Jayne, the indefatiguable chronologist from the West Island, included a bit about Riccarton race course, Christchurch, in her blog today. I'm not sure what turned on a lightbulb in my noggin, but I started wondering whether the racecourse really was as old as the Christchurch Library said it was.
Well, it stands to be a shade older -- but may still have been just one of a few sites used by those fond of the Sport of Kings in Christchurch until the late 1860s.
The library used as one of its sources, J. P. Morrison's The Evolution of a City, 1948, which in turn used a book of memories of early Canterbury by Miss. C. I. Innes, Canterbury Sketches, or Life from The Early Days, 1879. Morrison said that Innes described the first race day at Riccarton racecourse in 1856. However, the passage he quoted didn't have that date included, and I can't lay my hands on Innes' book at the present moment in time.
Nothing in Papers Past via the National Library seemed to help. Early Canterbury newspapers which were around at the time are not yet on the site. So, I turned to Proud Silk, a history of NZ racing, from 1979.
The first four ships of immigrants for the Canterbury Association landed in December 1850. A year later, amongst festivities to celebrate the settlement's first birthday, horse racing events were held, on a ground later to "become that part of Hagley Park facing the road running from the Riccarton Hotel to the Fendalton Bridge." The following Easter Monday, 1852, they held another meeting there.
On the second anniversary, 16 December 1852, the arrangements were more formal, with nearly all jockeys "in proper costume." 16 December 1853, more races at Hagley Park. On 4 November 1854, "a public meeting was held to consider forming a Canterbury Jockey Club. " One of the club's stated aims was "acquiring and preparing a suitable racecourse." This was the start of the Canterbury Jockey Club. "
"In the memorial the Club stated that the most suitable piece of land for a racecourse was that lying in the neighbourhood of Trig Pole No. 2, about six miles from Christchurch, and that in order that an oval or horseshoe-shaped course of two miles round might be laid out, not less than 300 acres would be required.(Fine -- but where exactly was this Trig Pole No. 2? Anyone with a handy early map of 1850s Christchurch and environs, I'd love to hear from you.)
"For these reasons, the meeting that would have celebrated the 1854 anniversary was held over until 6 and 7 March 1855, when the first meeting under the auspices of the Canterbury Jockey Club took place on the course arranged for in the neighbourhood of Trig Pole No. 2."
Back to Papers Past.
The Nelson Examiner of 28 March 1855 recorded that at the recent market day in Christchurch, "the polling for the country members, together with its being the day appointed for the payment of the stakes won at the races, brought a large number of persons together." A silver cup was imported from England by April 1857, and presented to a winner. But in 1864, despite hurdle races having been held at the Trig Pole No. 2 site since 1855, there seemed to be a bit of a search for a place to hold them.
"Steeplechase Meeting. —A numerously attended meeting took place at the Jockey Club Room, at Mr. Birdsey's British Hotel, on Saturday afternoon, for the purpose of settling the preliminaries of the race which is to take place on the 4th of August. Mr. Thomson occupied the chair. Mr. Lance reported that Mr. Quinn and himself had selected Mr. Wakefield's farm, near Riccarton, as the ground best suited for the steeplechase, and read a letter from the proprietor, who is now m Wellington, consenting to the race being run upon his land; he imposed the conditions that his grounds should be open to all foot passengers, but that the horses taking part m the race should not be followed by any one mounted. Mr. Lance said that on the 30th instant he would appoint a time when Mr. Quinn and himself would point out to the jockies about to ride the course, which would be flagged out on the morning of the race. A discussion of considerable length took place, as to whether winners of hack hurdle races should be admitted and it was eventually decided that the race should be a strictly "maiden" one, and that all winners except those of flat races should be excluded."
(Timaru Herald, 30 July 1864)
By 1866, things seemed to have settled down.
"The great race meeting, which has created so much excitement lately in this province, was inaugurated yesterday at the course on the Riccarton Road, in the presence of a large number of persons, who came together from all parts to witness it. The crowd was scarcely so large as it was last year."
(Evening Post, 19 January 1866)
According to Proud Silk, a stone grandstand had been added to the course in 1864.
Race courses in early New Zealand tended to move around before finally settling in one location (usually once clear title was assured). In Auckland, the first races were at Epsom on 5 January 1842, with day two of the races immediately following. By 1849, annual races were established, and the first racing club in the region formed (New Ulster Jockey Club). From 1842 to 1856, most of the races were held on Potter's Paddock, close to present-day Alexandra Park raceway. Annual races were held at Ellerslie from 1857, by then run by the Auckland Jockey Club. 1863-1864, Otahuhu was the location, then in 1865, a return to Ellerslie. The Auckland Turf Club held a meeting there in 1873, then the Auckland Jockey Club (now Auckland Racing Club) from 1874 to the present day. (Source: William Mackie, A Noble Breed, Auckland Racing Club 1874-1974)
Image above: Otago Witness, 15 March 1856, via Papers Past, National Library of NZ.