It’s 1.15pm on race-day, and inside the Castlepoint Station woolshed, first-time competitor Alice Riggins is too nervous to speak. Shortly, she will saddle up Kings Kite, a 10-year-old chestnut gelding, and ride him across Jetty Road, then down a makeshift dirt ramp and on to Castlepoint beach, where she’ll experience the most exhilarating 60 seconds of her life. “Can’t talk right now,” she says in a voice that’s half joking, half serious. “But I’ll tell you everything from my hospital bed in a few hours’ time.”
The dramatics are fitting. The Castlepoint Beach Races are one of the biggest events in the calendar for this coastal village in the Wairarapa, and exactly what’ll go down this year is anyone’s guess.
“Sometimes it’s the horses. Sometimes it’s the riders,” says Emily Crofoot, who co-owns Castlepoint Station. “Mostly it’s the wind and tide that cause havoc. You can guarantee no one event is the same as the next.”
In 2016, a horse spooked by encroaching waves shucked its rider, Lucy Williams, then bolted, wild-eyed, to the end of the beach, where it launched full-throttle into the lagoon and made its way out to sea through a gap in the rocks. (Race official Charlie White saved the day by waving down a nearby boatie and rounding up the horse before it met a watery end.) In 2000, a jockey from Tinui was bucked off her horse and knocked unconscious in the parade ring. And, in 2019, a horse dropped dead from a heart attack midway through a race
Today, the calm and sunny conditions bode well for the seven races coming up, but the mood here in the woolshed is tense. Bodies line walls and squash up together on thin wooden benches as everyone eyes the woolshed’s entranceway, where Scotty Whitehead, Castlepoint Racing Club president, is due to take the floor.
It’s the third year Whitehead’s donned the racing club’s bottle-green polo shirt. He’s the latest in a line-up of Whitehead patriarchs—his dad, Bryan, served for five years as club president.
“There’s plenty of beach. It’s an awesome beach,” he tells the assembled jockeys, trainers and volunteers. “We’ve not seen anything this good for years. But in this outgoing tide there are some rocks to watch out for down by the bridge.
“There shouldn’t be any delays today. The conditions are good. The tide is right. So let’s stick to the timetable and have a good time while we’re out there.”
In Whitehead’s first year, the race was called off because of bad weather. Last year, he wasn’t feeling “a hundred per cent relaxed” about it. This year, he also looks on edge. He’s keen to get on with things. Glancing at his watch, he nods to starter Simon Stevens.
“There’s not a lot of room at the start, folks,” says Stevens. “Over the last few years we’ve had a few horses tangled up in the rocks—so just be aware of that.”
Each of the seven races begins from the same spot, more or less, but varies in length from 800 metres to about 1350 metres. At Stevens’ call, the field will gun it down the beach to the finish line, flanked by the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Jetty Road seawall on the other.
Outside the woolshed, Palmerston North rider Alan Rennie is the first to arrive from the yards for the Wairarapa Station Hack Race, the working-horse event. One hand resting on his thigh, the other firmly holding the reins, he sits upright on his 12-year-old bay mare, Chimes, heels down, focused. Chimes paws the ground, head rolling backwards and forwards, while Rennie waits for his fellow competitors to pull up.
From the announcers’ caravan, Gwyn Jones and her last-minute ring-in, radio broadcaster Sean Plunket, warn people to make way for the horses.
Close by, punters are lining up outside a lemon-yellow Portacom to swap a couple of bucks for a randomly lettered ticket that corresponds to one of the seven horses in the race. It’s equalisator betting—a lucky-dip style of gambling introduced to Castlepoint in 1949.
Down at the starting line, at the far end of the beach, race volunteers organise the field into three rows, based on handicap, for a rolling start. Out front is local rider Georgia Higinbottom on her 12-year-old mare, Lillie. Rennie and Chimes are at the back. Ahead lies an arc of dark, sweeping sand that leads to an imposing headland and the Castle Point Lighthouse in the distance.
Finally in position, the horses can hold fast no longer. They start to surge forward, prompting Stevens to drop the starter’s flag. They’re away, barrelling down the beach in full flight.
Hoofs pummel the wet beach. Sand flies. Nostrils flare. Riders hover over saddles. The easterly wind flattens colourful silk shirts against lithe bodies.
