YEAR: 1880


Among the fine pioneers who helped convert the Canterbury plains from tussock-strewn wastes into their present-day productiveness were many who had followed the hounds and ridden over steeplechase courses in England. Naturally, their inherent love of sport soon asserted itself in the land of their adoption. Not long after Hagley Park had been laid out, it was a common meeting ground for horsemen of that time, many of whom not many years previously had helped to swell the throng in Rotten Row.

So it came about that before long Hagley Park saw the start of racing activities in the young settlement. There were no regular race meetings but matches between prominent horsemen were of frequent occurrence. Anniversary Day could always be relied upon to produce two or three contests of this kind, and great was the interest taken in them. When the Canterbury Settlement was first formed, a large tract of land at Upper Riccarton was set aside as a racecourse reserve, and it was there that the Canterbury Jockey Club made it's headquarters. There it has remained ever since, and from one with primitive appointments the course has progressed into a racetrack that has few superiors in Australasia. The first contest for the Canterbury Derby, now known as the NZ Derby, was decided in 1860, victory resting with Mr Harris's mare, Ada, which was ridden by R Reay. In the same year, the Canterbury Cup was instituted, the initial race being won by that great mare, Wetsail, owned by Mr C Redwood, of Nelson.

In the (18)seventies racecourses sprang into existence from one end of Canterbury to the other. Meetings were held at Akaroa, Ashburton, Burke's Pass, Leeston, Geraldine, Hurunui, Kaiapoi, Rangiora, Ohoka, Oxford, Southbridge, Timaru, Waimate and Woodend. Many of these Clubs have dropped out, but in their time they did much to advance the sport of kings.

It was at these old-time meetings that trotting gained its first foothold. As yet, no proper trotting club had been inaugurated, and the few horses in training were recruited mostly from the local tradesmen's carts. Matches between these were often witnessed in Hagley Park, but an even more popular racing ground was the fine stretch of road extending from the Ferry Bridge into the city. These races invariably finished at the old White Hart Hotel, where those who had not followed the trotters on horseback congregated to see the final stages. As the number of light-harness horses and patrons increased, there grew a demand for increased racing facilities.

One of the first tracks was a Brown's Paddock in Ferry Road, just on the town side of where the Lower Heathcote course was subsequently formed. It was a rough spot, with practically no conveniences, and did not survive many meetings. Then a change over was made to Heathcote, where gatherings, which included gallops, hurdle races and trots, were held for many years. Not until the early 'eighties was trotting put on an independent footing by the formation of a club devoted entirely to its interests. This was the Lower Heathcote Trotting Club, and in subsequent years arose the Lancaster Park Trotting Club (reorganised afterward and made the Lancaster Park Amateur Trotting Club), New Brighton Trotting Club, Canterbury Trotting Club, and Plumpton Park Trotting Club, now known as the Canterbury Park Trotting Club.

From the very earliest days New Brighton had always been a keen trotting centre. Such fine sportsmen as Tom Free, T Marr, Henry Mace, John, Charlie and Willie Kerr, H McIlwraith, and others, did much as owners and breeders to help the sport to its present high standard. In the 'seventies that grand stretch of beach northward of where the pier now stands was a favourite congregating ground. For several years meetings were held there, the flat and hurdle events being run over straight courses, while the trotters had to turn round a post and finished where they started.

The late Tom Free at the time owned the Bower Hotel, and also a good deal of the sandhills property between the hotel and the sea. Recognising the disadvantages of racing on the beach, he formed a body known as the New Brighton Racing Club, to promote all classes of racing in the district. Mr Free let the Club have what is now the New Brighton racecourse at a nominal rental, and formed a right-of-way to give access to it from the old New Brighton Road. It was a rough-looking spot in those days - nothing but sandhills, manuka scrub, and tussocks greeting the eye in all directions. In places the sandhills were levelled to make way for the racing track, but in others it was cut through them.

One of the last meetings held on the beach was in 1885. At this gathering C Kerr won the two miles trot with Queen, who was followed home by Sly Sam. The three miles trot went to Sly Sam, who at an earlier meeting had returned a big dividend. It was in 1884 that the first meeting was held on the newly-formed New Brighton course. Johnny Kerr rode his own horse, Larry, to victory in the open hurdles, and subsequently Willie Kerr appropriated the Maiden Hurdles with Patience. Burlington won the Maiden Plate, while the principal event for the afternoon, the Avon Plate, went to Rebecca. The only trotting event on the programme fell to Mr W Graham's Miriam, with Flora second and Old Bob Riley third. Among other winners at those early gatherings were Maud S, Roger, Ragman, Cock Robin, Jumbo, Gipsy, Miss Scott, Arthur and Young Irvington. The last-named was owned by Mr Tom Free, whose son Arthur steered the son of Irvington in most of his races.

