The Waipukurau Jockey Club is steeped in history and character but there is an air of inevitability about its future even with the thoroughbred racing industry members of the rural community in Hawke's Bay.

However, newly elected club president Graeme Smith says the club is adamant it has a good summer track and no intentions of ending its illustrious tenure.

In its Future Venue Plan, New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing is now embarking on a consultation process to solicit feedback from the industry playmakers on its initial proposal to close to venues this year and 11 more in almost another decade.

The face of Waipukurau Jockey Club.
The face of Waipukurau Jockey Club.

Wairoa is in the first cull while Waipukurau and Woodville come into the long-term one, as the deadline for feedback on the former looms before March 19 on the heels of an independent review from Aussie racing stalwart John Messara who Racing Minister Winston Peters had commissioned.

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"If it happens, it happens. You can't really do much about it," says Waipukurau owner/trainer Penny Ebbett who suspects the committee will be trying its utmost to keep the venue afloat.

The club stages races twice a year, in December and March, on a racecourse in park-like grounds offering sweeping country views at a modest annual membership of $35.

It has hosted meetings for more than 150 years with the maiden one on February 2, 1859, held yearly after that on the private course at Woburn.

Ebbett, who started training in 2000 before husband Tony obtained his licence a few years later, says they will have to contemplate travelling to Hastings at least three times a week when the day of reckoning comes but they are also getting older.

"I do all the riding, you see, and the track work and Tony does all the shoeing so we do everything ourselves," she says, revealing they get a lot of satisfaction when their horses win.

Ebbett rules out travelling to Awapuni because of distance and negotiating the tricky Saddle Rd since the Manawatu Gorge was closed permanently in July 2017.

Another couple, Peter and Ann Evans, who have moved from owner/trainers to just shareholders in horses, have had considerable success, with the likes of First Sovereign Japan/New Zealand Trophy winner My Astron and, more recently, three-time Kiwifruit Cup victor Intransigent (2013-15), but, they note, "what's happening is inevitable".

"It'll be tough but, yes, I think so," says Peter Evans, who lives just a block from the racecourse and has been serving on the committee for almost 12 years, and is a retired Waipukurau track manager.

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Evans says the ongoing maintenance has tested the club's resolve.

The couple, who have delved in all aspects of racing since they got married 50 years ago, echo Ebbett's sentiments on commuting to Awapuni but feel the owners will have to shift or send their horses to another "public trainer".

The Evanses are already sending their horses to trainer Fraser Auret in Marton because it isn't easy to lure jockeys to country venues such as Waipukurau.

"Staff also are hard to get so you can't expect them to come to ride just one or two horses," he says.

Life member Evans says if it wasn't for the club's 40ha sheepfarming operation, with cropping and hay making, it "probably wouldn't exist".

However, Smith says the club is in for the long haul to retain its presence on the thoroughbred racing map in New Zealand.

"We get wonderful support from the community and it's a vital part of the East Coast racing so we believe we have a part to play in it," he says.

The livestock farmer from Omakere, on the coast of Black Head, says it's a "very financial club" with a "very profitable" farming operation so "we're in a very strong financial position".

"We're prepared to fight for our rights for our country club," he says, reflected in close to 2000 patronising the annual Christmas race meeting, a robust sponsorship and strong membership.

"We're keen to see the club continue for the community and the sake of racing."

Smith, who says he's "the one man on the block and not ready just yet for the chop", says the track does get wet in winter like many others in the Central Districts region but the club boasts a good irrigation system which lured five meetings last season from the East Coast.

"We're very strong as a committee to retain our club in Waipukurau and to its founders who have kept it going but they've put a lot of work into it."

He says maintenance is primarily painting the buildings, hopefully, from next year.
The Waipukurau club was formed in 1872 and three years later all races were held at the existing track, deemed to be one of the most testing in New Zealand owing to its undulating contours.

Some of the buildings have changed since then.

In December 1939, fire destroyed the totaliser prompting a replacement a year later. In February 1941, the main public building suffered the same fate, replaced in time for the Easter meeting in 1942.

Although the earliest records have been misplaced, it is recorded that Henry Gaisford was president from 1900 to 1919 when Sir George Hunter was elected.