Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 51, September 2007
(by Graham Watton)
Horse racing has been part of the Paeroa District scene for some 130 years, and in May this year the Paeroa Racing Club marked its 130th annual general meeting with a series of special functions and a race meeting.
With club records destroyed in two fires, information on the founding of the Ohinemuri Jockey in 1876 is almost non-existent. However we are indebted to a report from the well-known and respected resident and Ohinemuri County Clerk of some 40 years, the late Mr Alf Jenkinson, in an article he wrote for his book marking the diamond jubilee of the county in 1945.
A long-serving Committee member the late Merv Parker, covered many aspects of the club's history in an article in the Ohinemuri Regional History Journal, No. 24. Other information has been sourced since 1896 from the Ohinemuri Gazette and the Hauraki Plains Gazette, local newspapers held by the Paeroa and District Museum.
Mr Jenkinson in his report stated: "The Club celebrated its golden jubilee in 1926, though more or less impromptu race meetings were staged prior to the constitution of the club; the course in those early days including some of the quieter streets of the town, which in no way damped the keenness of the local enthusiasts."
Paeroa was the centre of the Ohinemuri goldfields, which was opened 12 months previously in 1875 and Mr Jenkinson continues: "The populace included a fair proportion of rather exuberant spirits. Race day was the "red letter day" of the year. The liquor trade enjoyed more freedom than in later years, and racing fixtures were seldom conducted with the decorum of today. It is gathered from stories willingly related by old-timers still resident in the district (but annually decreasing) that the day's sport by no means concluded with the running of the last race on the programme."
Travelling in those early days was by horse-drawn vehicles and the race patrons flocked to the meetings in coaches and brakes and on the homeward journey the well-lubricated passengers would urged their drivers to race the others vehicles along the narrow winding roads.
Enthusiasts, owners, jockeys, officials and horses travelled from Auckland by steamer up the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers to the Junction Wharf, at end the Junction Road. Some of the smaller boats could, prior to 1900, berth at the Wharf Street wharf in the centre of the town. There would all types of vehicles waiting to whisk the race-goers to the course.
There were times when the steamers had problems negotiating the rivers, owing to the mining debris being poured into the Ohinemuri River by the mining companies. The delays caused many anxious moments and there were stories of the totalisator and race management staff just making it to course before the published starting time.
It appears that the Club had held only an annual two-day meeting in March, the first day being on St Patrick's Day, March 17. If this day fell on a Monday to Saturday, which were normal workdays, the whole district came to a halt for the day, the businesses in town closed, and it was everyone to the races.
By 1895 Paeroa was connected by rail to Te Aroha, Hamilton and Auckland. Two years later the link to Thames was completed and in 1905 the railway was opened to Waihi. For the first time race-day patrons for the 1896 meeting came by rail from Te Aroha, Hamilton and Auckland. As the railway was extended more special trains brought patrons from Thames and then Waihi.
In January, 1896, the Club committee met in the Public Hall, Wharf Street, to arrange the programme. Mr E. Edwards retired as secretary after 11 years in office and honoured with Life Membership. Mr Snodgrass retired as handicapper after 10 years service.
The meeting went off without a hitch with a good crowd present and the totalisator, which was installed in 1892, doing good business. The privileges for the meeting, such as liquor booths, catering, admission gates were auctioned off prior to the meeting.
The Club had raced for many years on the property owned by Mr N. Dickey in Thames Road, the site of the present-day racecourse. The land owner, in June, 1896, informed the Club he was contemplating subdividing the land into building sites. He stated if the land could not be purchased by the Club, or anyone on behalf of the Club, he would be compelled to let it go and the Club would be deprived of its race course.
Dickey offered the 81 acres for the sum of 1800 pounds, part cash, part on mortgage at 6 per cent. He gave the Club 14 days to consider the offer. It took just on 12 months before the Club finally took over ownership of the Mr Dickey's farm.
In the meantime the Club had purchased a grandstand from Otahuhu, had contractors dismantle the building, loaded it on the scow, brought to Paeroa, taken to the course and erected ready for the annual meeting in 1897, all in the matter of about two months.
Immediately after the purchase of the land the Club had the track surveyed and lengthened to nearly seven furlongs and a sharp turn taken out. It became one of the better country tracks in New Zealand.
The Club was making good progress and the 20th century opened with a record meeting in March, 1900. There were some 3000 attending for the first day, and over this number on the second. The totalisator handled 5074 pounds with the feature event the Ohinemuri Cup of 100 sovereigns, 1 1/4 miles, being won by Admiral Hawks and on the second day the Tallyho Steeplechase, 60 sovereigns, 3 miles, was won by Tarajon.
