Picnic racing Chathams Style

Picnic racing Chathams Style


By Sally Blyth

This article appeared in the Summer 2023 Owners Bulletin.

As reported in the Autumn 2022 Owners’ Bulletin, the Chatham Islands Jockey Club is the second oldest in the country, being registered in 1873 (Wanganui JC in 1848; Auckland RC and Waverley RC in 1874). The Club holds a three‑day meeting every year over the New Year period and I led a small group tour (x12) to go and experience racing “Chatham’s style”.

We flew out on 29th January 2022 – a beautiful sunny day – and were welcomed upon arrival by Toni Croon, owner of Hotel Chatham where we stayed for the week. Situated on Waitangi Beach, our comfortable rooms looked out across the wharf and expansive bay. A convivial drink in the bar was followed by the first of many delicious seafood dinners. The local Breezy Brew, with a hint of honey, is a winner and it goes without saying that the blue cod melts in your mouth, whichever way it is cooked.

Our first day on the island took us up the “Sunshine Coast” to the far north-eastern corner. The weather was ideal and, along with beaches, wetlands, harbours and bushland, we also saw a thriving seal colony, ancient tree carvings and the remains of a Sunderland flying boat which had struck a rock and crashed in the Te Whanga lagoon in 1959. Abandoned for some years it was eventually salvaged and relocated to a large shed at Point Munning where it now delights visitors with its size and story. It is quite a sight to behold and we enjoyed a picnic lunch with a difference.

New Year’s Eve morning was spent exploring the “CBD” and then we headed to Norman Kirk Reserve, where the racecourse is situated. The weather played its part although the breeze was a little cool. The vans and trucks provided a welcome shelter belt once barbecue, chairs, food, wine, beer and people were duly set up in the midfield area. It was just like the old days of summer picnic race days and a fun afternoon lay ahead in this remote part of the world.

There are a number of simple rules to be observed for the meeting and the minimum weight for a jockey for all races is 65kg. The jockeys are mostly local riders, although some riders come over especially for the carnival. The Nomination fee is $5.00 per horse per race. No refunds. Local ladies run a book and betting is on the nose only, minimum stake $2. Cash only.

One lap of the course is 1,400m. Races vary between 1,000m and 3,200m and alternate between galloping and pacing. There are various categories of races: for horses born on Chatham Island; for horses who have never raced; for those who have never won; for those who have won in New Zealand; for NZ Maiden horses; and for island-bred horses. Some races are open to all horses except imported geldings. On Family-day there are also Cowboy challenges and hack races and family fun activities.

Most horses race more than once a day and many race on all days of the carnival. There are two Clerks of the course – one goes round on horseback and the other zips along behind the field on his quad bike. There is an ambulance on standby. There are no starting gates. The judges wear white coats and race info and results are displayed manually on a board.

A number of ex-NZ racehorses went around a few times. Polar Secret, a 10yo mare by Bachelor Duke, last raced in New Zealand at Ellerslie on New Year’s Day in 2017, coming fifth that day. Having won just once from her 10 starts in NZ, on New Year’s Eve 2022 in the Chathams, she won twice in one day! Bred and owned by The Oaks Stud in her NZ racing days, Polar Secret is now owned and trained by local Robin Seymour, who is also the Chief Steward!

Other horses who have raced in NZ and went around at this carnival (several times!) include Rosie Glow (7YO Shocking mare), Lily Jean (9YO Nom du Jeu mare) and Skaaboom (8YO Iffraaj mare).

In Race 4, a 2,400m pacing race, there were just four horses and, when both second and third placegetters galloped across the finish line, an enquiry ensued and both were relegated.

The Gallops Cup is only open to island-born horses and there were just four horses in it. All the races were eventful and fun to watch and commentator, local man Floyd Prenderville, did a great job keeping us up with the play.

As we watched horses racing and pacing around the exceptionally good track (NZ racing clubs would be very envious!) we ate and drank and mingled with locals. Neil and I chatted with Chatham’s Mayor Monique Croon in the stables area. She trains and drives her family’s horses. We also met Peter Fraser, President of the Club, although he was a hard man to catch as he was busy overseeing many facets of the day as well as saddling up his own horses.

The locals partied on following race day while we opted for a quiet New Year’s Eve. Some of us rose briefly in the early hours as 2023 dawned – with the Chatham’s being 45 minutes ahead of NZ time, we were keen to be amongst the first in the world to see the light of the new year.

In between race days, we explored the island, went fishing, enjoyed R&R and indulged in a lot of racing talk. Some of the group went on a day trip to Pitt Island which offers another amazing experience.

On 3rd January we were back on track on for the final day of the carnival. MP Paul Eagle was in attendance – the Chatham Islands fall under his Rongotai electorate. Families were out in force and the Cowboy race, which had the biggest field of all, was a torrid affair. One horse dumped its rider at the start and another ran amok after the finish line, dislodging its rider.

The Pacing Cup, the final race of the carnival, was won by Mayor Monique Croon, who drove her horse American Alice to a narrow and exciting win. The judges took some time deliberating the winner of the three-way photo finish. They ran a Calcutta on this race and the whole community got behind it.

Despite plenty of weather woes leading up to the carnival, the track was in perfect order and the weather behaved very kindly throughout our week on the island. It’s such a unique place and we had many “only in the Chatham’s” moments during our special trip. Those are other stories …

Owner Toni Croon, a huge racing enthusiast and a one-time trainer, made us feel so welcome. She and Manager Trudy and the team looked after us brilliantly throughout. Chefs Wayne and Binny did an outstanding job providing us with great kai – full breakfasts, picnic lunches and fine three-course dining including crayfish.

Our wonderful local guide Marcel, an 8th generation Chatham Islander, took us out and about all over the island, sharing with us its many treasures. His humour, knowledge, helpfulness and gentle manner were appreciated by all.

We were told the turnout for this race meeting was the best for quite some years which is heartening. The Club will be celebrating 150 years over New Year 2024/25 – no doubt there will be an even bigger crowd and, perhaps, another Racing in the Chatham’s trip will be on the cards!

A SELECTION OF PHOTOS - of racing and of the island, also Pitt Island (in no particular order).

Bulletin Editor Neil Miller talks with Monique Croon

Bulletin Editor Neil Miller talks with Monique Croon

The judge's box

The judge's box