The last few weeks have put a spring in the step of the team at Riccarton Park.
Earlier in the year, the Covid-19 pandemic had threatened to deal a cruel blow to the South Island’s flagship racetrack and its two premier carnivals.
August’s Grand National Festival was impossible in a calendar with no South Island jumps racing, while transport uncertainty cast grave doubt over the two Group One showpieces of Cup Week in November. Provisional schedules indicated that the New Zealand 2000 Guineas (1600m) and 1000 Guineas (1600m) may instead be hosted at Te Rapa and Ellerslie respectively.
But the tide has turned over the last two months. The Guineas were confirmed as remaining at Riccarton, racing resumed at the Christchurch track on June 27 with bumper turnover, and $10m in funding was announced for the installation of an all-weather track. Planning for that development is now underway, with details to be confirmed over the coming weeks.
Most recently, this week brought the return of one of the Grand National Festival’s iconic features. Through the cooperation of the Canterbury Jockey Club and New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, the 128-year-old Gr.3 Winter Cup (1600m) has been reinstated and will be run on Saturday 15 August.
“It’s been very exciting,” Riccarton Park’s chief executive Tim Mills said.
“I think the return of the Winter Cup is a really positive development. We were previously looking at having no real feature racing until the Hawke’s Bay carnival kicks off in September, but this will give us something to look forward to in August.
“There have been good, competitive fields in all three regions since we resumed racing, and now having the Winter Cup back on the calendar means there’s a good race for some of those horses to work towards. We’re looking forward to it and delighted that the race could be reinstated.”
Riccarton staged 11 races in its comeback meeting on June 27, and turnover exceeded the club’s expectations. There are another 11 races carded for Saturday with a total of 164 acceptances.
“Our total turnover on June 27 was $2.36 million, which was a huge result,” Mills said. “It was actually an increase on what they had at Pukekohe the previous week, and you’d normally expect it to be higher for a meeting in the Auckland region.
“That momentum carried on into last weekend, where there was a total of more than $4 million across the two meetings. I think it’s really showing how keen New Zealand punters are to get back into action. The engines are starting to get back up and running again.
“Hopefully it’ll be onwards and upwards from here, building towards that reinstated Winter Cup and into the spring at Hastings and then back down here for Cup Week.”
Confirmation that the Guineas would remain at Riccarton came as a huge relief to Mills. The three-year-old features are the only Group One races staged in the South Island.
“They’re such important races for us, they’re the jewels in the crown of Cup Week,” he said.
“Preparations are now well underway for this year’s carnival, and we’re expecting it to be as big as ever. It’s New Zealand’s most-attended week of racing, with 14,000 for New Zealand Cup day alone, and we’re working towards more of the same this year.
“It’s been obvious to see that people are dead keen to break out of the hibernation and attend exciting events, and we’re looking forward to delivering that for them.
“We’ve also had enquiries this year from people who might normally get their racing fix in Melbourne at that time of the year, so we’re hoping to welcome them to Christchurch instead.
“You’ve always got to be optimistic in this game, and at the moment I think we’ve got a fair bit to be optimistic about.”