“They are Off” for all who love those big green spaces

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We always lived near a racecourse. It was never the family’s intention, whenever we moved house; and it was only remarked on many years later on the occasion of “the last incident”. After five moves and five racecourses, the family put it down to no more than coincidence: every town had a racecourse. They all had interesting names either from history, culture, or their location; Claudelands, Te Rapa, Cambridge, Pukekura, and the last, Waterlea. We always lived within “earshot” and whenever events were being held could hear the on-course announcements from our home. As a child, I only knew the first two; in fact, after leaving home, I never set foot on racecourses, unless visiting my parents. However, they were memorable in so many ways to our childhood; providing big green open space in our neighborhood for the pursuit of all kinds of adventure, events, entertainment, and life.

My first childhood racecourse was Claudelands. It was a 5-minute flat stroll from our house. My first memory was watching polo matches in the afternoons with my mother. When I got older, my father would take me to watch harness racing and, when it converted to night racing under lights, we were there for the Grand Opening. There was a large remnant of native trees called Jubilee Park attached to the course. Long after we had moved, we would still detour on our way home from high school to cycle its paths. I later found out that my father and his 4 brothers once hunted rabbits there, for the family table, during the Depression. Claudelands evolved over the years; adding an Annual Summer Show, and later a modern exhibition center. I even held my 21st birthday party there which on reflection was just another coincidence.

Te Rapa was big and imposing. It was a hub for many racing stables who would walk their charges to its tracks before dawn. Often on our way to school, they would suddenly appear out of the typical winter fog like ghost riders. Over our back fence were Mrs. Sloan’s stables, paddocks, and a big red 2 storey hay barn. It became our target, our castle; occupied by sneaking over our back fence, crawling undetected along the deep grassy drain, and then on hand signal through the unlatched side door. We would time our advance for the late afternoon when horse and stable activity were finished for the day. Hours were spent tumbling, wrestling, and climbing within the barn without discovery. There was a Feijoa tree at the back of our property and my mother once complained that our back fence and hedge had been damaged by one of Mrs. Sloan’s horses leaning in as it stretched for the fruit. Father immediately wanted to identify (“for racing reasons”) the horse that had eaten the forbidden fruit before he set about repairing the fence and installing barbed wire.

On important family occasions, our grandparents would visit, driving their big black shiny Chevrolet firstly to our house, then to the racecourse. The back seat would be full of jostling grandchildren. Once, the back door flew open on a turn and one child fell out. We yelled to grandfather but there were no injuries from the soft roadside grass at that pedestrian speed. He just wanted to know the child’s family name which we all quickly chorused out! Our car would join the queue to be directed by men in white lab coats, to park on the grassy slopes. We would picnic with extended family, children playing on the grassy slopes, adults enjoying the racing on folded chairs. The picnics were memorable for sausage rolls, curry egg sandwiches, and fizzy drinks that grandfather would bring out in bottles from a secret wooden crate in the boot.

Cambridge and Pukekura racecourses were both near the homes of my parents during their retirement years. They were within walking distance and my parents enjoyed the exercise, inspecting the well-kept seasonal gardens and any midweek picnic racing. When I visited from overseas, I would join their walks and be treated to stories, new and old, which always filled in my childhood racecourse gaps. Once, when I was visiting Pukekura, which had a snow-capped conical mountain backdrop, the historic pavilions had been converted to a Japanese village for the film set for “The Last Samurai”, movie. The conical mountain provided the “Mt Fuji-like” winter backdrop. And, the local airport proudly showcased Tom Cruise’s private jet.

The last incident began calmly enough. My parents had newly settled into their Aged Care cottage, on the outskirts of a small town. In the mornings they observed horses returning from track work. They retraced the local paths and discovered Waterlea. Later one afternoon, they decided to observe the buzz and color of a local midweek country race meeting. They walked to the main entrance and sat together enjoying the summer sun. After a while, as the warmth went out of the day, my mother left to “get the washing off the line” (and we suspect, to do a few other chores). When she finally returned, there was no sign of my father anywhere. Then suddenly an announcement blared over the racecourse for a mother to come to the Secretary’s Office. There, sitting in the back seat of a Police car was father, aged 92, smiling (‘my first ride in one”). The details are sketchy but the official report was that father had also eventually decided to return home, but turned left instead of right at the main gates and then walked at least 2km to a town center that he did not recognize. Lost!. When a concerned citizen asked where he had come from he named a previous racecourse which was at least 3 hours flying time away. The Police were called and brilliantly took him back to Waterlea. He was not “warned off” but advised to have ID labels sewn into his coat for future visits.

There were many other adventures; however, as with horses’ birthdays, they and the memories moved along, changing every year, as we grew older and wiser at adapting to our treasured green space.

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