History, Sport

Waterlea Raceway celebrates 100 years of harness action

Clasina Maria takes out the 2019 Marlborough Cup at Waterlea, the 99th running of the province’s premier harness racing prize. Photo: Peter Jones.

By Peter Jones and Peter Craig

A century of harness racing in Marlborough will be celebrated at Waterlea Racecourse on Friday and Sunday.

The Marlborough Harness Racing Club’s annual two-day summer meeting will mark the commencement of harness racing at the Waterlea venue 100 years ago.

The inaugural meeting at Waterlea took place on Friday, March 12 1920.

Since 1920, trials, OTB (owners, trainers and breeders) and tote meetings have been held at the central Blenheim location. The only exception came during World War 2 when no meetings were held between 1939 and 1945.

The Marlborough area has facilitated horse racing for more than 150 years. The current Marlborough Trotting/Harness Racing Club commenced operations at the Riverlands course in February 1913 and raced there until the final meeting in 1919 when the action moved to Blenheim.

The Waterlea course opened in 1920, with the first thoroughbred meeting held on March 10 and the historic trotting meeting two days later.

Trotting races have been included on the card at many of the thoroughbred meetings held in the ensuing century, although not every season.

Waterlea soon developed as a spectator-friendly venue. A new members and stewards stand was completed in 1977 with the public stand being developed in the late 1980s.

The Waterlea grass track is utilised by both racing codes with an all-weather harness track becoming operational from December, 1981.

Two-year-old pacer Ahuriri set an elite national mile record in 1922. Photo: Supplied.
Two-year-old pacer Ahuriri set an elite national mile record in 1922. Photo: Supplied.

Varied venues

Other tracks/clubs which were utilised in the Marlborough area included the Wairau Racing Club (pre-1880) which raced at the Omaka Domain; the Marlborough Jockey Club (formed in 1880) initially operating at Omaka Domain and Riverlands prior to Waterlea; the Pelorus Jockey Club’s solitary meeting on New Year’s Day 1892 at Kaituna; the Upper Wairau Racing Club meetings from 1891-94 at the Miners Old Course, Renwick; the Marlborough Trotting Club meeting in 1894 at the Hibernian Society’s Sports Ground in Blenheim; the Wairau TC meeting in 1911 at the Awatere RC, Seddon.

Meeting venues, times

The Riverlands course hosted meetings for the following clubs: Marlborough HC (1891); Birthday RC (1892-1895); Blenheim TC (1892); Marlborough RC (1893-1919) and the Wairau TC (1903-1911).

The Marlborough Trotting Club held one summer meeting each year from 1913 until 1950, although no meetings were staged during the Second World War years.

A two-day summer carnival was then introduced, followed in 1974 by meetings on three days (one January, two February) while from 1975-1980, the two days in February were supplemented by the initial one-day winter meetings in June. This changed in 1981 to two-day summer and winter carnivals, held in February and June respectively.

In the mid-1990’s further meetings were held in addition to those meetings, while the current two-day meetings (Friday/Sunday) in mid-January and June have remained in place since 1999 with the exception of June, 2017 when, following the Kaikoura earthquakes, a one-day winter meeting was conducted at Addington Raceway.

In recent years, both summer and winter meetings have included preludes to the Marlborough Cup on Friday with the Cup at stake on Sunday.

The Sunday Summer meeting is now conducted as an Interislander Summer Festival meeting.

Currently two tracks are utilised by the club – summer meetings are held on the 1600m grass track, with a 350m straight, while winter events are contested on the 1506m all-weather track.

A large crowd filled the grandstand at Waterlea for this meeting in the early 1980s. Photo: Supplied.
A large crowd filled the grandstand at Waterlea for this meeting in the early 1980s. Photo: Supplied.

Mobile introduced

The mobile gate was first introduced to Waterlea Raceway in the 1983-4 season, principally due to Marlborough’s first staging of a heat of the DB three-year-old fillies series. This was the first of two classic race series to be staged by the club, the other being the Pelorus Trust four-year-old Classic).

