Posts Tagged ‘New Zealand harness racing history’

In my previous blog, I quoted this from a book about pedigree theories and the science of genetics, by Dr Matthew Binns and Tony Morris:

In the old days, when racing was dominated by wealthy owner-breeders, the breeding goal was to produce the best racehorse possible. The breeding goal of most Thoroughbred producers now is an animal who will generate a high price at the yearling sales.

I think standardbreds have always been the “poor cousins” or “blue collar” version of racing, so I don’t think the same trend really applies so much, or at least not for the same reasons, as I’ll explain.  Our early days were more about local farmers competing over hedges on farm hacks or driving carriage races down country roads!  In New Zealand, owners and breeders of horses generally have often been farmers who were not necessarily wealthy in monetary terms but owned the land necessary to breed from a number of mares and raise good stock.

Wairoa Belle 1920 New Zealand

Wairoa Belle 1920 New Zealand – for the full story – a lovely one- go to bottom of this blog post

They were “hands on” people, much as in the rural parts of North America where harness racing developed.  And like North America, New Zealand and Australia were moving away from the wealth-driven class tiers of British society and into nations were ordinary folks could “have a go”. The emphasis was less on developing the best racehorse possible, and more on breeding a decent horse that could beat the neighbour’s or win at the local track or aspire to the top races. Their motivation was less about improving the breed and more about enjoying their hobby and any rewards (including kudos) that came from it.  It sometimes became a passion, but not a symbol of class or wealth.

The roots of harness racing in New Zealand are in stock rearing and stock management, which we have always done well, being blessed with great grass growing land and a temperate climate. So having a few trotting or pacing mares alongside the cattle or sheep was hardly an issue.

That natural advantage, combined with the efforts of visionaries and importers like JR McKenzie (a businessman, not a farmer) and later his son Roy of Roydon Lodge, meant we kept our breeding in touch with modern trends, but not dominated by them.  And it often required the injection of capital from local businessmen (rather than farmers) to add a more commercial slant to our racing game.

Time has increased the value of farmland and changed the nature of farm ownership. Nowadays, as research presented by John Mooney at the NZSBA conference this year surmised, this has impacted on the ability of people to afford to breed horses. Farming is more commercially focused and the generation that dabbled in horses as a passionate sideline to farming is literally dying out. The price of quality farmland is unaffordable to younger people – and if they do get some, their priority is to use it as productively as possible. The issue is the same for people who want to get into training – the demise of the “ovals” on every second farm in the Waikato and the need to open up more shared training venues as they have done in Australia.

Even for small-time breeders like myself, the ability to buy enough land to carry a few mares is mostly beyond our reach. The cost of breeding cannot be absorbed as a farm cost like the old days, and becomes a separate expense using leased land or agisting mares as stud farms. And of course that immediately sets up a barrier for many – especially when the returns on a high risk investment are so vulnerable.

So getting back to the quote at the start of this blog, the option to breed to get a good return at yearling sales is not motivated by greed, but rather by necessity.  If I am paying out for grazing land and carrying high risks and high costs, I will be motivated to make breeding choices that give me a higher (or quicker) return. Actually, personally, I am not motivated by that but it does come into my breeding equation i.e.  breeding something good will build the reputation of my mare and therefore ensure my future returns are as good as I can make them.  I have gone to less fashionable but ideally suited sires to ensure this, but I see that as an investment.  I simply cannot afford to be a “hobby breeder” that doesn’t consider the financial implications, not so much short-term but definitely longer term.

In recent years when yearling sales returns have struggled to give adequate returns for many breeders (once you take costs into account many just break even or get a very low return for the risk they take), all that remains is the passion for breeding and – ironically – an incentive for the “poor” rather than the “wealthy” to breed an exceptional horse to lift you out of the rut.

Is that a good thing for breeding? Probably not, but very much an incentive for those who have hung in there! The commercial signals are very much orange traffic lights, and a short-term commercial approach to breeding is fully understandable, if potentially limiting for the overall future of the breed.

In a future blog I’ll look at how personal and “industry” breeding goals don’t necessarily line up – unless you have good leadership and clear signals.

If that happens, we can get out of this bind, and into a period of growth for individuals and the overall industry. Do we have the courage to do it?


In 1919 Leo Berkett swapped a pacer he used in his gig with a clergyman for an aged grey mare, Wairoa Belle, which had good pacing blood in her on the side of her sire, Dictator. On local roads he found Wairoa Belle showed well against the horses of other gig owners and had a fair turn of speed.

Leo decided to enter her in races at the Nelson Trotting Club’s summer meeting. The 1920 programme included both saddle and driven races. On the first day Wairoa Belle did not run well, but, on March 20, with advice on adjusting her hoppples, Leo Berkett rode her to lead the 14 horse field all the way to win by two lengths.

She paid the biggest dividend in NZ trotting history of £1033/5/-… a staggering sum when the average weekly wage was less than £10. Leo Berkett had no money on the race, the one and a half Wakefield Handicap, but one person had. He was a Nelson grain and seed merchant, Mr S C (Chummy) Levien, who was so pleased by the win that he gave Berkett the odd £33.

The stake of 55 sovereigns also went to Berkett as owner. The time for the race was 3min 59sec.

(This is one of many great stories in the Addington Raceway Timeline website – just google that for lovely stories of great New Zealand harness horses)

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: