The Nelson Harness Racing Club has a long history in the Nelson community. The club currently has eleven board members donating their time and energy to providing top quality, well organised, fun events that both the racing and wider communities can enjoy and participate in.
The Nelson Harness Racing Club (then known as the Nelson Trotting Club) was formed in Nelson in April 1890. Racing standardbred trotting horses was a popular pastime, as it was easier to train horses for trotting, rather than for galloping, at a low expense.
It is believed that race meetings in Nelson date back to the 1840s. In the early 1880s, the Nelson Jockey Club purchased 100 acres of farmland from Charles Canning and established the Richmond Park, where they held their first race meeting in March 1884. Although known for galloping races, they included trotting races in their programme, and continued to do so even after the formation of the Nelson Trotting Club, due to the popularity of the sport.
Although the Nelson Trotting Club did not have an official rule book until 1913, trotting races were very strict, and horses suspected of galloping in the races were disqualified. As early as 1906 there were cases of protest against horses for alleged galloping. Life member of the Nelson Trotting Club, Mrs. Eleanor Taylor, who became involved in the club in the 1910s, remembered her father saying: 'Trotters are for beauty, gallopers are for speed.' As most members of the Nelson Trotting Club, Mrs. Taylor was active in the community, being one of the founders of the Motueka Agricultural and Pastoral Association and the Nelson Owners, Trainers and Breeders Association.
The Nelson Trotting Club held its first race meeting at Richmond Park in 1891. By the late 1890s, the Nelson Trotting Club held seven races on one race day per year.
The Nelson Trotting Club by no means limited their activities to racing. In August 1900, for example, they organised a social function and dance at the Nelson Provincial Hall. The club was very profitable, and was also known for supporting community causes and charities. During World War One, for example, they donated the net profits of their annual race meetings towards war funds, and in 1918 they allowed a collection to be taken at the races in aid of the St Mary's orphanage funds. After the war, they gave free admission to the races to returned soldiers.
Extracts from the Nelson Evening Mail, 1898 - 1909. (Click to enlarge.)
Around 1900, the Nelson Jockey Club sold the Richmond Park to the Nelson Agricultural and Pastoral Association. Both the Nelson Jockey Club and the Nelson Trotting Club rented the park and its facilities for their race days. The grandstand at the park, built by the Nelson Jockey Club in 1887, was destroyed by a fire in 1917, and the Agricultural and Pastoral Association built a more modern grandstand in 1918.
Music was also a regular feature of the Nelson Trotting Club races. In the 1920s music was provided by the Vitetta's Orchestra, and by the regimental band in the 1930s. Despite the hard times the Depression presented, the annual Nelson Trotting Club's races, held over two days, were very popular by the mid-1930s. In 1936, the club's committee decided to cancel that year's race meeting. Due to the popularity of the event, several club members wanted the race meeting to continue and sought to elect a committee that was willing to run it. Newspaper reports suggest that the committee was thrown out at a special meeting, and a new committee established in its place. However, minute books record that the old committee 'resigned voluntarily.' The 1936 race meeting was a huge success, headlines reading: 'Large Attendance and Keen Racing' and 'Successful Revival Meeting'.
Nelson was a popular destination for owners and trainers from all over New Zealand to bring their horses for the Nelson Trotting Club races. Many horses who reached the New Zealand Cup class made their debuts in Nelson. A large part of the reason for Nelson's popularity was the hospitality of the Nelson community and the Nelson Trotting Club, who provided special cash prizes, travel allowances and notable entertainments and social functions, including balls.
Race meetings could not be held between 1942 and 1945 because the Army was using Richmond Park for military training and defence purposes during World War Two. The Nelson Trotting Club's race meetings continued to be popular in the 1950s. The establishment of the Totalisator Agency Board (T.A.B.) in 1950 was a positive step forward in the racing industry, and the Nelson Trotting Club continued to do well in the 1950s, with prominent club member Joe Hill opening a new grandstand in 1958.
The club continued to be active in the community, and built the Redwood Hall on the Richmond Park grounds in the 1960s. This was a valuable asset not only for the club, but also for the community, who were able to use the facility outside of club race days.
By 1985, the Nelson Trotting Club installed an all weather track at the Richmond Park, allowing them to hold race meetings in bad weather. The timing could not have been better, as the 1985 winter race meeting witnessed particularly bad weather, and the race would not have been possible without that all weather track. As the club's annual report noted, the track had 'a baptism of rain.'
In February 1991 the club celebrated one hundred years of harness racing at the Richmond Park. Unlike the Nelson Jockey Club, who were starting to lose many of its younger members at this time, the Nelson Trotting Club actively encouraged younger generations to be involved in harness racing. Nelson girl, Kirstie Hill, Joe Hill's granddaughter, for example, won the prestigious Australian Marcus Oldham racing scholarship in 1993.
In 1994, the Nelson Trotting Club hosted the Harness Racing New Zealand Conference in Nelson, bringing many tourists into the Nelson Region. From December 1994 the Nelson Trotting Club provided free children's entertainment and music during race meetings, increasing the popularity of the races. In 1995 the club changed its name to the Nelson Harness Racing Club.
Today the Nelson Harness Racing Club is an innovative and dynamic feature of the Nelson community. The club's race meetings are not just about racing. They are community events that cater for all sectors of the community - from families, young children and the elderly to business people. In the words of long time committee member, Bill Monk, 'it's all about people having a lot of fun, enjoying themselves.' The club is grateful to its many generous sponsors for their support of these great events.
Richmond Park grandstand that burned down in 1917
Race Day Fashions of the 1920s. F.N. Jones Photo
Cups and Prizes available to be won at the Nelson Trotting Club Summer Race Meeting, 1981
Nelson Trotting Club Summer Race Meeting, 1985
The Nelson Harness Racing Club would like to invite anyone with information on the club's history, photos or memorabilia to contact us here.
Sources: Richard Samuel, A History of the Nelson Trotting Club's Racing at Richmond Park 1891-1991, Nelson, 1991; Bernie Wood, The Cup 1904-2003: 100 years of the New Zealand Trotting Cup, Wellington, 2003; Peter Renshaw, 'Early Days with the T.A.B.', New Zealand Memories, 71, pp.52-53; Interview with Bill Monk, 6 August 2009; Interview with Brian Hill, 10 August 2009; Nelson Trotting Club Minute Books, Nelson Provincial Museum, AG182; Nelson Evening Mail, 1898-1909.
Research conducted by History & More, www.historyandmore.co.nz
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