Wednesday, November 19, 2008

When Our Racecourse Went to the Dogs

It’s interesting how unusual enquiries can lead to new information on an area’s history. One day in 2005, I received an email from Shirley Rolfe, a member of a South Auckland whippet club, asking about an “Avondale Cup” a member of her club had been given by a relative. The top of the cup has the figure of man with two dogs, both dogs caught at the moment of full stretch at a run. Near the bottom of the cup is a plate reading: “Avondale Cup 1894, won by J. Appleby’s Rambler”. Shirley wondered if the cup was to do with racing whippets.

I was aware at the time of a well-known photograph in the Auckland Central Library’s collection showing racing dogs and their owners outside the Avondale Hotel during Mr. Stych’s time (so, mid-to-late 1890s), but Shirley advised that the photo wasn’t of whippets, but their larger cousins the greyhounds. And that’s where it ended – a photo of an intriguing cup, a name, and some mystery.

Late last year, while I was looking for something else entirely in newspapers from the 1890s, I found this from 1897:
“Auckland Coursing Club. Nominations for the May Meeting Close at the Club’s Office, Vulcan Lane, To-Night (Friday) at 9 o’clock. Harry H. Hayr, Secretary.”
The name Harry Hayr made me sit up and take notice. He was the first secretary of the Avondale Jockey Club, an office he held for 23 years. Suddenly, there was a likely connection between dog racing and our racecourse. I dug further, and found that the Auckland Coursing Club had started sometime during the 1880s, their first meetings held in places like Papatoetoe – farming, rural districts. Coursing itself is an ancient sport, dating back to Egyptian times, and from the 19th century took on new popularity in English-speaking countries. It involved having dogs chase hares in races, but the hares mainly survived. The start of the Auckland season was in May of each year, and it was in May 1894 that I found the earliest report I have so far as to the Avondale dog races, held at the racecourse (an 1897 article confirmed the site):
“The first events of the coursing season were opened at the Avondale Plumpton Park on Saturday afternoon, and although the morning was cloudy and threatening, the weather held up fine during the afternoon … The dogs seemed to be well trained, and gave interesting sport, and the hares were for the most part strong and fast, the result being that in the majority of instances they made good their escape, while in the cases of any hares which were manifestly weak or young, the dogs were not slipped at them, and they were allowed to get away.”
Amongst the list of dogs who ran that day in May 1894 was one Rambler, owned by J. Appleby. A little later that year, he must have won the Avondale Cup with “Rambler” – the next year he raced “Evening Star”, and the year after that “Starlight”.

So, now we know we once we had a “Plumpton Park” on the racecourse, just off Wingate Street, where the hares ran and the dogs chased. All because a cup won 111 years before emerged from out of obscurity, and sparked a hunt of its own.

As for the cup -- as far as I'm aware, it was donated to the Greyhound Association, as part of that organisation's history.

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