They take just seconds to pass the terraced plots of the Castlepoint Holiday Park and the string of houses dotted along the beachfront. The final dash to the finish line passes the judges’ ute parked on the sand.
And it’s victory for Georgia on Lillie! They’re followed across the line by Sam Sebire on Oh Behave, a piebald gelding, and Andrew Pearce on the mare Black Pearl. Alan Rennie on Chimes comes in fourth.
It takes a few minutes for the competitors to slow to a halt and regroup. Some trot further down the beach to cool down after the sprint. Other riders dismount immediately, grabbing the reins and guiding their hacks off the sand and back to the woolshed.
Over the sound system, Jones and Plunket call out place-getters, then rally kids back to the beach for the golf-ball-and-spoon race.
It’s 2.15pm. First race down. Six to go.
Looking around, Lorina Goldsworthy guesses that maybe 5000 people have made it to the races this year. Dozens of families picnic along the grass verge and the rock wall separating the road from the beach. A couple of people have dragged beanbags onto the rocks for an unhindered view of the track. Cockies in Red Band gumboots slug back beer alongside a dressier set sipping bubbly in PGG Wrightson and Fagan Motors tents.
The baches, some more than a century old, are heaving with people. I smile and nod at a woman dancing on the porch of one, a glass of wine in her hand. She cheerfully throws the goat in my direction with her free hand, while Motörhead’s “Fast and Loose” blasts in the background.
“Just look at the long lines of people queuing up at the tote.” Goldsworthy points a tanned arm in the direction of the crowd. “It’s rows deep.”
This is Goldsworthy’s sixth year as secretary and treasurer of the racing club and, like most on the committee, she lives locally.
“From what I’ve heard,” she continues, “all the carparks are full, then add in the holiday park, which I’m told is at capacity. I’d say it’s definitely one of our best-ever turnouts.”
That’s what Sarah Crofoot reckons, too. “I’m not sure why,” she says. “Maybe it’s because the weather’s amazing and the races are a fun family day out.”
Sarah grew up at Castlepoint Station with her brother, David. Their parents, Emily and Anders, were born in the United States, but have farmed the 2995-hectare hill-country station for two decades. And, since the station and the annual races go hand in hand, their part in the races came with their purchase of the station in 1998.
Today, the races are still very much a Crofoot family affair. Anders is collecting bets and handing out winnings from the tote. Emily is hosting out-of-towners and directing the kids’ activities. David and his girlfriend are somewhere in the crowd. Sarah used to ride, but now she’s one of the judges, calling second and third place in the Castlepoint Cup.
“I got asked to join the judging panel about four or five years ago,” Sarah, who’s in her mid-20s, tells me. “They reckoned they needed a pair of young eyes. It’s actually a pretty good way to spend your time, especially if that’s your only job on race-day.”
Outside the Castlepoint Beach Store, I meet smartly dressed Grant Perry. Now 65, he remembers coming to the races when he was as young as five.
“It’s part of the fabric of our lives. I live in Masterton now, but still like to come every chance I can,” he tells me. “I come from a long line of Tinui farmers. My great-grandfather John Alfred Perry was one of the original settlers of the mid-1850s. He was the first clerk of scales, the guy who’d weigh the riders before they raced.
“Back then, riding horses on those big country sheep stations was a way of life. There weren’t any vehicles. Horseback was how you got to school, work, anywhere really. This was the community’s big day out.”
Nowadays, there are more jockeys than farmhands who race, with farmers choosing side-by-sides over station hacks as their preferred mode of transport.
“There’s just not the same horse culture like there was in those very early days, so we rely on local trainers and jockeys to come along and support the event,” Emily Crofoot tells me back in the farmhouse. She’s been directing events from home all day, answering queries about tides, wind strength and direction, and where to find Anders’ toolbox.
When Matamata trainer Jess Brosnan and rider Emma Lissington pop into the farmhouse to introduce themselves, Emily looks up from preparing the kids’ big dig to welcome the pair. She asks them what brings them to Castlepoint.