Irvington was imported from America by Mr John Kerr, of Nelson, in 1882. Subsequently he stood a few seasons in the New Brighton district, and afterwards found his way to New South Wales. He was brought out from America at the same time as Vancleve, Childe Harold, Fitzjames, Newland's Hambletonian, Blackwood Abdallah, Berlin, Bill Allen, and Pinole Patchen. The importation of so many well-bred sires soon brought an improvement in the class of light-harness horses, which up to this time had been without the influence of American blood. Unfortunately, the best of the collection - Childe Harold and Vancleve - were snapped up by Australian buyers without being used in New Zealand. Irvington remained here one or two seasons only and he will always be remembered as a sire of great producing mares.

Quite a number of useful gallopers were attracted to the early New Brighton meetings, while such well-known sportsmen as J E Pilbrow, 'Dan' O'Brien, 'Pasty' Butler, H Vallance, J Lunn, R Richardson, H Piper, S Wilson, J Ward and H Murfitt were generally in evidence. On one occasion Geo. Murray-Aynsley rode Master Agnes at 12st in a Lady's Bracelet, but more than met his match in J E Pilbrow's Vanity Fair.

Among those who had most to do with the club's early destinies were T Free, M Hawkins, J Wild, R Sunderland, D Barnes, John Kerr, and R Richardson, the last named of whom officiated as starter. Unfortunately, the undertaking, a proprietary one, was not a success, and after a few years a new body known as the New Brighton Sports Club, took over the course. This concern started off with a big flourish of trumpets, but after less than two season's activities had to throw in the towel. After going begging for some time, the racecourse was acquired by the late Henry Mace in 1888 and about the same time the New Brighton Trotting Club came into existence. Prominent among its officials were Messrs H Mace, T Marr, T Free, D Barnes, J Free and Smithson. Mr Calvert, a well-known vet, usually officiated as starter. An arrangement was entered into with Mr Mace, whereby he kept the course and buildings in order and charged the trotting club and the Christchurch Racing Club so much a day for its use. Like most proprietary concerns, however, the new trotting club failed to make much progress, nor was the management all that could be desired.

At almost every meeting a selling race was included on the programme, and these were seldom above suspicion. It was one of them that led to the biggest rumpus ever witnessed on a Canterbury course. As previously mentioned, part of the New Brighton track along the back straight was cut through a sandhill with high banks on either side. For about a furlong the competitors were completely lost to view, and here it was that some desperate happenings took place. In the race under mention, a well-known owner-trainer of that time had a fairly useful trotter engaged, and entrusted a relative with a good sum to back it on the totalisator. By some means the commission was shut out. The horse referred to had a useful lead when the field entered the sandhill, but by this time the backer had raced across the course and imparted this ill news to the driver. When the field reappeared to view the leader had dropped back to last, a position that he stuck to for the remainder of the journey. No sooner had the race finished than pandemonium broke loose. So scared was the driver (whose money was not on) of the hostile demonstration, that he failed to weigh in, and bolted for town. This saved his skin, but did not prevent him from being "rubbed out" for a lengthy period.

On another occasion the story is told by old timers of all the competitors coming to a halt in the shade of the sandhill, and an argument arising as to who was to win. One rider, who was leading at the time, waited in vain for the others to come up, and at length in despair shouted out "Come on you loafers or I'll turn back." No wonder the meetings came into disfavour with the general run of racegoers, and that in 1891 the club was reorganised with the proprietary element cut out.

New blood was introduced into the management with the late Mr A I Rattray as secretary. From that time there was a marked change for the better in the affairs of the seaside club. The New Brighton body weathered the depression years of the 1930's very well indeed, and although it was forced to give up its popular course during World War II and for some years afterwards, its return there last season proved a move in the right direction. The public are according the club most gratifying support, and the racing provided on the mile grass circuit last season was of a standard bettered on very few courses throughout the Dominion.

Credit: F C Thomas writing in NZ Trotting Calendar 10Aug49


YEAR: 1908


Bookmakers had two terms of legal betting in New Zealand. In the early days they were licensed by the clubs, which worked with or without totalisator betting. By the turn of the century bookmakers had been banned, but in 1908 they were back, operating on the course only, at the whim of the clubs. The situation lasted until 1911, when they were finally denied access to the courses. The 1908 Gaming Act also prohibited the publication of totalisator dividends. This prohibition was not lifted until 1950, when the Totalisator Agency Board was established and off-course betting was legalised.

The Metropolitan Club issued a large number of bookmakers' licences in 1908 and they operated in the public and members enclosures. Their operations affected first-day turnover, which dropped to 10,606, compared with 13,168 on the first day of the 1907 carnival. On the second day, 24 bookmakers operated, providing the club with 480 in fees, and on the third day 30 bookmakers took out licences. On Cup Day, despite the bookmakers, a record 18,404 was handled by the totalisator. The three-day total of 41,432 was a drop of 1209 from the previous year.

