Avondale Jockey Club has played a significant role in Auckland’s history as well as the thoroughbred racing industry in New Zealand.
Avondale Racecourse was originally established in the 1880s on farmland on the outskirts of Auckland, owned by Moss Davis. Moss was an avid horse racer and encouraged by the growth of Auckland’s population and the potential to attract crowds to the area, he built a flat, egg shaped track that was nearly a mile long with a 380 yard straight.
The prospect of more visitors to the region also saw local businesses flourish. A barber’s shop, grocer, draper, butcher, and billiards saloon, set up along Great North Road, near the Avondale Primary School.
To complement the track a ‘substantial and graceful’ grandstand was later built; capable of holding 400 people and the associated facilities – a jockey’s room, weighing room, stewards’ and ladies’ rooms and a bar.
The inaugural race meeting of the Avondale Jockey Club took place on Saturday, 26 April 1890 and was a gala event for the community.
After a few years of increasing interest and strong participation in racing, the Club decided to invest in extending the racecourse and upgrading the amenities and closed for redevelopment. The Club reopened in April 1902. Today the Avondale Racetrack is a 1,800m, all weather, right handed turf track, which is considered one of the best in the country.
Technological advances in the years that followed saw the introduction of electrically–operated starting gates in 1913. The first race they were used for was the Avondale Cup. It was about the same time the new “patent totalisator” was introduced on course.
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, public events and gatherings were postponed and the racecourse was temporarily transformed into a hospital facility to help treat and care for hundreds of victims. By the time the pandemic eased in December 1918, it had taken the lives of more than 9,000 New Zealanders. No event has killed so many New Zealanders in such a short time.
In May 1921, an Avondale race day was disrupted by a jockey’s strike; calling for better safety, pay and conditions for all jockeys across New Zealand. This resulted in disciplinary action against a leading rider of the time, Tod Hewitt.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Avondale Racecourse played an important role in the training and exercise of Army troops during World War II. It was quite common for the Army to occupy AJC facilities for long stretches of time.
In 1987, AJC invested approximately $8million in the installation of racecourse lighting and related infrastructure in order to host night racing. The first night race was run in April 1987 and continued until 1992.
In 1988 AJC and Auckland City Council entered into a formal lease arrangement, for the 10 playing fields in the centre of the Avondale racetrack.
In 1989, facing significant financial debt, the Club sold off parcels of land in Wingate Street to the Housing Corporation. The sale of land was not enough to halt the Racing Authority from assuming interim governance and management of the Club. Within two years the Club was in a stronger financial position, with on-course betting reaching $2.95million and off-course betting at $24.87million. Prize money reached $1.52 million.
In 2008 and 2009, AJC fought off industry attempts to force the closure of the Club and racetrack, believing that racing should always have a place in the Avondale community.
To fund future development of the racetrack and facilities, an unused parcel of land to the Western end of the track was subdivided in 2014 and sold in 2015. At this point in time, plans were put in place for the future upgrade and development of the Avondale Racecourse and facilities. An internationally renowned racecourse consultancy firm was engaged to develop an action plan for the redevelopment that enables Avondale to become a strong urban racing facility, adding considerable value to the New Zealand racing industry.
In 2019, AJC again faces challenge from the thoroughbred racing industry; seeking to force the closure of the Club in order to capitalize on the significant land value held by AJC. NZTR is gradually reducing the number of race days at Avondale, reducing the income stream. AJC counters attempts to force closure by self-funding development and demonstrating the importance of the track and facilities to the Upper North Island racing community. As Auckland’s population continues to increase, access to the full range of facilities provided by AJC will only become more important.