George & Percy Vercoe
Many racing and community stalwarts have made massive contributions to the development and history of the Waikato Racing Club.
But few more colourful than the father and son combination of George and Percy Vercoe.
It was George, who during the years of the Great Depression, used his casting vote as chairman to prevent the abandonment of the Te Rapa venue and return to Claudelands. That was the turning point in a turbulent history which had started with the Waikato Turf Club in 1873 and a series of changes to name and racing venue.
Initially the Waikato Turf Club conducted meetings at Whatawhata and Pirongia. In 1887 the clubs name was changed to the South Auckland Racing Club and Claudelands became racing headquarters. Then, in 1916, the South Auckland Racing Club became the Hamilton Racing Club and continued to race at Claudelands under a lease arrangement until the switch to Te Rapa in 1924.
The move to Te Rapa was very much a George Vercoe project and one which encountered not only serious opposition from many members but also committeemen who recoiled at the cost of buying 400 acres and developing the racetrack and amenities.
In response,not only did George personally lay out the track with the assistance of leading northern handicapper Frank McManemin, but he financially contributed to solving money woes and used his casting vote to ensure the survival of the venue.
Percy Vercoe, still remembered for his hearty disposition and doggedness in debate, put his special imprint on the Waikato Racing Club when, as president, he organised the centennial celebrations in 1973.
In so doing he admitted to having cheated a little bit.
The truth was the Waikato Racing Club had not come into existence until 1924. Before that Hamilton racing enthusiasts had been catered for by clubs operating under the banners of the Waikato Turf Club, South Auckland Racing Club and the Hamilton Racing Club.
Percy, quite naturally, had compelling reasons for not wanting to wait until 2024. George would have been proud.
It was Racing Hall of Fame stallion Foxbridge who laid the foundations for the Waikato region becoming the heartland of New Zealand thoroughbred racing.
The Trelawney Stud-based sire won 11 premierships, was twice the champion sire of the British Empire and his daughters were in turn the foundation of succeeding generations of champions.
In 1950 the Waikato Racing Club recognised his iconic status with the inaugural Foxbridge Plate, a decision which was to assume its own iconic status within Waikato Racing Club history.
It was the clubs first venture into weight-for-age racing and it could not have had a better scripted launching when it brought together the champion of the 1949-50 season, Beaumaris, and the 1950-51 champion Mainbrace. On the way to his title Beaumaris had won the New Zealand Derby, Auckland Cup, Wellington Cup and Awapuni Gold Cup.
In 1951 Mainbrace had won the Great Northern Derby , Great Northern St Leger and the Awapuni Gold Cup, but it was his life-time record that was so breath-taking 23 wins from 25 starts. At the time of his sad breakdown he had won 17 races in succession, which was just two behind the New Zealand record-holders Gloaming and Desert Gold.
Significantly one of those 23 wins was in that inaugural Foxbridge Plate and at the expense of his most famous rival.
Despite its auspicious start, the Foxbridge Plate provided the Waikato Racing Club with its share of headaches necessitating changes to its distance and positioning in the annual racing programme.
Whereas Mainbrace and Beaumaris clashed over 2000m, the regular distance is now 1200m and positioned at the beginning of the season as an important lead into the high profile Hawkes Bay spring carnival at Hastings and rapidly regaining its stature.
Appropriately Foxbridge and Mainbrace were both inducted into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame in 2008.
Lester Sails Home
In 1970, '72 and '74 The Waikato Racing Club staged invitational jockey races involving overseas stars being pitted against the best locals.
The first and third contests were won by the Kiwis John Harris (Far Time) and Brian Andrews (Battle Heights), but in between these two races was the one which left life-time memories for 1972 racegoers.
Everything about the race was bathed in the stuff of fairytales. First of all Sailing Home, a giant-sized 17 hands tall mare dwarfed her 73-year-old owner trainer Joyce Edgar-Jones. But that was nothing new for Auckland Cup winner Sailing Home.
As a foal she had been forced to kneel to suckle her pint-sized dam Chocolate. But, on February 22, 1972, all she had to contend with was a jockey she had never clapped eyes on until an informal introduction in the birdcage. That was a situation to which the world famous Lester Piggott was well accustomed.
If the shortness of the stirrup leathers which Piggott favoured surprised Sailing Home, they caused derision among many of the crowd when he took his mount to the barrier with a good yard of daylight between bum and saddle.
