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Curtains for Gizzy racing

Nothing like seeing horses run live.

The end of racing at Gisborne’s historic and picturesque Makaraka racecourse brings down the curtain on 150 years of racing in the district. It’s a sport that veers from triumph to failure but always absorbs its followers, as former Gisborne Herald chief reporter and part-time racing journalist John Jones recalls.

The stroke of a pen has brought closure to the Makaraka racecourse and an end to more than a century of horse racing, even though the Poverty Bay Turf Club will go on.

The Racing Industry Transition Agency, set up to streamline the industry, has decided to take away the betting licence of the Poverty Bay Turf Club and Wairoa Racing Club, neither of which will get racing licences.

It was a blow for the turf club, says president Rod Young and one that they cannot really fight. The club will be allocated a racing day in Hawke's Bay.

“It was a huge blow but we had seen it coming,” he said.

The club will keep going by racing in Hawke's Bay. HB Racing will assist by doing the accounting, they will recognise sponsors and perhaps provide a room for hospitality. The Poverty Bay Turf Club has its investment from the sale of the course although that has taken a financial hit lately.

There will be savings in racing in Hawke's Bay, Rod says. It cost $120,000 to run the meeting in Gisborne. The club had to pay bills like hiring buses to bring totalisator workers here. It also paid an enticement fee for trainers to bring their horses here.

Insurance cost $38,000 and there was also the power bill.

The club is 11 years into a 35-year lease for the Makaraka course, which is owned by Murray McPhail.

It could be that somebody might take over the lease and the stand could be used for functions. The club still leases the stables area but there are no trainers here now.​

The club had been successful in turning its racing day into a family event, says Rod.

It joined the summertime racing franchise and was rated third in the country for the way it handled its meeting day.

The TAB would probably welcome the decision to close the tracks. They wanted to have people sitting in their armchairs betting on their phones.

They had already decided there would be no tote staff here. They intended to use vending machines which would have been complicated for occasional punters who made up a large part of the local crowd.

Nothing like seeing horses run live

Racing is the district's oldest sport with races being held on private properties in the 1870s. The search began for a permanent home and the Makaraka track was purchased in the late 1880s.

Makaraka Racecourse was sold in 2006 to developer David Meban. It was a move that was opposed by traditionalists but is believed to have saved the club.

Racing was a big sport in the 1950s when I began working at The Gisborne Herald and was the copy boy for the racing team of my father, Jack Jones, and Ted Wilson.

That job entailed running from the press box perched at the top of the stand all the way down to the secretary's office for the betting sheets.

It was back up the stairs and the laborious job of working out the favouritism, both win and place, in fields that were regularly up to 24 runners.

Not only that but there would have been one or two races that, because of the size of the field, were held in two divisions — another long line of betting figures to put into descending order.

The crowds were huge in those days when tickets were handwritten by the staff. You had to be early on the members' stand and it was not uncommon to be shut out. The windows around the old tote building at the rear of the public stand were crowded.

People treated a day at the races extremely seriously. My mother and her sisters would be dressed for the occasion, complete with gloves and hats.

I cannot remember seeing anyone on the members' stand without a tie or jacket while the stewards and club officials were models of fashion looking something like Downton Abbey's Lord Grantham.

There was even a band playing in front of the public stand. One patron I remember, who was inclined to over indulge, seemed to decide he could conduct but, alas, there was no relationship between his signals and what they were playing.

As well as collecting the sheets, my copy boy duties included reading Dad's stories to a copytaker between races.

Sitting next to him was a great character, Ted Wilson, a handicapper whose knowledge of form was in the mastermind class. Ted also ran the Opoutama Store for a time.

Ted's job was later taken on by Stu McGrail who also did the extremely popular racing tips for the Herald and other papers. Stu actually spent some time as the handicapper at the course at Macau.

Commentating was done by another prominent racing journalist, Alan Bright. Alan was a Gisborne boy, and in his youth he was a track cyclist.

Coming back to Gisborne in the 60s, I found myself in the reporter's seat with a group of often young women (nominally) at my command. They included Debbie Gregory who was later able to extract revenge as my chief reporter before joining the council, Diana Dobson who made her name as an equestrian journalist, Denise Raymond and Elaine Clark, who liked to punt but was never as lucky as her father Iain Gillies, the editor.

The great thing about racing is that it provides so many characters and stories.

The one I always like is the story of ‘Perfume' who was brought here by steamer from Napier to a meeting in the 1880s. The horse was offloaded, swam ashore, raced the same day and won.

Van Der Hum had his first start here in 1976, running third the first day and then winning on the second. He went on to win the Melbourne Cup the same year. The Gisborne win was in heavy conditions which were the same in Melbourne, with the horse winning the nickname the Mudlark.

By far the greatest horse produced here was ‘Kindergarten' which was bred and trained at Kaiti by the redoubtable Ned Fitzgerald.

Kindergarten won both the Wellington and Auckland Cups. Originally buried on Ned's property at Kaiti he is now displayed at the NZ Racing Hall of Fame.

Prominent racing families included the Burkes, three of whom were president, the Hansens and the Dods. The club lost a long-time supporter recently in Laurie Parker.

Other names that come to mind are Jim McIldowie, Fred Tait, John Lawrence, and West Coaster Alan Davidson, but the list would be much longer.

Probably the best known trainer was Alf McDonald who had stables right by the course and more recently Wally Moore and Joanne Moss.

Losing Makaraka will be a blow to hundreds of people who enjoyed a day out, a flutter and usually a drink. There is nothing like seeing the horses run live — television will never replace that.

A sight that will be sadly missed. The field thunders towards the winning post in 2018 at a time when the club had joined the summer racing franchise with corporate marquees lining the course, and a family atmosphere. Picture Paul Rickard
From Makaraka to Melbourne: After having his first win at Makaraka, Van Der Hum went on to win the Melbourne Cup in 1976. He is pictured with then-apprentice jockey Paul Hillis who rode him in all his 11 wins in New Zealand. Gisborne Herald file picture
One did not go to the races just to watch horses — there was the issue of what to wear. This group of ladies, resplendent with hats, gloves and pearls, is pictured at the course in 1962. Gisborne Herald file picture
In the years leading up to WW2, the races were a major event on the sporting and social calendars drawing large crowds to Makaraka. This collage of pictures, kindly provided by Tairawhiti Museum, was taken in 1937.
One of the legends of New Zealand racing, Kindergarten was born and bred at Kaiti by Ned Fitzgerald. Considered by many to be the greatest racehorse to run in this country, he won the Wellington and Auckland Cups, the latter carrying 10 stone 2lb, 8 lbs over weight for age handicap. Gisborne Herald file picture

  1. Alexander Sutton, Hastings says:

    I have to say an enjoyable story by John Jones and a pleasure to read. I certainly had my fun days at the course and my dad Les spent many a race day working on those totes mentioned, back in the ’50s and ’60s. The good news is that these days I only live around the corner from the Hastings course and only this morning took my usual walk past it to town. From now on I will take that journey with a different set of eyes, making it my regular connection with the Gisborne-Makaraka race course. Thank you John . . . Alex Sutton.