“It’s a girls’ weekend away, mostly. A chance to get away, without kids or husbands,” jokes Brosnan, a fresh-faced trainer in her 30s who fondly remembers coming to Castlepoint for a summer holiday more than 20 years ago. Like other trainers, Brosnan says the races give her a chance to prepare her racehorses, Battle Royale and Shockova, for the winter jumping season.
“Well, it’s wonderful to have you here,” says Crofoot, her North American accent still there even after all these years. “You’re welcome back any time.”
Over at the horse stalls, I find Bill Maunsell. Now in his 70s, Maunsell was once clerk of the course and the racing club president. Today, he’s looking dapper in a blue-and-white checked shirt, navy-blue shorts and a faded blue sunhat emblazoned with New Zealand Yachting 2000. An experienced horseman, he grew up riding with his parents, Lucinda and Ray, on Rahui Station up the coast. He hopes his choice of outfit makes it clear he’s a regular punter and not a club volunteer.
“Tell you what,” he says, grinning, his hands in his pockets, “you wear green on race-day and you’ll get roped into all kinds of things.”
Today’s been a beaut, but not every race-day unfolds so smoothly or so reliably. Some years, the races don’t happen at all. They were abandoned for six years from 1900 because horses were needed in the Boer War. They were canned during both World Wars, and again in 1948 because of the national polio epidemic. They only just sneaked in this year before COVID-19 put the entire country into lockdown on March 26. In more recent decades, fierce storms have caused cancellations, because they strip sand from the beach, and the rocky underlayer damages horses’ hoofs. While he was club president, Maunsell called off three race-days.
“It’s tough,” he says. “You go through a whole year of planning, and then all of a sudden the weather doesn’t behave. The wind takes over. Rocks get exposed. We’re not townies here. We don’t just grab some sand from somewhere else and lay it down to look pretty. When the sand’s not there, we don’t race. Simple
The night before race-day, nearly 200 people turned up at the woolshed for the annual Castlepoint Cup Calcutta.
At the Calcutta, bets are placed on horses in the most important of the seven races: the Castlepoint Cup. First, punters enter a raffle for a half-share of one of 12 horses competing in the cup. Then, raffle winners can bid at auction to win the other half of the horse—or sell their half to someone else. People usually form syndicates. By the end of the night, it’s clear who’s in with a chance to win big.
As I walked towards the woolshed in the dark, I could hear the boozy banter before I made out any faces. Inside, the names of tonight’s winning syndicates and their horses were up on a whiteboard. Kāpiti couple Anne and Richard Burston and their friends Terry and Kay Rothery formed a syndicate named TRAK, and successfully bid for Shadow King, a bay gelding trained by the legendary Kevin Myers. A Myers horse has taken out the Castlepoint Cup eight years out of ten.
“We had no idea what we were doing, really,” Richard Burston told me. “We’re staying at the campground and heard about the Calcutta from the managers, so we thought we’d check it out. Kay goes to the races regularly and reckoned we should go for Shadow King based on something someone told her. So we did—for a thousand dollars between us, we’re in to win. It’s been great fun. Fingers crossed. We’ll see how we go.”
Masterton stock agent Johnny Griffith said the strong turnout had boosted the Calcutta’s coffers to record highs. He highlighted a $1250 bid on eight-year-old chestnut gelding Zentangle as a case in point. “I don’t think a single horse has ever fetched that amount before. This year, six horses went for a thousand dollars or more.”
Not everyone was there to gamble, however. Club president Scotty Whitehead’s daughter Hanna, who’s in her early 20s, avoided placing a bet, and instead videoed the madness of the auction. “The Calcutta is one of my favourite nights of the year,” she shouted above the din, showing me the footage. “It’s more of a family event for me, and the chance to catch up with people I haven’t seen in ages. There are three generations of my family here tonight—all farmers and involved in the racing club in some shape or form.”
On a night like this, the woolshed humming with stories and laughter, it was easy to imagine what it might have been like back in the 1870s, when the Castlepoint races were a station hand’s best chance for a flare-up and a gallop on the sand before winter.
“There are a lot of pressures on farming life nowadays. We’re dealing with drought right now,” Hanna said to me. “But there’s other stuff like climate change and a lot of new legislation. Who knows what COVID-19 will mean for us? Events like this make you see this unique way of life is worth holding on to.”