It was the imitable Piggott, however, who had the last laugh when he returned to scale for a heros welcome. Behind the barriers Sailing Home's regular jockey John Riordan offered Piggott some friendly advice. He told Piggott the horse to watch was Game, the free-running mount of Australian champion Roy Higgins.
If I was riding this mare today I would be sure I kept her handier than usual. You can't let that other horse get a break.
Piggott recognised the sincerity of the advice, kept close to Game's quarters from the half-mile and in the closing stages won the fight for gold by a neck.
Te Rapa has hosted numerous champion gallopers, Mainbrace, Bonecrusher and Sunline being but three. However, never a greater champion than the incomparable Lester Piggott who took his magic around the world and at home winning 11 premierships and nine English Derbys.
But, so importantly to the Waikato Racing Club, also listing the 1972 Jockeys Invitational among his 4,493 career wins.
First published in 1812, the historical adventure novel 'Swiss Family Robinson' records the fictitious trials and triumphs of a family shipwrecked in the East Indies en route to Australia.
No doubt a good read in its time, but hardly comparable to the true trials and triumphs of Waikato's Robinson Family of Matangi, which not only left an indelible mark on the Waikato Racing Club, but more importantly, New Zealand racing.
The patriarch of this particular Robinson clan was the remarkable owner-trainer Ivan, who was the torch-bearer for sons Leo and Roy and grandson Warren.
From his rural base, Ivan Robinson was 12 times New Zealand's leading owner- trainer during a 30-year span which ended dramatically in 1977. He had a special liking for jumpers with his first major win coming with Treasure Ring in the 1955 Grand National Steeples. The following year he won the Grand National Hurdles with Brue.
In the years that followed he won another Grand National Steeples with Fumbler, the Waikato Steeples with Quenby Hall and the Waikato Hurdles with Revolver (twice), Captain Rebel and Olde Chelsea.
But Ivan Robinson was anything but a one-trick pony boasting a dab hand with jumpers. He also won the 1964 Auckland Cup with Senor, while he also had the crack three-year-olds Bardall and Piko, who in 1968 and 1969 respectively won the Great Northern Derby and the New Zealand Derby.
In the case of Piko he sold a share to the world's leading owner of the time, Nelson Bunker Hunt.
It came as no surprise Ivan was again the leading owner-trainer of the 1956-57 season with 14 wins, but significantly tied for second place with nine wins were his sons Leo and Roy and a new and lasting chapter in New Zealand racing history was underway.
Ecstacy and Agony
On the first Tuesday of November, 1976, Leo and Roy Robinson achieved the ultimate goal of all trainers when Van Der Hum and Bob Skelton waltzed away with the Melbourne Cup on a rain-soaked track.
The icing on the cake was the brothers each held a 25 percent lease share in the horse with owners Wyn and Jean Abel, retaining a similar percentage each. But it almost became a catastrophic partnership.
When made, the arrangement was perfectly legitimate, but early in 1976 the rules had been changed, making it mandatory for an owner-trainer to hold at least a 50 percent share.
Six months after the Melbourne Cup Leo and Roy Robinson were charged with having trained Van Der Hum and six other horses as owner-trainers when ineligible to do so under the Rules of Racing. They were initially disqualified for 12 months, reduced to six on appeal.
However, a letter was placed before the New Zealand Racing Conference pointing out that a member of the sub-committee which originally heard the charges was part-owner of a horse nominated for the Waikato Steeples, for which the brothers also had horses nominated. This, it was claimed, could be construed as a monetary interest in the outcome.
In order that justice might manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done, the charges were quashed. However, the Matangi Robinsons still had to endure its own Swiss family shipwreck.
The Racing Conference executive summoned Ivan Robinson to appear before it and establish, in view of his age health, whether he should continue as an owner-trainer.
Aged 76, and still a pup when compared these days with Bart Cummings, he withdrew his application in protest and along with the following:'Your executive may see it differently, but I see the New Zealand racing scene has become a cruel and heartless place where people like myself are not wanted. Racing in New Zealand evidently considers experience does not off-set age. It was once a sport but is now a sad place for any honest man.'
When his son Roy became the Waikato Racing Club's 10th president, he also took his place on the ruling executive body, serving both organisations with fairness and distinction.