IN Racing
Back Issues: The flutter and fashion of race day
The Manawatū Racing Club will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2030 with horse racing being a long-time interest and leisure activity for both Pākehā and Māori in the region.
Adrian Broad, Stuff | June 22, 2024
30,000 punters pack the race course for a monster jackpot in January 1971. MANAWATU HERITAGE / MANAWATU STANDARD

– Adrian Broad is a life member of the Manawatū Racing Club.

The Manawatū Racing Club will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2030 with horse racing being a long-time interest and leisure activity for both Pākehā and Māori in the region.

Horse races were held in Foxton as early as 1855 and from the 1880-1890s horse racing flourished, with the region providing a great environment for raising horses supported by a number of wealthy patrons.

The formation of the club was in 1880, with its first race meeting held on Boxing Day in 1881. The race meeting was held on Palmerston North City Council land on what is now the Lido Aquatic Centre, Ongley Park and Manawaroa Park.

The Manawatū Racing Club had secured 86 acres of the 361 acres set aside by the government as a public park, recreation area and botanical gardens.

The inaugural race meeting was very successful with much entertainment, including the Palmerston North brass band, glorious weather and an influx of people from Whanganui, Bulls, Feilding, and Foxton.

The club was the first sporting organisation supported by the Palmerston North Borough Council and interestingly the Manawatū Standard was also founded in 1880.

Relationships between the club and these two organisations have continued to flourish over these 144 years.

However, the Manawatū River would not stay away from the Esplanade and the Manawatū Racing Club had to look around for a new home.

South of the town at Awapuni, which means ‘’blocked-up river’’, were a group of lagoons and bounded by the largest lagoon was a slightly elevated terrace with ample area for a racecourse. In 1900 the club purchased 100 acres on that site.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Māori villages had occupied the banks of the lagoon which was an important source of food.

On the eastern side was once a urupā and the main Awapuni pā on what was to become trainer Eric Temperton’s training establishment off Pioneer Highway.

The lagoon occupied the land behind the end of the current Mangaone subdivision and filled what is now the car park behind the stands.

In 1903, on December 26, the first race meeting at Awapuni was held. Things went without a hitch apart from the Railways Department resisting an application to provide railway facilities for the visitors at Awapuni.

They declined to shunt racegoers from the Palmerston North station to the racecourse. The problem was eventually solved by the establishment of a siding at the track itself.

The oldest tenant at Awapuni was the Manawatū Hunt Club which held the first hunt (hurdle and steeple chase) meeting in New Zealand on July 21, 1915.

The Ashhurst-Pohangina Club moved from Ashhurst to Awapuni in 1946, and then to Rangitīkei in 1969. Awapuni was home also to the Manawatū Trotting Club for a good many years from 1946.

Awapuni became one of the largest World War I army training camps in New Zealand. It was also the sole training location for the New Zealand Army Medical Corps. A fountain near the main public stand commemorates the association.

Many race meetings run during WWI and WWII saw profits being distributed to charities supporting overseas soldiers and their families back home.

Betting has always been an integral part of racing and before the totalisator was introduced in 1880, only bookmakers, sweepstakes and private betting operated.

The “tote’’ became more popular as clubs and the government realised they could generate income from the activity. The bookies and a number of church groups were less enamoured.

In 1881, the Gaming and Lotteries Act was passed to regulate uncontrolled gambling. Totalisators were licensed and gambling (on sport, card games and billiards) was banned, although bookmakers were still allowed to operate on horse racing.

Later on with increased public protests against gambling the government banned bookmakers in 1910.

Right from the start of the inauguration of the Manawatū Racing Club on December 26, 1881, the meeting on Boxing Day has been the highlight and usually the best attended event over the racing season.

In 1902, on the last Boxing Day meeting on the old track, estimates of the crowd ranged from 9000 to 12,000, one of the biggest events in the town’s early history. (The 1901 Census had Palmerston North’s European population as 9825.)

Increasingly the Boxing Day meeting catered for a wide cross section of the community looking forward to a little “flutter’’ on the horses and enjoying the excitement of the racing. The Boxing Day races soon became an annual highlight within the social life of the community.

The Boxing Day races became an occasion where the local women and many visitors had the opportunity to dress up and show off the latest fashions, despite being identified only by their marital status. With only black and white photos, detailed descriptions of what was being worn were an important part of the caption.

In December 27, 2018, this tradition was still alive with the meeting now typically attracting around 6000 visitors, with many donning their fanciest frocks and hats.

However, none of these crowds can compete with what was the Manawatū Racing Club’s largest crowd of 30,000 at the Ashhurst-Pohangina meeting on January 25, 1971.

The reason for this was New Zealand’s biggest racing jackpot had reached $652,266. ($11.78m in today’s currency).

The gates opened at 5.45am, food was available from 6am, and $365,000 was spent by the punters on other betting options on the day. Accommodation was at a premium in the city so some visitors resorted to desperate measures.

The winning syndicate, 25 members of the Apollo Greek Community Club, had each contributed $10 to invest with their win being clinched by Con Poulopoulous’ selection of the outsider Gather.

When the win was confirmed the five club members present threw their racebooks in the air and embraced each other wildly. The Manawatū Standard reporter noted they were almost hysterically overjoyed and unable to answer questions coherently.

Clearly the day belonged to Con Poulopoulous who had ended with three tickets as, despite all his best efforts, he could not get enough people within the club to pay the $10 needed.

Poulopoulous was not a wealthy man and the money was very welcome but, he said with feeling, that as an immigrant his wealth was being a resident in a country such as New Zealand.

The jackpot day was a triumph financially with the international and the national attention on Awapuni and Palmerston North a very positive outcome.

There is no doubt Palmerston North as a city and its local businesses have benefited significantly from the racing industry for the past 144 years.

Since the 100th anniversary in 1980 there have been dramatic changes in the racing landscape and at Awapuni.

However, the club has responded positively to these challenges and is looking forward to celebrating its 150 years in 2030, confident in its role and place within the New Zealand racing industry.

- Manawatu Standard