YEAR: 1909

Wildwood Junior , with owner Bill Kerr

Wildwood Junior, having his first and only race of the season, gave the other contenders a pacing lesson in the 1909 New Zealand Cup. By the time the post was reached, Bill Kerr's brilliant but unsound pacer was 40 yards ahead, winning in 4:39. The margin remains the most decisive in the history of the race.

In 1895 Kerr bought the three-year-old colt Wildwood for 500 on one of his trips to the United States. Two years later he bought the mare Thelma from her breeder, J Todd, of Lincoln, for 50. She turned out to be a great New Zealand-bred foundation mare. Wildwood Junior was the second foal of their mating. A five-year-old black stallion, Wildwood Junior was the eigth favourite of the 10 starters, mainly because he had not raced that season.

On the same day, Willowood, Wildwood Junior's full-brother and the result of the first mating of Wildwood and Thelma, won the Au Revoir Handicap after losing several lengths at the start. Unlike the Cup winner, whose victory was unexpected, Willowood went out favourite. He was retired unbeaten in three starts, recording a win in each of the 1907-08, 1908-09 and 1909-10 seasons.

The 1909 Cup was raced at a time when the country was divided on the gambling issue. The 1908 Gambling Act, passed by Sir Joseph Ward's Government still had bitter opponents. A day or so before the Cup, more than 100 people waited on the Prime Minister in Wellington, protesting at the increase "almost beyond belief" of the gambling evil. Sir Joseph Ward, from all accounts, gave them a sympathetic hearing, but it did not prevent him attending the Show Day racing. Certainly, as the momentum of Cup week gathered in Chrischurch , the country had its agitators seeking a change in the legislation to reduce racing permits.

That enormous strides had been made in harness racing in Canterbury was evidenced by the opening day of the meeting. The Metropolitan Club offered stakes of 5502 sovereigns. The Cup stake, increased to 700 sovereigns, was the richest offered for a harness race in New Zealand or Australia. The Cup card was regarded as the best offered by a harness club with the qualifying time of the race tightened to 4:45. For the first time the race carried a restricted handicap, which was set at 10 seconds and designed to give the backmarkers a better chance of victory. The Cup was raced on the first day, Tuesday, setting a pattern that existed for many years.

An exciting newcomer, King Cole, a son of Ribbonwood from the Rothschild mare Kola Nut, was the favourite, but, along with Durbar, he boke at the start and was out of the race. Albertorious, bracketed with Revenue (driven by Manny Edwards), was the next-best supported, but for the third time he let down his backers, finishing well back.

For a lap John M, Verax, Imperial Polly and Master Poole formed the leading group. Further on, Wildwood Junior got within striking distance of the leaders and, with a mile behind him, burst into the lead. From that point the outcome was never in doubt. The further they went the greater the lead became for Wildwood's speedy five-year-old son. There was a great contest for second, with Terra Nova finishing half-a-length ahead of Lord Elmo, a duplication of their 1908 placings. Then followed Revenue, Imperial Polly and Master Poole. Imperial Polly, unsuccessful in the Cup on three occasions - 1909,1910 and 1911 - was by Prince Imperial. Later, at stud, when mated with Logan Pointer, she produced Imperial Pointer, who to Rey de Oro produced Imperial Gold, dam of tha amazing Gold Bar. Lord Module, the star of the 1979-80 season, traces back to Imperial Polly.

Bill Kerr's association with harness racing stretched back into the previous century. In 1887 he bought a block of 50 acres on Wainoni Road, halfway to New Brighton, and established his stud, later appropriately named Wildwood, and private training establishment. He and his brother Charles trained numerous horses there. Later, the brothers dissolved their partnership, Charles setting up as a public trainer and Bill concentrating on breeding and training his own horses.

Wildwood Junior first raced as a three-year-old in the 1907-08 season and soon worked his way into the best circles. As a green colt he won the Progressive Handicap at Addington in 4:50.8 and later, as a four-year-old, the Courtenay Handicap in 4:41. He eclipsed those times in his first Cup victory, clocking 4:39.

Wildwood Junior, standing an impressive 16.1 hands, was described as a commanding and perfectly-shaped stallion. However, his racing days were restricted because he had unsound legs. His only races in the 1909-10 and 1910-11 seasons were the New Zealand Cups, an both times he was successful. In the latter season he was the top money-winner, solely from his 700-sovereign share of the 1000-sovereign Cup prize. As a two-year-old, Wildwood Junior served two mares, and the matings produced two good performers in Calm and Goldie, both of whom won their first three races. Calm was favourite for the 1913 Cup, but finished third.

With earnings of 1656, Wildwood Junior was retired to Kerr's stud as a seven-year-old, but not before he had become the first double-winner or the New Zealand Cup.

Prince Albert won the main race on the Thursday, the Christchurch Handicap, from King Cole and Lord Elmo. On the Friday, Al Franz, a speedy four-year-old, won the Courtenay Handicap from Albertorious and Aberfeldy.

