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After two days of wintry conditions, the early March night sky was cool but clear when the near-capacity crowd crammed into every available nook of the Forbury Park Trotting Club grandstands and grounds.
During the past fortnight, dozens of the best pacing and trotting horses in New Zealand and Australia had battled it out in three qualifying rounds that had attracted a combined 36,000 spectators. Tonight, Wednesday, March 3, in front of 15,760 excited punters from throughout the city, region, nation and from across the Ditch, the best-of-the-best were going up against each other in the grand finals of the 1965 Interdominion Championships.
Only one Australian horse, Blazing Globe, made it to the grand final of the pacing championship, and would finish fourth.
Two furlongs (402m) into the race, crowd favourites Robin Dundee and Jay Ar were at the rear of the field. But they were both in handy positions by the start of the final lap of the £10,000, 13-furlong race. Also in contention were Junior Royal and Soanfra. As the crowd roared its support for the drivers and their horses tearing up the track beneath the blazing floodlights, Jay Ar pulled ahead. With less than a furlong to go, Robin Dundee was several lengths behind, trying desperately to get clear of the tiring Soanfra. Also gaining ground was Disband.
The trotting championship grand final proved equally exciting.
Gramel, an "ugly-duckling" mare that was the current champion Australian trotter, had won all three of her Forbury Park heats during the past 11 days and was firm favourite to win.
The other Australian in the 14-horse trotters’ grand final was Corop McElwin, which would finish well outside the money.
Shortly after the start of the £3125, two mile (3.2km) race, Poupette, an 8-year-old Winton mare often used as a farm hack to round up cattle, looked to be out of contention when Uteena put a foot through her wheel, causing her to lose 48 yards (44m).
At the halfway mark, Gramel took the lead. The excitement in the crowd was palpable.
Also sniffing a win were Grand Charge and Snow Globe — the latter despite dragging a punctured tyre most of the way.
With four furlongs to go, Poupette was making good ground but was still ninth. She was eighth as they turned for home, racing into the growing din of thousands of shouting, cheering voices.
Forbury Park had been the home of horse racing in Dunedin since the city’s early days.
In 1869, the Forbury Park Co had taken on the task of reclaiming 45ha of St Kilda wetlands and creating a one mile racecourse.
It was considerably larger than today’s track. Unpublished documents held in Dunedin City Council archives describe Hargest Cres (formerly known as Royal and Forbury Cres) as "following the original line of the galloping track". A 1975 published history of St Kilda says the track was also bounded by Moreau St and Victoria Rd. That has now been further corroborated by an 1882 Forbury Park Estate subdivision map, found last week in the Hocken Library collections, that shows the scale of the original track.
The Otago Jockey Club held its first meeting on the site on March 23, 1871. It later became the Dunedin Jockey Club and raced there until 1892, when it shifted to Wingatui.
In 1960, Forbury Park installed floodlights, introducing night trotting to the South Island.
By 1965, it had a white-topped, chip metal, all-weather track and, built in time for the Interdominion Championship, a flash new members’ stand.
In 2021, more than half a century later, Forbury Park raceway has almost done its dash. By the 1980s, the three decade-long golden era of gallops, trots and harness racing was over. Despite the post-millennial resurgence of some notable race meets as glamour events on the social calendar, other sports and other forms of gambling and entertainment have continued to erode equine sports’ following.
Last month, the Forbury Park Trotting Club announced plans to sell the racetrack and relocate to either a greenfields site in Dunedin or to Wingatui.
The announcement followed the release of the Otago-Southland Tri-code Racing review, which recommended Forbury Park should close.
In March 1965, however, the horse sports heyday was in full swing and Forbury Park was breaking crowd, betting and racing records.
This was the era of New Zealand’s three R’s: rugby, racing and beer. Rugby, racing and beer was, in fact, the title of a popular song, released in 1965, by Kiwi musician Rod Derrett.
"There weren’t other things such as TV. Racing was a major social event for people."
So, people flocked to the races for a flutter or a serious punt, a bit of excitement and a chance to socialise. And, in the trotting and pacing world, there was no bigger event in 1960s Aotearoa than the Interdominion Championships.
The Interdominions had begun in Perth, Australia, in 1936: an annual transtasman championship rotated between the six harness racing states of Australia and the North and South Islands of New Zealand.
All that glamour and excitement came to Dunedin in 1965 when, for the first and last time, the Interdominion Championships were held outside Auckland and Christchurch, at Forbury Park.
Strong was 21 years old when the Interdominions were held in his home town. In his second year as a racing reporter at the Southland Times, Strong would go on to become racing editor at the Otago Daily Times, a position he held for 37 years. He also co-authored an authoritative history of the championship, Interdominions: Saga of the Champions, first published in 1975.
Strong happened to be visiting his parents in Dunedin during the qualifying rounds. He got along to one of the meetings where he recalls placing a bet on Lordship, a standardbred which had previously won both trotting and pacing national titles and would win two pacing heats at the Forbury Park Interdominion before coming sixth in the grand final.
"You could hardly move. It was the only game in town," Strong recalls.
"In those days, there was a totalisator building ... where the prices were displayed with ribbons immediately before each race.
"You usually went and looked at the horses in the birdcage when they were paraded. Then you went and looked at the totalisator to see what they were paying. And then, if you wanted to have a bet, you’d go up to the betting window."
If you could make your way through the throng.