After a record totalisator turnover in 1901 of 7053 pounds there was a new totalisator house, enlarged saddling paddock and lawn and further course improvements put in place for the 1902 meeting.
Disaster struck in September, 1903, when the grandstand was totally destroyed by fire, there was no water to fight the fierce blaze. It was insured for 300 pounds. This stand had been originally built at Ohaupo before being moved to Otahuhu and then brought to Paeroa. A temporary stand was built for the 1904 annual meeting. That year a further 7 acres of land was purchased from Francis Bros. for 525 pounds on which was erected a erect house.
The Druids Lodge held two meetings on the course, 1900 and 1901, while around the district there were 7-race hack meetings at Paeroa (once, and across the road from the race course), Puriri, Waihi, Waitekauri, Hikutaia and Netherton. These meetings continued until March 1910, when legislation forced them to close.
A new stand was designed and built for the 1905 meeting and the Club continued to undertake course improvements. Bookmakers paid for the right to operate on the course during race days, the fee varied from 5 to 10 pounds each, but they were banned in 1908 by an Act of Parliament.
In 1906, during the annual meeting, some 35 patrons were stricken with food poisoning. Constable Whelan took control of the food from the refreshment stall. All affected patrons recovered and the District Officer of Health arrived in the following week to investigate, but could not identify the affected food.
The course was used by the Ohinemuri Volunteers, Hauraki Regiment, for their annual camps (the last camp being in the 1970s), and the Paeroa District High School held their annual picnic at the same venue. In 1908 the Paeroa Golf Club leased the part of the track and inside the circuit for their golf course, this agreement lasting until 1939 when the golfers went to their own home on the present Rotokohu course.
The Waihi Jockey Club, which had raced on the Paeroa track in 1905 owing to its course not being up to order, fell on hard times and in 1911 the Ohinemuri club took over its assets and liabilities of 140 pounds.
The First World War came and went and through the 1920s and 1930s the Ohinemuri Club continued to develop its track and facilities, maintaining one of the best courses outside the metropolitan clubs in New Zealand. New stables were completed by Roberts Bros. in 1928.
When the Paeroa Domain was renovated during 1924 and 1925 the Paeroa Rugby Union used the race course and facilities for all its club games. While the players shared the area with the golfers they could not get back to the Domain quite enough owing to sheep droppings causing problems.
After the Taumarunui Racing Club had used the Paeroa course in 1936 and also in 1937, the Ohinemuri Club took over that club's two race days early in October to give it four meetings for the year.
In 1938 the Club undertook extensions to its stand by adding another 30ft to the eastern end to give a capacity for 650 members and an another 75 seats in a special stewards stand at the western end. When the framework was erected, gale force winds struck and demolished the lot. After dismissing the architect the Club started again appointing the architect who had designed the Avondale stand, this time with success.
Over the next 30 years the Club continued with improving its amenities and the stakes, with totalisator figures matching many of the larger clubs in the country. The facilities for the owners, jockeys, members and the public were always to the fore in every committee's deliberations.
In 1964, the Club undertook major course renovations with the track being extended to 1825 yards and a 415-yard long finishing straight. A feature of the project was the construction of the double-hill steeplechase course, second only to the Auckland Racing Club's noted double-hill steeplechase circuit on its Ellerslie course. A new public stand, with up-to-date amenities, took the place of the little old wooden structure.
Opening day on December 12, 1964, was ushered in with persistent light rain falling from early morning on the new track, which was rock-hard after heavy earthmoving machinery had compacted the surface. Slippery areas of track claimed a horse and rider in each of the first three races. These areas were harrowed in an endeavour to break the hard surface causing an almost hour's delay before the fourth race.
In the fourth race, the Duke of Edinburgh Handicap, Cherie Blizard, slipped as the field was 450 yards from home. Jockey Steve Ganley was thrown heavily and died shortly after from his injuries. The Club's Committee immediately abandoned the meeting.
This was the second known fatality on the course, the first occurring in 1897 when 16-year-old Dickey, son of the property owner on which the course stands, was thrown heavily while "working" a horse in readiness for a meeting.
Following the cancellation of the meeting work commenced on re-surfacing the track and for the next 16 months the Club raced on neighbouring courses. On May 25, 1965, racing returned to the Paeroa track, and even though it had been raining, the new track came through the challenge with flying colours. It was also the first occasion that the double-hill circuit was used and this won high praise from all involved.
A week before this meeting Fr W. O'Meara and Kaumatua Ahi Royal held a special service to lift the tapu from the club's property.
