Sports correspondent & historian
Racing Tauranga is quietly approaching a big milestone of 150 years of racing at the course in Gate Pa.
This milestone will be marked in January 2024.
Taking a look back at the years, there were a multitude of Western Bay of Plenty picnic meetings unhampered by the rules and regulations of today, in the later decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Horses, Courses and Men written by GK Prebble tells us “Strict control in later years took the devil out of the racing. In those bad old days intrigue had no bounds. Inconsistent running and other ruses were but modest infringements against the blatancy of “ringins” which became a subtle art”.
The most popular local course in the latter decades of the 19th century, was situated at Waikareao, alongside the present-day Expressway.
The estuary became the venue for the annual Christmas racing and with its playground of beaches and tidal waters, provided a stunning background to spectacular racing.
The course started at the Otūmoetai end and preceded in a half-moon shape behind Motupae Island to finish at the saleyard end below the Judea Pa.
Alongside was the track for hurdle races, featuring a series of solid ti-tree spars up to four feet.
In spite of the trails to be encountered, many horses came over from the Waikato for this meeting.
It was before the days of a road over the Kaimai Range and the horses were ridden and led over a narrow path near the vicinity of the present road.
When the tide was too far in, an event known as a steeplechase was put on.
There were no jumps but horses had to race through 300 to 400 yards of water, taking their own course to avoid the holes and deeper parts of the channel.
To the delight of the crowd, the pandemonium of swimming horses and riders provided great entertainment.
There seemed to be no end of training tracks and courses.
At Bethlehem, where one of the first picnic meetings was held, the circuit was nearly one mile and went across the main road near the present shopping centre.
The site of another unregistered meeting was Waitao, off the Welcome Bay Road.
The course which was near the Marae, swept up a siding while another part was obscured from the patrons, wasn’t popular with the local punters.
Maungatapu, where the horses raced around the base of a hill, was considered a better course than Waitao.
Spectators had a splendid view of the racing and the meetings run by the local iwi became very popular, although considered fairly isolated from Tauranga.
The most popular form of transport to the Maungatapu races was small boats that crisscrossed the harbour.
Levers Road in Matua hosted a few meetings on the point.
However, there were a number of hazards on the course and it was abandoned after just a few picnic meetings.
Further out, the Te Puke Racing Club raced at a course at Manoeka, before joining with a club formed at Paengaroa and finally relocating to where the showgrounds are now situated.
Here, the course was formed by a cut through the fern and scrub.
A story was told of how 12 horses started in a race and 13 finished.
One of the best attended picnic meetings in the early days was at Katikati on what was known as the Papakura course.
This was a mixed dirt and grass track which crossed the main road, went behind the site of the present-day RSA and crossed the road again in the vicinity of the saleyards.
When a race was in progress, men with flags were stationed on the road to warn the traffic.
The popularity of the unregistered meetings proved their downfall.
Gray Prebble recorded that the Tauranga Municipal Band decided to attend the convivial races at Matakana Island on New Year’s Day in 1921, rather than an official function at Mount Maunganui.
An offended city father reported the matter to the police, the meeting was raided - and that brought an end to unregistered picnic meetings in the Western Bay of Plenty.