Dave Cannan's Forbury Park memories : "The moment I was hooked"

Former harness racing journalist and author Dave Cannan, who will be among the crowds attending Forbury Park's final meeting tonight, takes a stroll down memory lane.

When a racetrack with a history stretching back 112 years is about to close, it's not hard to get a little sentimental about its demise.

And that's how I feel about Forbury Park Raceway in Dunedin, which holds its last meeting tonight, the latest casualty of the much-debated Messara report.

I'll be there tonight to say goodbye to the place that will always hold a special place in my heart because it's where the first sparks of a lifetime interest in racing were ignited, later to become an all-consuming fire.

I don't have the actual date at hand but I'm guessing it was late January, 1972 when the Dunedin Festival Cup series, for open class pacers, had reached grand final night.

Two years earlier I had started my newspaper career at the Otago Daily Times as a cadet reporter and somehow the racing editor, J.J. "Jack'' Morris had seconded me into becoming his race day assistant.

My jobs were to write down ''the call'' (a race commentary) in a rough short-hand, including the finishing order, shouted out frantically as the horses reached the winning post; work out the favouritisms by adding up the win and place betting sheets provided by the totalisator staff, and then type up the results for publication in the ODT. These days most of it is done by the TAB.

Learning the ropes off ''Uncle Jack'' was transformational. Jack was quite a character, a former top runner back in the 1930s – he had a large photo hanging in his lounge of him training alongside Jack Lovelock and Jim Barnes at Tahuna Park -- and a man who loved his job.

Anyway, on this particular night at Forbury Park all eyes were on a pocket rocket Canterbury pacer named Manaroa, dubbed ''the Ugly Duckling'' because of his roach back and a ratty little tail.

A notoriously bad beginner, Manaroa would often concede huge starts to his rivals and then thrill the fans with his never say die displays of stamina and speed to overcome the odds

And it was no different in the final of the Festival Cup, charging home to win the race for the second time, having done so in 1970.

But now, nearly 50 years later, what I remember most vividly was the huge roar from the big crowd packed into Forbury Park that night as Manaroa turned certain defeat into victory, and then the sustained cheering and applause as reinsman Allan Harrison brought him back to the birdcage.

I sat there in the press benches, soaking up the electric atmosphere, intrigued that a racehorse could provoke such excitement and perhaps looking a bit puzzled because one of the hardened racing scribes tapped me on shoulder and explained with a knowing smile – ''now you've seen a champion!''.

He was right. From that moment I was hooked.

This goose bump moment would recur many times during the rest of my career, watching and/or reporting on a passing parade of excitement machines like Robalan, Lord Module, Popular Alm, Scotch Notch, Scotch Tar, Christian Cullen and, more latterly, Lazarus, to mention but a few.

And as for Forbury Park, well that 1972 Festival Cup was near the end of a era when open class pacers regularly visited the Dunedin track. Arapaho won the race the following year, joining earlier big name winners like Allakasam, Orbiter, Sun Chief and Arania, but the race then disappeared from the calendar.

In some ways the past glories typify the story of Forbury Park, where harness racing first began on November 26, 1909 on what was a reclaimed swamp.

Over the years it would be the scene of many memorable events, such as the match race between New Zealand champion Harold Logan and Australian challenger Walla Walla (May, 1934) when huge crowds packed the venue and cheered the popular Kiwi to a half length victory.

Or the time (January 26, 1961) when racing under floodlights was held for the first time in the South Island, the Forbury club being the third in New Zealand to embrace night trotting (behind Auckland, 1958 and Wellington, 1960) but well ahead of Addington (1963).

Those lights were the key to Forbury Park hosting the 1965 Interdominion championships after the Auckland club turned them down. There were 15,000 fans there to watch Jay Ar and Robin Dundee deadheat for first in the pacers grand final and cheer on Southlander Poupette to an upset win over Aussie champ Gramel in the trotters' final.

Many would argue this was Forbury's finest hour. If so, its long, slow decline towards closure typifies what has happened in harness racing elsewhere in parts of New Zealand.

In my time the all-weather tracks at Hutt Park, Wellington, and Victoria Park, Greymouth, have been shut down and grass track venues Amberley, Hororata and Waimate are long since gone too.

Their demise illustrates the gradual waning in popularity of the sport, caused in part by the advent of live televised coverage, the competing interests of numerous other sports and the diminishing number of crowd-pulling superstars.

Horses like Manaroa, or the champion Noodlum, who made headlines at Forbury Park in 1981 for all the wrong reasons, crashing to the ground when holding a big lead in the Juvenile Stakes. He would return to the track three months later and win another 2-year-old event by six lengths.

For many years the ''Christchurch Star'' deemed racing at Forbury Park was important enough to send me down to Dunedin to cover proceedings. But eventually those trips south were phased out.

In fact, the last time I went to a Forbury Park meeting, two or three years ago, I simply drove my car down to the outside running rail, where many others were parked, wound down the window to hear the commentary and watched the racing.

It was a cold, uninviting winters night and when I did get out for a walk, there was barely another brave soul in sight. The grandstands were virtually deserted and there were no deafening cheers for the winner as the driver saluted the judge. So I left early.

Tonight, I hope, will be much different. Surely the stands won't be so empty as fans past and present turn up to pay their last respects, to say their farewells and to relive the good times from yesteryear. Forbury deserves that one last hurrah at least.

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