A total of 27 bookmakers operated each day, yet despite that opposition the totalisator took a record 45,018. The 3072 invested on the New Zealand Cup was only 86 short of the 1907 record.

Credit: Bernie Wood writing in The Cup


YEAR: 1914


For any top horseman it was a cruel fate. In May, 1914 leading driver, Charlie Kerr, posted a career highlight driving the unbeaten rising star Admiral Wood to win the first New Zealand Derby, then held at New Brighton. It was owned and trained by his brother, Willie, who would soon sell the colt for a staggering price in those days of 1,000. Within hours of the Derby triumph Charlie was on his deathbed aged just 54.

He had driven into the city in what was virtually a road sulky at 6:30pm to celebrate, leaving the city at 10:30pm. Witnesses saw the travelling very fast on Regent Street in Woolston an hour later and soon afterward they collided with a telegragh pole, Charlie was thrown on the road. He suffered a "laceration of the brain" which affected his behaviour in hospital. He refused food until his death a few days later. There were many tributes to the cheerful horseman from Wainoni.

The Kerr family, prominent in the New Brighton area (Kerrs Reach is named after them), had already suffered a tragedy involving horses, when Peter Kerr, who farmed the Sandhills Run (Christchurch only went to the end of Gloucester Street in those days) was also killed in an accident with a horse. Charles and William established a training and breeding property operating seperate training stables at Wainoni, which was eventually called Wildwood Farm. Willie was the senior partner but also a farmer. The brothers had first made their mark at New Brighton beach meetings in the 1880's and came up with horses like Nilreb (his sire Berlin backwards) which won at Springfield from 400m behind and three races in aday at Westport.

Two decisions by Willie Kerr then took them into the big time.He bought the American horse, Wildwood, in the North Island in 1894. Wildwood, an impressive black, was a wild success but also proved there are no certainties in racing. Winner of the first Sires Stakes run in this country and then lightly used as a stallion, he was constantly in training for nearly two years before he returned in 1897 and was regarded as an unbeatable certainty against the best in the land.

Wildwood had been handicapped four seconds however and in the field was a little known pacer from Ashburton called Prince Imperial, who upset the American trotter in sensational circumstances. That led to a famous 1000 match race at New Brighton, by far the biggest stake ever raced for by harness horses in this country. Driven by Willie because his brother was ill, Wildwood norrowly won the first heat (best of three) with something in reserve. He then slaughtered his classy rival in a new Australasian mile record time. He would become a landmark stallion here but died in 1905 when just 12 and at the peak of his powers. Prince Imperial was also an influential stallion.

Willie drove out to Lincoln one day to check out a gelding breeder John Tod had for sale. Instead he was very taken with a filly on the Tod property and bought he for 30. Named Thelma, she was the fifth and last filly from Pride Of Lincoln whose No 1 family has produced champions from Wildwood Junior to Christian Cullen and beyond. A black like his dad Wildwood Junior, a pacer, was the first colonial horse to win a sires premiership here, but was only one of Thelma's outstanding foals. He famously won two NZ Cups in his only starts in those seasons, one in world record time.

Thelma, a fine racehorse, had 16 foals in as many years. Two died, one was unraced and all the rest won at least once. Willowood, brother of Wildwood Junior was never beaten over three seasons (though only one start in each) and like Waverley (a half-brother based later in Southland) was an outstanding stallion. Marie Corelli was a track star and a breeding gem while Authoress, injured before racing and dead at eight, left the champion Author Dillon. Willie sold him as a youngster for 500 to a wealthy local, James Knight, a short time before he also won a Derby.

Willie owned several mares who still hold an influence in sales catalogues and would break in up to 15 yearlings of his own a year, big numbers then. Most were for sale - a sort of pioneer Ready to Run concept. No other New Zealand mare has matched the extraordinary lagacy of Thelma as the Akaroa Trotting Club has noted for many years now.

Like many trainers then the Kerr brothers, though popular figures, had their moments with authorities. One notorious case involved Wildwood at Plumpton Park. On the first day when hot favourite he was well beaten and stablemate Sing Sing (ancestress of the Moose family) won at nice odds. On the second day Wildwood, driven by Charlie, had a special light cart attached and won easily. The public and authorities were not amused especially as the brothers made no secret that they backed the champion heavily on the second day as he had only been in work for eight weeks. Administrators found changes justified but moaned about the "public image of the sport with these sort of incidents."

Charlie's death seemed to turn the tide against Wildwood Farm. Santa Rosa, the first fully Commercial standardbred stud and Coldstream became the industry leaders. Willie may also have lost some interest though he lived until 1951. In 1921 he sold up all his horses except Wildwood Junior who was passed in. He got over 2000 for the others. In 1924 he sold the farm to Harry Aker who had the champion mare Waitaki Girl and the ill fated fated Peter Chenault. Later the Bussell family trained there.

The Kerr name remained a force in harness racing for decades after Willie and Charlie but never like the dramatic years of Wildwood and Thelma.

Credit: David McCarthy writing in HRWeekly 29May13

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