The new steeplechase course created considerable interest and won commendation from owners, riders, and the public. With the introduction of Inter-Island steeplechase event to its July meeting many of the top steeplechasers been fully extended by the testing circuit.
Another milestone in the club's history was the changing of the name Ohinemuri to Paeroa in 1971, the reason being that race patrons would easily identify the club with a town rather than a district.
When the Paeroa Agricultural and Pastoral Society, in 1971, moved its annual show from the Domain and expanded into a two-day event the Paeroa Picnic Racing Club held a five-race meeting as part of the programme.
In January, 1973, the old north stand, near Thames Road, was demolished and with the assistance of the Auckland Tree Society an attractive park-like area on the hill has been developed.
Just when everything was progressing well disaster struck again. During a huge thunder storm on New Year Eve at 5 p.m. on December 31, 1979, lighting struck the judge's tower on the members' grandstand and within minutes the whole wooden stand was ablaze from end-to-end. With a brisk breeze and limited water supply the conflagration took only a couple of hours to destroy the building and with it some 75 years history of the club.
It was fortunate the a few months before the disaster the Club's committee had insured the building for replacement value. With almost $1 million dollar payout the Club committee immediately set about rebuilding.
However, they faced stiff opposition from the New Zealand Racing Authority and almost all the racing hierarchy in the country. Every conceivable obstacle was placed in the path of the Club going about its business. The Racing Authority was endeavouring to push through their obsession of reducing the number of clubs and centralising their licences, but they under-estimated the determination of the Paeroa Club.
An indefatigable Club spirit rose out of the ashes and with funds in hand the Club went ahead and rebuilt a new stand and well-appointed modern racing amenity which was opened in November 3, 1981, by the Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Robert Muldoon.
The new stand, with its three lounges, modern kitchen and bar facilities, is an excellent community facility and has been become the only truly conference facility in the Thames Valley.
During the two years the new stand was being designed and built, the Club held its meetings on adjacent courses, Te Aroha, Pukekohe, Avondale and Te Rapa and with the total co-operation of the respective clubs.
The Club may have won this battle but not the war with racing officialdom. Over the next couple of decades the Paeroa club has suffered at the hands of those in control of racing. The Club lost its popular two-day race meeting after more than 100 years and also its "flagship" December meeting two weeks before the Auckland Racing Club's Auckland Cup carnival.
A notable New Zealand first for the Club came on March 28, 2001, when the first four races of the meeting were televised and beamed live to a North American audience. Betting was available to the North American punters as part of a two-day trial that concluded with the Levin races on March 29.
Over the years there have been many great horses race at Paeroa. Kindergarten started as a 2-year-old in 1940 in the Karangahake Handicap, but was unplaced.
Harvey Evans was a well-known owner-trainer who had the local sawmill on the corner of Thames and Raroa Roads. He took his team of horses the length and breath of New Zealand and met with his fair share of success. Local newspaper owner Rei Darley, a partner of Evans, raced Joystep, a durable mare meeting with considerable success including winning the both legs of TAB double at one meeting.
Then there was Mick Stack and Black Seaman, Fred Workman and James Fox while Bert Duncan had good success with his "Ruler" horses.
Noted Cambridge trainer now based in Queensland, Allan Jones, started his successful career in Paeroa in the 1960s. More notable is his wife, Linda (nee Wilkinson) a Paeroa pharmacy assistant who rode work for Allan. She became the first woman jockey to gain her full jockey's licence and opened the way for many of her gender into the sport of kings in New Zealand and Australia.
And then there was Joe Doran, with the impressive Oramore, which ended a promising career allegedly poisoned when on stint in Australia.
The great mare Sunline won her first ever race at Paeroa and other New Zealand champion Rising Fast won the 1953 Queen Elizabeth Plate in December. His win caused one of the rare on-course protests in the country, as he had finished a well-beaten favourite at the Te Awamutu Cup a week earlier.
Through the 1990s, Paeroa, like many other racing clubs in the country, suffered from the profitable race dates rescheduled to the major clubs, government taxes, the downturn in race day attendances and television broadcasts.
In 2005 the Club reached the position it could not continue to service its facilities and made the decision to sell its property to Barbara Anderson and Associates. The course and facilities is now leased and outstanding debt cleared.
While the move was not acceptable to many members and also the local public, the decision has enabled the Club to provide four excellent days racing including a popular jumps day in September, all of which have the full support of the owners, trainers and the racing fraternity as a whole.
The Club is now looking forward to a stable future, continuing to provide the community with good race days and excellent event facilities.