The Early Days Of Canterbury: 18. Early Horse Racing

CHRISTCHURCH,  2009

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CHAPTER 18

 

Early Horse Racing

 

 

May I be permitted to close my self-imposed labour of love in connection with the early days of Canterbury and its capital city which has been fitly designated the garden city of the Dominion, by referring to racing as it attracted our Pilgrim Fathers?

 

The pioneer settlers, imbued with an inherent love of "the sport of kings," brought with them from the Old Land the desire to institute the British pastime in their new colonial home, and it was therefore a foregone conclusion that no long period would elapse before arrangements would be consummated for the holding of horse races.

 

And so, on September 13, 1851, a meeting was held in the land office, on the present site of the Chamber of Commerce building, the object being the foundation of a Jockey Club. Edward Jerningham. Wakefield was in the chair and the gentlemen present resolved that a Racing Club be constituted, to be known as the Canterbury Jockey Club, and stipulating that membership be open to all gentlemen who, before October 15, expressed their wish to become members.

 

The entrance fee was fixed at one guinea, and the annual subscription one guinea. Mr Charles Maunsell was elected treasurer pro tem, and a committee was set up to make enquiries regarding a racing course, its personnel being

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Messrs J. R. Godley, J. C. Watts Russell, E. M. Templar, W. G. Brittan, T. Hanmer, H. Lockhart, E. J. Wakefield and the Hon. J. Stuart Wortley.

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The first horse races actually run in the infant settlement were included in the sports pro­gramme at the celebrations in connection with the first anniversary of the arrival of the pilgrim ships - December 16, 1851.

 

The function took place in North Hagley Park, and the programme included a cricket match, a foot race, a wrestling match, climbing a, greasy pole, and catching a pig with a greasy tail. The horse races included a sweepstake of five sovereigns with two sovereigns added, and was won by Mr Gordon's horse, "Brandy." A scratch race for five sovs. was won by Mr Godley's brown mare, "Lady Nugent" against Mr Watts Russell's horse, "Stationer." Another race for a similar prize was annexed by Mr Watts Russell's "Stationer," Mr Caverhill's "Necromancer" being runner-up, and a Maori owner's race for a prize of three guineas was won by a horse called "Jacky Fly." The records do not mention the distances of any of these first races run in the province.

 

The second occasion on which public racing was indulged in was on Easter Monday, 1852, at Hagley Park, when, although the programme included only two races, they were real races, necessitating staying power and stamina, and not staying mere sprints.

 

The Tradesmen's Plate, run in heats, was finally won by Mr Cummings's grey gelding,

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"There He Flies." The following race, called the Canterbury St. Leger of one sovereign each entry with ten sovereigns added, was over a two miles course and was won by Mr Lee's black gelding, "Tamer­lane" - a horse which for some years was a winner of many races in the Settlement.

 

On Anniversary Day, 1852, racing again took place in North Hagley Park, over a course of one mile and 150 yards, running from Dilloway's Travellers' Rest hotel (now the Riccarton hotel) to the vicinity of the present Fendalton bridge.

 

The Jockey Club had scarcely developed be­yond its inception fifteen months earlier, but the love of British sport was strong in the breasts of its devotees, and quite a substantial amount was subscribed for the purpose of putting the rough, Tussocky track into something approaching order.

 

The Jockey Club's stewards were Messrs Watts Russell, E. J. Wakefield, Thomas Cass, A. R. Clyde, W. C. Fendall and Captain Harvey.

 

Mr Michael Burke was judge, and Mr Rule arrayed in the orthodox pink, indicative of his office, was Clerk of the Course. Most of the riders appeared in their colours, and there was a goodly number of drays and carts - the then fashionable equipages of the fair sex, who, in those early days were glad of a break in their simple lives, and welcomed the opportunities of attending sports gatherings and other occasions of innocent merriment.

 

Even at this early period of our history there were some four-wheeled open chaises, and the

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lucky occupants of these regal vehicles were the objects of much envy by their less fortunate sisters. The pilgrim mothers and daughters, however, who occupied the humbler contraptions, were none the less happy in their enjoyment of the sport.

 

The attendance on this occasion was six hundred, which was probably the largest crowd so far to have patronised these sports meetings. The opening event was the embryonic New Zealand Grand National, which was twice round the course, over six flights of hurdles and the honour of winning this classic event went to Mr Leach's black gelding, "Harkaway," his owner riding him. Mr Jerningham Wakefield's "Robin Hood," ridden by Mr Pye, was second, and Hon. J. Stuart Wortley's "Abd el Trader," ridden by Mr Bentley, was third. The Anniversary Plate of £3 with eight Guineas added was annexed by Messrs Gartner and Ellis's "Hone Heke," ridden by Mr Ambrose. Mr Caverhill's "Maid of the Mountains," ridden by Mr Jannaway, being runner-up.

 

The meeting concluded with a hack race which was won by Mr Fendall's bay mare, "Merrilegs," and a cart horse race won by Mr .Read's "Prince."

