Seen by much of the racing world as that curious island nation far away from everything, New Zealand defies all odds as one of the world’s great racing nations. With a thriving thoroughbred industry that’s been producing champions for more than a century.
Its list of championracehorses for more than a century surpasses all but a very few racing jurisdictions and its jockeys are amongst the world’s best.
New Zealand has been punching above its weight in most sports since it became an independent nation in the mid 1850s but it defies even those odds as one of the world’s great racing nations. From Ruakaka at the balmy top of the North Island to the chill winds of Invercargill at the bottom of the South Island, 52 racecourses are spread along the country’s 1600 kilometres.
NZ racing, however, is a lot more than just impressive statistics. Witness championship racing at Hastings nestled between Hawkes Bay and the Ruahine Ranges, watch the riders bobbing along above the back straight vineyards at the Poverty Bay course of Makaraka or take in the time-honoured NZ Cup at Riccarton’s sweeping 2400m course in Christchurch and you can taste the racing.
Whether it’s the Group 1 Auckland Cup or NZ Derby at magnificent Ellerslie, where during winter the jumpers take on the steep hill three times for the Great Northern Steeplechase, or a picnic meeting at Hokitika on the South Island’s jagged west coast, people turn up to races in NZ.
In each of these precincts, there’s a stud farm nearby and a stable around every corner. Aotearoa or the Land of the Long White Cloud has the distinction of breeding more than a quarter of all Melbourne Cup winners.
This is the land that bred the immortal Phar Lap, who dominated Australian racing in the Depression era and then won the world’s richest race, the Agua Caliente in Mexico, in 1932.
It’s the country that puts its name to a Derby that can hold its own with any in the world. The NZ Derby has an honour roll featuring Desert Gold, Gloaming, Kindergarten, Beau Vite, Mainbrace, Fury’s Order, Piko, Balmerino, Uncle Remus and Bonecrusher – every one of them a great champion who would have made any top 10 list in the world in any given year.
NZ racing has thrived for more than a century since a 1911 Act of Parliament gave its racecourses a completely different look to the Australian and English models it most resembled in other ways. On-course bookmakers were banned, giving rise to a strong totalisator system and illegal bookmakers around just outside the tracks and the local hotels.
Last year, a total of 4864 individual horses started in NZ races. From the 800m of the early two-year-old races to the gruelling 6400m of the Great Northern Steeplechase, the NZ galloper is bred and trained for all distances and types of racing.
Formerly one of Australia’s top administrators, Racing NZ chief executive Bernard Saundry has the ability to look at the New Zealand racing scene with fresh eyes – and he’s excited by the possibilities.
Saundry says that while the country has some catching up to do in prizemoney and funds need to be set aside for some track upgrades, he has been surprised at the scope of NZ racing.
”I think NZ is a great destination for racing enthusiasts, with the landscape providing a stunning backdrop at so many racetracks across the country,” he says. ”The experience you can have at the races in NZ is just fantastic.
”We have 15,000 owners of racehorses in this country and what I discovered when we sent out our regular updates on what’s happening in New Zealand racing was that those emails were being opened in 37 countries. That’s how widespread interest has become in our racing.
”The quality of the NZ thoroughbred is recognised around the world. NZ horses perform very well not just in Australia but in Hong Kong and Singapore. Over a third of our horses bred here every year end up exported into those markets. Our trainers don’t just train horses for our racing, they pre-train for international destinations.”
Saundry says the distance from the rest of the racing world and within the country itself are challenges NZ racing people have embraced and overcome for years.
”It’s a long narrow country and the tyranny of distance is obvious between the top of the North Island and the bottom of the South,” he says. ”That presents a challenge during carnival times for those who live on the other island but NZ trainers and jockeys and stable workers are a resilient lot and they travel long distances during the peak periods.
”We’re renowned for our great horses and great climate to rear fantastic thoroughbreds. Our riding ranks are very strong, notwithstanding that some have found their way to Australia for more lucrative offers. Four of the top six jockeys in NZ are women and 45 per cent of the riding ranks are female. In time, I see more females riding in NZ than males.”
NZ is recognised for its outstanding and competitive jockeys so having so many women high on the list is a great reflection of the country’s forward thinking. Samantha Collett is the runaway leader for the NZ Jockeys Premiership, 20 wins clear of legendary rider Chris Johnson and cousin Alysha Collett. Danielle Johnson and Rosie Myers are close behind.
”There’s great value in the courses that are generally owned right across the country by the clubs themselves,” Saunders adds. ”One of the main items on the agenda is to improve prizemoney but NZ has a great many positives.”