A display at a local pub showing the history of horse racing in Levin has revealed Māori warrior Te Rauparaha had an influence on the sport as a racehorse breeder.
Many of those early Horowhenua racehorses were sired by a stallion that was owned by Te Rauparaha, and many Māori took to the sport and quickly gained a reputation for being fearless jockeys.
Levin Racing Club committee member and historian Paul Pearce said finding Te Rauparaha had an interest in horses was just one interesting aspect he uncovered when delving into the rich history of the sport in the Levin area.
Pearce came up for the idea of a display to provide a brief history of Levin Racing Club, realising there was an absence of an area to showcase and celebrate a sport that had played such a big part in the history of the town.
He said The Wheelhouse Sports Bar and TAB was an ideal spot and the display had the support of Wheelhouse owner Kerry Wano.
The display turned into a labour of love for Pearce, who gathered photos and information over a period of 18 months, uncovering tidbits and history that might otherwise have been lost.
"It's a display to show all aspects of racing in the Levin area," he said.
"It's very brief, there is so much history. But really the motivation was that up until now there was nothing ... "
The display shows that the very first race meetings in Horowhenua held on a stretch of beach somewhere between Waikawa and Waitarere, maybe as early as the 1850s.
Many of those early meeting were organised by local identity Hector MacDonald and for a time horse racing was held on a course on the western side of Lake Horowhenua, not far from Mr MacDonald's house.
But those picnic meetings were stopped when the sports governing body insisted a club be formed, and it could apply and then be granted a permit to race.
Thus, the Horowhenua Hack Club was formed in 1884. It duly brought out the Manakau Racing Club and moved its meetings to a new racecourse on Mako Mako Rd in 1904, its current home.
The club was known as the Horowhenua Racing Club for a time, but officially changed its name to Levin Racing Club in 1923.
A grand old stand was built and Levin Racing Club held popular race meetings at the course for almost a century until a controversial decision was made to move all its meetings to Ōtaki in 1990.
While there have been no more race meetings at Levin since then, the course is still an asset to the racing industry as a training establishment, and also as a venue for jump-out trials.
Pearce said there were still 50 horses trained at the Levin track on any given morning, and jump-out trials held at the course every three weeks can attract as many as 100 entries.
But the club is perhaps best known for its innovation in establishing the Levin Classic, a prestigious race that was known for many years as the Levin Bayer Classic.
It was an inspired move from the Levin Racing Club committee of the time that saw the establishment of the Levin Classic. The race sprouted from nowhere in the 1980s to become a flagship event.
Through a revolutionary nomination payment scheme the club managed to guarantee an ambitious stake of $100,000, making it the third richest race in New Zealand at the time and ensuring it attracted the best 3-year-old horses in New Zealand.
As a result, the club managed to post the third highest oncourse turnover for a race meeting that year, and wasn't far behind the Auckland Cup meeting at Ellerslie on New Year's Day.
The following year long-time sponsor Bayer came onboard and it was worth $105,000, then $115,000, and by 1984 it was $120,000. The stake money for the 2020 race will be $225,000.
Some fine horses had won the Classic in that time, including the mighty Bonecrusher, Altitude, Veandercross and O'Reilly.
When Bonecrusher won in 1985, a record on and off-course turnover of $2,921,584 was set, while in 1987 the Levin club set a new TAB record of $3,222,381 for a one-day meeting when 10,000 spectators crammed the course.
Another interesting chapter in the history of the club that Pearce uncovered was its connection to motor racing.
The Levin Motor Racing Club built a 1.8km track in the middle of the course in 1956 attracting some of the best drivers in the world.
Sir Stirling Moss, Jim Palmer, Graeme Lawrence, Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill, and Jim Clark all raced at Levin during an international event in 1962, however that racetrack closed in 1975.
Pearce also discovered the course was commandeered by the army during World War II as a camp for an armoured regiment, which put an end to all race meeting until 1944. During that time the Levin Racing Club staged meetings at Napier, Foxton and Ōtaki.
So, as the display suggests, in the 160 years since that first race along the beach, the Levin area has been home to some of the best horses, jockeys and trainers in New Zealand.