 

Up to December, 1854, the Canterbury Jockey Club appears to have had no official exist­ence, but on December 2, the papers reported the first meeting of the newly formed C.J.C. at which Mr J. Cracroft Wilson was elected first president, and Mr E. Jerningham Wakefield first secretary. 

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Racing does not appear to have developed in popular favour for some time, for in 1858 only some 500 people are mentioned as having attend­ed a meeting held on the North Hagley Park course in January.

 

In February, 1861, the races were poorly attended owing to many people being in the midst of harvesting operations, and we have on record the somewhat remarkable fact that the prize of one hundred sovereigns for the "Queen's Plate," of three miles, was donated from the funds of the Provincial Council in order to foster the sport. This race was won by Mr Redwood's mare, "Wetsail," the same horse winning the Ladies' Purse of one hundred sous., over a two and a half miles course.

 

The Jockey Club held a meeting of three days' racing in Hagley Park in January, 1863, when Mr Lance's "Market Gardener" won the Maiden Stakes, Mr Gosling's horse being second.

 

Among the riders of these early times we recall the names of Cutts, Ray, Redmond, Dillon, Wood, East, Ashbolt, Free, Gibbs and Gay - all outstanding riders.

 

The Canterbury Jockey Club held its first meeting at Riccarton Racecourse on January 19, 1864, the original stone grandstand to seat 400 people being used for the first time on this occasion, and the enthusiasm of the devotees to the sport may be gauged from the fact that they subscribed no less than £1,200 for the 1865 meeting. The Canterbury Cup on this occasion was won by Mr Lance's "Golden Cloud," ridden by Ray,

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Mr Redwood's "Ladybird" being second. The Warden's Plate of £6 with £100 added was won by Mr Leach's "Viscount," Mr Stafford's "Regina" being runner-up.

 

On August 4, 1862, the Maiden Steeplechase was held on a cross-country course at Riccarton, lent by Mr E. J. Wakefield.

 

Mr Percival's "Jessie" won easily, Mr Oakes's "Joe Buggins" being second, but, as showing the lax methods of the Club at that period, "Jessie's" rider was the only one to weigh in, it being apparently nobody's business to look after the other jockeys, who never bothered to go to the scales. A protest was recorded against "Jessie" for having been entered as a five year old whereas she was aged. The stewards met, and having a veterinary surgeon's certificate that the mare was aged, upheld the protest. No other jockey having weighed in, "no race" was declared and a later date was fixed for the running of the race. On this latter occasion the race was run in a snow­storm, and was won by Mr Joe Page's "Locomotive," Mr Pat Campbell's "Peacock" being runner-up.

 

On July 24, 1866, a trotting match over a four mile course from Styx bridge to the Carlton hotel was arranged between "Gentle Annie" and "Orlando," "Gentle Annie" ridden by Ray, winning by 175 yards in 12 minutes 40 seconds.

 

After a lapse of 15 years, Sir George Grey paid his second visit to Canterbury in January, 1867, and expressed his astonishment at the development which had been consummated in the

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new province. His residence while in Christ­church was at Melville House, Durham Street, opposite the present art gallery - a house used for many years by Mr Charles Cook as a boys' school.

 

The Metropolitan Meeting of the Jockey Club was held at Riccarton on January 18, 1867, the Governor and suite being present. Mr Harris' "Majestic" won the Maiden Plate, other horses in the race being "Musician," "Atalanta," "Onion," "Scandal," and "Stone Chatter." The rider of "Stone Chatter" was Mr George Wilmer, well known in later years as a poet and cricketer. This was the first occasion on which the railway was used to convey passengers to the course, they alighting at a station on the main, south line as the branch line to the course had not then been constructed.

 

The formation of a Hunt Club was decided upon at a meeting held at Tattersall's on October 16, 1871, and on September 28, 1872, the first Hunt Club Steeplechases were held over country on the farms of Messrs Stace and Brittan where the suburb of Linwood now- is. There was a large attendance and the principal event was won by Mr W. H. Oram's "Bismarck," ridden by Dan O'Brien, Mr Pat Campbell's "Harlequin" being second.

 

Racing in those far-off days in Canterbury was fostered by men whose object was to breed animals for domestic and military use, and the strain was of such calibre that our stock was eagerly sought after in lands where stamina was

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paramount. Today the taxes levied by the Government and racing clubs upon the Totalisator investments has resulted in as many sprint distances being included as can be crammed into the day's racing. Whether this has been in the best interests of the country from an economic viewpoint I must leave my readers to form their own conclusions.

 

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My self-imposed task is finished - a labour of love to me as a son of one of the province's oldest families. Although a large portion of my record dates to before my birth I have been so long in close touch with many of the pioneer settlers, listening to their vivid descriptions of experiences, grave and gay, that I can vouch in the main for the accuracy of my narrative, several members of my family being still in the flesh - octogenarians and at least one nonagenarian, whose memories are reliable in these records. It is scarcely necessary to say that a fair proportion of my information has been published in the newspapers of the early days, which makes their authenticity unimpeachable, and if my readers derive as much pleasure from the perusal of these pages as I have had in the compilation of them, my satisfaction will be complete.