At his third attempt, Durbar, owned by Harry Nicoll and trained by Andy Pringle, a combination of owner, trainer and driver that was to become a familiar sight at Addington, won a grand contest.

On the first day, Addington patrons had their first opportunity in the new seasonto see the very good four-year-old Wildwood Junior. Bill Kerr's star easily beat 14 others, most of them Cup contenders, in the Courtenay Handicap. Dick Fly was second and St Simon third. Wildwood Junior did not have a Cup run.

A small field of nine faced the starter in the New Zealand Cup. Advance, the early favourite, went amiss and was withdrawn from the carnival. Albertorious was the favourite again, after his eight-length win in the Christchurch Handicap the day before the Cup. But Albertorious, driven by Jim August, was last all the way. He was bracketed with Fusee, driven by Newton Price. Fusee fared worse. His sulky broke just after the start and he was pulled up.

Florin took an early lead and led until the last lap, when Terra Nova took control from Dick Fly, Master Poole, Lord Elmo and Durbar. Pringle sent Durbar after the leaders and he won by two lengths to Terra Nova, with eight lengths to Lord Elmo. At considerable intervals came Dick Fly and Master Poole, with the others well beaten. Durbar's time of 4:36 was just outside Ribbonwood's national record. The stake for the Cup was raised to 500 sovereigns, and for the first of many times the qualifying mark was tightened, on this occasion to 4:48.

Most of the Cup horses lined up again in ther seventh race, the Provincial Handicap, where Lord Elmo improved on his third placing in the Cup. He gave Wildwood Junior a two-second start and beat him by eight lengths. Durbar, also off two seconds was third.

Durbar was a 12-year-old Australian-bred gelding by Vancleve. Terra Nova was by Young Irvington and Lord Elmo was by Rothschild. All three sires were outstandingly successful. A tough old campaigner, Durbar raced until he was an 18-year-old, and unsuccessfully contested the 1909 and 1910 Cups. He was the top stake-earner in 1908-09, with 682. For the fifth consecutive season, John Buckland was top owner, his horses winnnig a record 1391.

In 1881 John Kerr, of Nelson, and Robert Wilkin, of Christchurch, had imported some American stock, which laid the foundation for harness racing breeding in this country. Among Kerr's stock was Irvington, and among Wilkin's importations was Vancleve, who stayed only a short whilein New Zealand and did not serve any mares before being sold to a trotting enthusiast in Sydney. He became one of the most successful sires identified with the Australian and New Zealand breeding scenes. Apart from the great trotter Fritz, and Durbar, he sired Quincey (Dominion Handicap), and a number of other top performers who were brought from Australia to win races in this country. More than 60 individual winners of hundreds of races on New Zealand tracks were sired by Vancleve, a remarkable record for a horse who spent his stud life in Australia. Vancleve mares also found their way into New Zealand studs, the most celebrated being Vanquish - granddam of the immortal Worthy Queen, who created a miler record for trotters of 2:03.6 at Addington in 1934.

Irvington was used for only a few seasons in New Zealand before he too, went to Australia. Irvington was a poor foaler. He sired only two winners - Lady Ashley and Young Irvington - and it is through the latter that the name survived. Bred in 1886 by Tom Free at New Brighton, Young Irvington was a good racehorse, not only the first "pacer" seen on Canterbury tracks, but also a natural or free-legged pacer, racing without straps. Young Irvington left about 60 winners, and his daughters were also outstanding producers at stud. Early on they produced Ribbonwood (Dolly), Our Thorpe (Lady Thorpe) and Admiral Wood (D.I.C.).

Durbar's owner, Harry Nicoll, who raced both thoroughbreds and standardbreds, was also a breeder and top administrator. For many years he was president of the Ashburton Trotting and Racing Clubs. He retired from the presidency of the New Zealand Trooting Conference in 1947, after holding that office for an uninterrupted period of 25 years. He owned his first horse in 1902 then, in 1905, Andy Pringle became Nicoll's private trainer and they started a long and successful association. Pringle was an astute horseman, often sought by other owners and trainers to drive their horses. He was top reinsman in 1914-15 and again in 1916-17 and 1917-18. His son, Jack Pringle, was also a top horseman, winning the trainers' and drivers' premierships in 1950-51. Nicoll was top owner in 1910-11 (1547 10s), 1911-12 (1222), 1912-13 (987 10s) and 1920-21 (4161). His Ashburton stud, named Durbar Lodge after his first Cup winner, produced some great pacers and trotters, with Indianapolis, Wrackler, Seas Gift and Bronze Eagle foremost. All were bred by Wrack, who was bought by Nicoll from American owners.

Credit: Bernie Wood writing in The Cup

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