Syd Brown attended all three qualifying meetings, plus the grand finals night.
In 1965, the now-former Dunedin deputy mayor was only 19 years old — an agricultural contractor living with his parents at Wingatui and already dead keen on horses.
It was a busy time of year at work, but Brown was determined to take every opportunity to see the best horses in New Zealand and Australia, horses he had only dreamed of seeing in the flesh.
He was there each night with a group of friends; a dot in a multitude that was decidedly cosmopolitan by Dunedin standards. It was obvious that thousands of people had flooded in from out of town as well as from overseas, Brown says.
"If you didn’t get there early, if you were a bit late, you couldn’t see the racetrack because the crowd was so big."
For Brown, the Forbury Park Interdominion is also memorable for his first foray into horse breeding.
On the advice of Don Nyhan, trainer of Lordship and world record holder Johnny Globe, he bought brood mare Omylight at the Tahuna Park horse sale held during the championship.
"She was the foundation mare of all the horses I’ve bred and had over the years," Brown, who had to register the horse in his father’s name because he was too young, says.
From Omylight, about 10 generations later, came My Field Marshal, who Brown describes as "my best horse by far".
My Field Marshal retired late last year on 29 wins and 25 placings from 76 starts, with $1.6million in stakes earnings and a 2018 Miracle Mile that earned him the title of fastest harness racing horse in New Zealand and Australia.
"It is a highlight I will always remember," Brown says of the 1965 Interdominion.
"I’ve been to a lot of meetings all over Australia and New Zealand. Apart from New Zealand Cup on Cup Day, I’ve never seen a crowd like what was at Forbury."
Experiencing the spectacle from a different vantage point was harness racing driver Robert Cameron.
At the Forbury Park Interdominion, Cameron was driving Tactile, which won its heat in the first qualifying round but came seventh in the pacers’ grand final.
"My word, it was a big event. There were people everywhere. It was like going to a metropolitan track," Cameron, who drove until about a decade ago and is now 82, recalls.
"It is the ultimate. It’s the big races that you want to be in, so that you can win."
There was tension, but no nerves.
"You’re not nervous, you’re competitive. If you’re nervous about being out there, you shouldn’t be out there."
During races, every thought was focused on how to win.
"Absolutely, very aware ... trying to avoid any disasters if they happen, be quick enough, and capitalise on opportunities."
For Strong, all these years later, the 1965 Interdominion Championships at Forbury Park were, and still are, all about the horses.
"To see these top horses in action, including the best from Australia as well," he says.
"They had come up through the ranks and proved themselves against other horses at the top level and then been brought together here to compete.
"Lordship and Robin Dundee, for instance, were not very big in stature but they were mighty in how they performed.
"They were champions in their own right, these horses. They were just the best."
In the trotting championship grand final, with 15,000 voices roaring as the horses turned into the floodlit home straight, Gramel, the favourite was still in the lead. But perhaps feeling the effects of already winning three heats in 11 days, Gramel began to weaken. With less than a furlong to go, Snow Globe got her nose in front, followed closely by Grand Charge. The field had fanned out when the horses hit the final straight. That was when little-fancied Poupette, which had been making her way up along the rails, finally saw a clear track. She hit her straps over the last furlong, pulling past Gramel, then Grand Charge and then Snow Globe, to take the championship by a length.
It was a remarkable result: the unseating of the Australian champion Gramel by the unlikely Southland contender Poupette.
The result in the other grand final, the pacing championship, was even more dramatic.
With less than a furlong to go Jay Ar was in the lead, followed by Soanfra, Robin Dundee and Disband.
Lordship, the favourite, had still been in with a chance until he faltered with two furlongs to go, rebounded strongly over the final furlong but could only manage sixth.
Robin Dundee had an impressive closing burst. Crossing the finishing line, Robin Dundee and Jay Ar were neck-and-neck, followed by Disband in third.
Who had won?
The next day, the newspapers had the story on their front pages.
"A short lived triumph", stated the ODT.
"Records go by the board," said the Evening Star.
"Sensation or chaos. It was hard to choose last night at Forbury Park when Jay Ar apparently won the pacers grand final," wrote the ODT trotting reporter.
"Apparently, because all the preliminaries for the presentation were made before the judge’s call had been confirmed."
Trainer-driver George Noble had brought Jay Ar back into the birdcage first.
"Assuming he had won, officials rushed Jay Ar on to the track and the horse was decorated with the winner’s sash," the Star reported.
Back in the birdcage, Robin Dundee’s driver, D.J. Townley, was emphatic he had won.
"A hush settled over the crowd when a second photo was called for," the Star continued.
"And then pandemonium broke out when the judge announced that he was unable to separate the pair."
It was a dead heat. This was the first time two horses had shared first prize in the Interdominion Championships. It has never been repeated.
The final night of the Forbury Park Interdominion also broke the record for betting. The on-course total of £147,901 was a record for Otago and Southland. The TAB figure of £186,362 was the largest ever bet on a night trotting meeting in New Zealand.
Over the course of the fortnight-long championship, on and off-course betting totalled £1.16 million, while punters consumed 50,000 pies, 45,000 cups of tea and 2000 gallons of beer.
In every way, Strong says, it was a standout event.
"The crowds were enormous ... People were out there for an enjoyable night.
"And the horses were the best there was in Australia and New Zealand.
"You’d say that was the highlight of Forbury Park’s history, staging that Interdominion."