In the Heat of the Race
New Zealand’s horse racing traditions abound at the Auckland Cup
A bead of sweat drips down the horse’s muzzle, leaving a streak like melting dark chocolate down its warm brown fur. It is a hot 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) in Auckland, and guests crowd the stands.
The emerald green grass of the Ellerslie track is soft under the horse’s hooves, a cushioned blanket holding the 454-kilogram (1,000-pound) creature to the earth.
The horse’s muscles ripple under its smooth skin, a wave in the vast mocha sea. The jockey positions himself, separating his body from the horse. There is a mental connection between the horse and his rider, a trust. The horse will carry the jockey’s weight, and the jockey will lead the horse to victory.
“They’re a beautiful animal, they’re a noble animal and so many people see such qualities of stamina and strength and loyalty and just sheer beauty in a horse,” said horse owner Warren Strand, fondly gazing at the horses on the track.
Horse racing is a growing pastime in New Zealand and people come from all over the world to spend the day enjoying racing, food and fashion. This year’s Vodafone Derby Day, a part of Auckland Cup Week, was hosted from March 4–16, 2017. Horses ran for a stake of $1 million (U.S. $705,553.)
“In days gone by it’s gotten a lot bigger,” Strand said.
Strand grew up with a family that loved horses. His mother used to go to the Melbourne Cup in Australia when he was a child. Then, as a young man, Strand won a $200,000 (U.S. $141,112) stake betting at the Ellerslie Event Centre on the Auckland Cup.
From that day on, Strand knew he wanted to own racehorses. He’s seen this dream come true watching his own horses grow, train and race with pride on various tracks, including Ellerslie.
“It’s very exciting,” he said with a laugh. “They usually pan the cameras up into the stand. If my horse runs first, second or third, I’m dancing.”
For Strand, owning racehorses is a long-term project. Owners can breed and train a horse, only to discover it isn’t a successful racer.
“Generally you’ve got to have a lot of patience and really a fair amount of money,” he laughed again.
The exception to this is horse ownership syndication, a common practice in horseracing. In syndication, people buy shares in a horse and split the cost of buying and taking care of the horse. It is usually much cheaper than owning a horse on your own. There are horses racing in New Zealand with 20 to 40 owners, though Strand prefers to have one or two owners on his horses.
After the owners purchase the horses, trainers teach them to walk and trot while they’re still young. Horses usually start racing at around two years old, but Strand starts his horses at around three or four years old.
"I take it very easy because young horses are very green [malleable],” he elaborated. “They can break down if you push them too hard, so it’s good to more or less let the horse mature, let it get through its teenage years before you start it. That’s my theory.”
On race day, chosen jockeys lead their horses onto the track. At the Ellerslie track, the jockeys ride the horses from the shade of nearby trees out into the sun of the track. Sometimes, a horse shies away from the heat, the noise, the crowd. Other horses stand ready for the task at hand.
Most New Zealand racetracks, including the Ellerslie track, are turf, whereas tracks in the United States are typically dirt tracks. This is mostly due to climate, Strand said. In New Zealand, the climate allows for turf track racing year-round.
It’s developed into an art, the watering and the drainage, to develop a track,” he said.
Every aspect of race day is an art, from the tracks to the horses to the fashion. Every year, Vodafone Derby Day hosts Viva Prix de Fashion, where racegoers show off their sense of style. The 2017 fashion show occurred in the Pop-up Globe, the first full-scale replica of Shakespeare’s second Globe Theatre. For the Ellerslie race, it “popped up” just a few minutes’ walk from the track.
Charlotte Moor, a former competitor in the show, sat near the front. Her sister was competing and she wanted to show her support. She and her sister both wore traditional black-and-white race day attire. Moor has attended this race with her family six or seven times and she always enjoys their day in the sun together.
Many contestants of the fashion shows wear homemade clothes and Moor and her sister are no exception. Moor said this is one of the reasons competing is so nerve-wracking.
“Mum makes all dresses and hats and things, so you want to do her proud and do the outfit justice,” she said, gesturing to her elaborate hat.
Moor thinks horse racing is becoming more a part of New Zealand culture every year.
Anne Dunn has also watched New Zealand racing change over the years, becoming more culturally important especially to younger generations. She loves being in Auckland, feeling the atmosphere and excitement of the race and she always makes sure to attend the fashion show.
“You’ve got to be beautifully dressed to come to the horse racing,” Dunn smiled. “The young ones are today. Lovely fashions.”
Culture and fashion aside, Strand believes there’s something about the races that makes them incredibly special. It’s the horses; they are loyal and strong.
“They will run through a brick wall if you treat them right,” he said. “They’re great.”
Jockey Opie Bosson rides into the winner's circle after finishing first in the 142nd running of the New Zealand Derby.
“I think it’s a little bit of escapism more than anything else,” she explained. “It’s an opportunity to sort of get dressed up, put a hat on, take some time out of your normal life and actually go watch the horses.”
Olivia Moor, Katie O'Neill and other racegoers where fashionable hats and formal-wear similar to spectators of the Kentucky Derby.