Sports correspondent & historian
Last weekend saw the running of a thoroughbred race, which attracted crowds in the thousands during the 1940 through to the 1970’s, with a number of great champions of the past having added their name to the rich history of the race.
The Easter Handicap run at Ellerslie racecourse in Auckland has a roll of honour that dates back to 1874.
Run over the mile distance, before changing to 1600 metres with the introduction of metric measurements, the Easter handicap brought huge crowds to the Ellerslie course during the traditional Easter Saturday appointment each year.
Kindergarten, who won the time-honored race in 1941 and 1942, was the champion galloper of his time with victories in the big races during the dark days of World War 2.
He won many of the premier events in New Zealand, including the Wellington Cup and Auckland Cup, for more than £16,000 in stake money, which was a very large amount during the times.
A measure of Kindergarten’s place in the countries thoroughbred history, was that he was an inaugural inductee into the New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame, alongside Phar Lap and Sunline.
When Sleepy Fox ran unplaced in the 1943 Easter Handicap as a three-year-old, few race goers of the time could envisage his future place in history of the Auckland Racing Club mile.
Sleepy Fox went from his unplaced performance to win four successive Easter Handicaps, from 1944 to 1947.
The Tom Verner trained horse won his first Easter with eight stone in 1944 and went back to back when he triumphed in 1945, lumping 9 stone 5lbs to victory.
After a mainly unsuccessful trip to Australia in 1946, Sleepy Fox returned home to carry a massive 10 stone 2lbs to victory in the 1946 edition of the race, winning narrowly from Prince Revel to whom he conceded nearly twenty kilos in weight.
If the record book said that Sleepy Fox couldn’t win his fourth Easter Handicap, the public had no doubts and sent him out favourite despite his top weight of 9st 13lb.
The (then) veteran, received a tremendous reception from the large crowd, when he rattled home a length in front of the field.
There was a Western Bay of Plenty connection in 1963, when Final Command, who is arguably the best horse to be trained from the Gate Pa course, triumphed in the Easter Mile.
Trained by Paddy Abbott, Final Command cemented his status as the best miler in the country with his Easter handicap win.
The Peoples champion of the 1970's, Grey Way, brought the crowd to its feet in 1977 when he shouldered his way past Vice Regal, Tudor Light and Kiwi Can to earn a standing ovation.
Known as the 'Washdyke Wonder', Grey Way retired as a 10-year-old as the winner of 51 races and a place in the hearts of many of the punters of the time.
However, the change of date from the traditional Easter Saturday schedule, some years ago, saw the race tarnished in value to where it lost its Group 1 status.
Today, one of the former biggest attractions on the annual thoroughbred racing calendar, is little more than a than a reminder of the past glory of horse racing in the country.