RACING IN THE CHATHAM ISLANDS / Rēkohu (Moriori) / Wharekauri (Maori)

By Sally Blyth

(This article appeared in the Autumn 2022 Owners Bulletin).

Sally has visited the remote Chatham Islands three times this season as a tour escort for Pukekohe Travel. She shares some inside info about racing Chatham’s style.

The Chatham Islands is a land full of natural beauty and many surprises, one of them being that the Chatham Islands Jockey Club is the second oldest in New Zealand. It was officially registered in 1873 by Thomas Ritchie, a Northern Irishman who arrived in the Chathams in early 1864.

The oldest racing club is Wanganui JC, established 1848 (see Owners Bulletin July 2021). Auckland Racing Club (now Auckland Thoroughbred Racing following the merger with Counties RC) came into existence on 9 January 1874 when the Auckland Jockey Club and Auckland Turf Club Amalgamated, by which time the CIJC had already been established, although it had not yet held a formal race meeting. Waverley Racing Club was also established in 1874.

The first horses on Chatham Island were sent over from New Zealand in the 1840s. In the mid-1850s Maori started importing breeding mares from Sydney. By 1861 there were nearly 500 horses on the island and six years later that had doubled with about 1000 on the island, mostly thoroughbreds.

Races were first held on 1 January 1866 on a reserve and over following years on Waitangi Beach and at Kaingaroa. However, the Club’s first official raceday was in 1874. A small grandstand was built in 1890 and extended a few years later due to the popularity of racing on the island. The current stand, built in 1987, underwent renovations and a safety upgrade a couple of years ago.

Overview of an early race meeting reported in the Hawkes Bay Herald:

“On 10th December our Kaingaroa Races came off with considerable éclat. The weather was most propitious and visitors gathered together from every part of the island; and to add to the general pleasure, a large number of fair ladies honoured us with their presence.”

The island boasts four distinct quarters. The hub is Norman Kirk Memorial Reserve where the racecourse and grandstand are located, along with The Den (a local function venue), a children’s playground and a memorial garden. Rugby is played on the infield. PM Norman Kirk had a special relationship with the Chathams as their MP from 1957 to 1969 and the islanders are very proud the facility is named in his honour.

Each year the Club hosts a three-day meeting on 27th and 31st December (the main day), with a picnic day held on 3rd January. Races alternate between gallops and pacing and it’s a huge event at which locals enjoy entertainment while getting their racing fix. All sorts of fun activities happen on course, including Fashion on the Field and a Calcutta. A range of sponsors support the carnival. Betting is Equalisator style on the nose. The Chatham Island Galloping Cup over two miles is the prestigious race. Other feature races are the Pacing Flying Mile and the Chatham Island Pacing Cup, also two miles.

Pacers are generally rehomed from mainland New Zealand, getting a second chance at racing, Chatham’s style. They are well-bred and educated but a bit too slow for NZ racing! Gallopers are mostly bred on the island, with some being brought over from NZ, so there are two classes for the thoroughbreds. The Club offers syndicates for horse owners and encourages anyone interested in racing or training to get involved. With a new generation of future trainers, jockeys and drivers in mind, a special course has been established for people to learn about horsemanship and breaking in horses.

In 2024 the Club will celebrate 150 years of official racing. To commemorate this milestone a book covering the history of the Club is being researched and compiled as a joint project by the Jockey Club, the local Museum and Massey University who are sourcing information, photos and stories from locals. Fundraising activities got under way in July 2021 in preparation for the event, the first being the sale of roast meals with all meat, produce and containers being supplied by local families.

The Chatham Islands Museum houses a wonderful display of racing treasures and memorabilia in a new building that also showcases the flora, fauna, history and many interesting tales of the islands and life on them.

The Croons are a well-known and enterprising family with a long connection to the Chathams. Lois and Val host garden tours and dinners at their fabulous property Admiral Garden. Their three daughters are highly involved in island life: Monique became the Chatham’s first female Mayor in 2019, she also runs the hardware store and is Treasurer of the Jockey Club; Toni runs Hotel Chatham and other accommodation options as well as fishing charters; Simone runs the Waitangi General Store and postal service and also brews the excellent local beer. Their son Val now lives on mainland NZ with his family. Toni took over the hotel from him after she finished a stint as a horse trainer in Cambridge and decided to return to the Chathams.

I first arrived on Karaka Millions Day and was not expecting to be able to watch the big race. But I was ecstatic to walk into the bar and see a big screen and the horses about to jump in the 2YO race! There is also a TAB in the bar so, even on this remote island with its population of 600, racing fans don’t miss out. There was added joy and surprise when I discovered that some members of the Te Akau 2021 Stallion Syndicate which owns the winner Dynastic were right there in the bar!

Cell phone coverage reached the islands in December 2021, boosting communication options. It was, however, perturbing to realise that the TAB app does not recognise the Chatham Islands as being part of New Zealand – access was denied. However, bets can be put on at the TAB, or via the full TAB website.

Toni Croon is a huge racing fan and we enjoyed plenty of racing yarns. She worked for Frank Ritchie, who trains the horse I have an interest in, after leaving school which, coincidentally, was my own school, Epsom Girls Grammar School. All kids must leave the island for secondary education; most go to Christchurch but because the Croon children were born in Auckland, they opted to board at EGGS. A huge change for a girl whose childhood involved roaming adjacent Pitt Island (population 50 and where the family lived for a period) on horseback. It’s fair to say that many Chatham Islanders can tick the horse whisperer box. Toni is also a beekeeper and makes jolly good honey.

Mayor Monique trains pacers housed in stables by the local hospital. She starts training in October in preparation for the annual race meeting, working six horses on her jogger along Waitangi Beach. It’s full on for three months to get the horses up to speed, and the rest of the year the horses get to rest and relax. Monique does not!

Some interesting facts to note:

  • HRH the Duke of Edinburgh attended the Club’s “Royal Meeting” on 19th December 1956.
  • The 2003/04 meeting was cancelled due to lack of trainers.
  • Pacing races were introduced in 2006 to help keep the Club alive.
  • Being 45 minutes ahead of NZ time, the Chatham Islands Jockey Club was the first to host a horse race of the new Millenium.

Sally led a racing tour to the Annual Race Meeting December 2022/January 2023. 

Read about in Part 2. 


The stand at Norman Kirk Reserve

The stand at Norman Kirk Reserve

Waitangi Beach, Chatham Islands

Waitangi Beach, Chatham Islands