racing reporters wrote stories in longhand, had to use public transport and needed to be good handlers of pigeons to send the race results. The Press building demolished in the 2011 eathquake still had a Pigeon Loft which was used until the 1940's. Before the mid 1930's reporters could be and often were expected to work 100 hours a week if required and $10 was a princely weekly wage without overtime. Most were "stringers" working part time for the paper. In newspaper offices younger writers had to wait their turn to get a story published and much of their work was less interesting, largely involving preparation work for fields.
Technology revolutionised the profession through the 1990's computers, televised races, fax machines, then internet, emails and social media made everyone a potential critic on racing. Modern reporters needed to be more versatile using radio and tv interests either part of their contract or a pathway to the future. In the print media heyday no reporter dare take a job on radio. It was the competition.
As we said. Everything changes. But then maybe, as we also said, nothing really changes at all.
Credit: David McCarthy writing in Harnessed July 2017