Greyhound Coursing

From Hare to Here: A brief history of greyhound racing in New Zealand

Greyhound racing as a sport owes much to the hardy and humble hare.

The first hares were brought to New Zealand in 1868 at the behest of Governor Sir George Grey and were released around the country as hunting quarry. However, their prolific breeding quickly made them a pest for farmers who began importing British greyhounds to help control them. Coursing competitions between farms was the inevitable result.

Coursing developed rapidly as a sport. The first clubs were founded in Southland in 1876, and the New Zealand Federation of Coursing Clubs was formed in 1877. The first Waterloo Cup was run near Oamaru in 1879.

Where there's racing, there's usually betting, and bookmakers were on the scene almost from the outset. Generally they were valued for the interest and excitement added by betting. However, a 1908 proposed amendment to the Gaming Act would eventually see them banned from all racecourses and venues.

Banning the bookies set the tone for much of the next 100 years, and the battle for betting has been one of the defining struggles for greyhound racing in New Zealand.

The National Coursing Association was formed in 1908 as a way of uniting and strengthening greyhound racing clubs struggling to get by as public interest in wager-less races waned. When coursing was banned in 1954 the name of the organisation was changed to the New Zealand Greyhound Racing Association.

Despite considerable work by the administration, the sport took another blow in 1949 when the Royal Commission on Gaming refused to award it totalisator betting, saying New Zealand already had enough gambling.

Greyhound racing has always faced an uphill battle. It did not enjoy the best of public perceptions. Many saw live coursing as cruelty to hares, and breeders were often accused of mistreating, doping or brutally culling dogs.

However, in 1970 a boost to respectability came from an unexpected quarter at the time of yet another Royal Commission into betting facilities for greyhound racing. 

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, who was known for his keen interest in greyhound racing, were due to arrive in New Zealand on the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Auckland Club offered the Duke a promising young New Zealand greyhound as a gift. She was gratefully accepted.

Royal Commission, as she was aptly named, would be domiciled in New Zealand and it was proposed that an annual race be held here in the Duke's honour. He immediately offered a trophy and in a few weeks a beautiful solid silver collar arrived from the Royal Jewellers of London.

The Duke of Edinburgh Silver Collar race is still run each year, and remains one of the sport's most coveted titles. It ran for the first time in 1971 at Kumeu, with the largest crowd of spectators ever seen at that time. The Governor General was there, and in following years the race would be attended by assorted dignitaries including prime ministers.

While those who had presented to the 1970 Royal Commission were confident they had made an excellent case, the popularity of the Silver Collar race almost certainly helped. When the report was finally released greyhound racing was awarded equalisator betting - to commence August 1971.

A feeling of exhilaration rippled through the sport. Greyhound racing still had to go through a probationary period to prove it had a robust administration and adequate facilities in place before totalisator betting would be granted, but the first major hurdle had been overcome. 

Most clubs were run on a mainly voluntary basis, and money was scarce. It took several years for the Association to find or build the new facilities needed, but on course totalisator betting was finally granted in 1978. The first tote meeting, held at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on 15 September, was a well-attended despite the rain and a competing Neil Diamond concert.

The true watershed event occurred in 1981, however, when greyhound racing was finally granted access to full off-site totalisator betting and the TAB. This led to a new public profile for greyhounds which so far had only been enjoyed by the thoroughbred and harness codes. Public interest increased further with the advent of Trackside Television in 1992.

As Jeff Lenz, NZGRA Chief Executive at the time, said, "At long last we are considered the equal of our sister codes. A greyhound can now walk into a TAB with its head held high!"

Credit where credit's due: This brief history acknowledges a debt to Sam Fletcher's From a Drag Hare Paddock to Bramich Hare Stadium, from which much information has been sourced.