Records set

The one elite record set on the Waterlea track was on March 10, 1922 when Ahuriri established a NZ two-year-old pacers mile record of 2:20.0. A top performer, Ahuriri won two NZ Cups (1925, 1926) and the 1927 Auckland Cup. His breeder/owner was RM Morten, trainer Scotty Bryce and driver James Bryce.
Other NZ records established on the Waterlea track include Jack Shine’s 2:03.8 in the horses and geldings pacers mile standing start in June 1982 and Lady Eastburn’s mares pacing standing start mile record of 2:05.2, set in February 1982.

Century of cups

This year’s meeting includes another milestone, the running of the 100th Marlborough Cup for pacers.

The Marlborough Pacing Cup was first contested in 1913 – in fact there were two recorded instances of a Marlborough Cup that year, the first won by Lucy Wallace and the second by Ariadne. The 2020 edition being run on Sunday over 2850m (grass) represents the 100th recorded running of the Cup, which was not contested in 1916, 1939-45 or 1976. Previous winners have included Hayseed (1920, the first Cup winner at Waterlea), Waikato Prince (1937, winner of Dominion Hcp Trot), Auckland Cup winner Macklin (1957), ID heat winner Why Bill (1975), West Coast Bonus and Easter Cup winner Our Mana (1983), Blue Chip Rock (2004, Easter Cup) while dual winners have been Full Cry (1919, 1920) and Vikota (1929, 1930).

The Marlborough Winter Cup, held during the annual two-day June winter meeting commenced in 1975, won by Sidestep, and is run over 3200m. Winners have included Atom Love (2001, 1:49.4US) and Bettors Strike (2008, Victoria Cup) while Runaway Groom 1990, Atom Love 2001, Fifth Edition 2014 have won both Winter Cups at Nelson and Blenheim in the same year.

Fillies series

The three-year-old fillies classic series began in 1979 and featured a heat at Waterlea from 1984 until 2014.

Winners included Sweet Alli (1984, 2:05.2, second was Blue Water winner of final), Leigh Lumber (1985, first in 2:00.0), future open class pacers in Michele Bromac, Bionic Chance, Oaxaca Lass, Mainland Banner, fastest filly Miss Elsie (2011, 1:55.3) and last heat winner in Murphy Brown (2014). The only winner of the Marlborough heat and the Fillies final was outstanding filly Under Cover Lover (1998, 1:57.1).

Instituted in 2003, the Pelorus Trust 4yo Classic’s lifespan ran until the 2015 season. Leading lights to succeed in the Classic included London Legend, Likmesiah, Monkey King, Kiwi Ingenuity, Choise Achiever, Jason Rulz, Franco Nelson and final winner Isaiah (2015).

Notable trainers, administrators

According to Harness Racing NZ records, over 80 trainers have raced horses from Marlborough since the 1959-60 season.

Those most prominent have included Grant Anderson with 21 training victories to date at Waterlea since 1983, Pat O’Brien (13 – with son Mike a further six), Alan Shutkowski (12), Graham Neill (11), Mac Miller (10) and Peter Hope (eight) rounding out the leading half dozen trainers on a wins basis.

Others who have trained in the Blenheim area at some stage include Brent Weaver (two wins), Don Morrison (six), Dean Hunter (seven) and Brian Wastney (two).

Over the preceding four decades, 21 local victories were recorded.

Club presidents have included Bill Murray (1951-56, 1960-69), Pat O’Brien and Brian Wastney while the current chairperson is Petrina Shutkowski.

In recent years Barry Forbes spent just over two decades as club secretary, with previous secretaries including Graham Fuller (1954-1977/8), MA Peters (1978/9-1982/3) and Mike O’Brien (1983/4-1990/1).

Details courtesy of Marlborough HRC.

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