The Rowe behind the Rowe Cup

by Don Rae

Friday will see the running of one of trotting's great races but who is the Rowe behind the Rowe Cup?

Along with the Dominion Handicap, the Rowe Cup ranks as one of New Zealand's premier races for the square-gaiters, with Friday's edition being the 105th edition of the great race, after the Australian-bred Whisht - owned, trained and driven by Hawera's Jim Corrigan - won the very first Rowe Handicap Trot in 1918.

John Rowe was probably the Lyell Creek of harness racing administrators in his time. He joined the Auckland Trotting Club (ATC) on its formation in 1890 and after a spell as a committee member graduated to serve as President for nearly thirty years from 1904 to 1933. At a national level, Rowe chaired the New Zealand Trotting Conference 1909-1922 and was Vice-President there until 1933.

Rowe was responsible for introducing the yards system for race handicapping (changing from the seconds-based time system). He initiated it first at Auckland in 1915 and then battled unsuccessfully at the New Zealand Trotting Conference in 1921 losing a vote 15-7. But eventually all clubs took up the yards system.

He also lead a £40,000 project in 1928 to erect a new Members Stand and install an electronic totalisator. The sum was a major sum in 1928 (worth over $4m today) but the new assets proved to be highly successful as was his management of the merger with the Otahuhu Trotting Club in 1930. His final years were spent battling the economic downturn of the Great Depression and fighting bookmakers, somewhat controversially at times, when he referred to them as "human parasites". He also argued against race broadcasts as he thought held that they affected course attendance.

For nearly half a century Rowe was in the engine room of Auckland harness racing but also built a substantial record of public service. Starting on his local school board and other smaller community bodies, he eventually wore the Mayoral Chains of Onehunga 1906-1917 and spent twenty-three years on the Auckland Hospital Board with thirteen of those as Chair. Appointed as a J.P. in 1901, he also counted time on the Auckland Power Board, 40 years (!!) on the Manukau Licensing Committee and 20 years on the One Tree Hill Domain Board, to name a few.

At the ATC, Rowe drove many improvements. It started with his ability to lobby central government effectively to secure more racing permits from which all other benefits logically accrued. More race days meant more races, more stakes, more betting, all of which meant major enhancements to the Alexandra Park track and buildings.

As a measure of the change in scale over which he presided, in 1904 when Rowe first assumed the Presidency £2,777 were paid in stakes over 8 days trotting for the year with £19,000 returned on the totalisator. By 1929 in his twenty-fifth anniversary year, the tote was reached £317,798 with stakes reaching £30,105.

Born in Cornwall, England in 1855, Rowe served an apprenticeship as cabinet and emigrated to New Zealand at the age of 21. He arrived in Nelson on the ship Caroline and after two years, arrived in Onehunga in 1878 where he was to live until his death in 1935.

He soon established his own business in partnership, the firm of Smith & Rowe, which secured many tenders in public works such as the 1883 tender of £1296 to erect the Pukekohe Cheese and Bacon Factory and a new school at Otara in 1884 for the sum of £735. The firm specialised also in building hotels all across the Auckland province and clearly did well enough to enable Rowe the time to contribute so much to public life.

A keen racing man in both codes, he was a member of the Auckland Racing Club for over forty years. While he did race the occasional thoroughbred he curiously never raced a trotter but notably won a race at Ellerslie with a pony called Little Tom that paid £103 as a win dividend.

After over fifty years of sterling public service, John Rowe was finally forced to step down owing to ill health in 1933 but was honoured by becoming the New Zealand Trotting Conference's first Honorary Life Member. John Rowe passed away in 1935 as one of New Zealand's great racing administrators.

Next time when looking at the field for the 2023 Reharvest Rowe Cup, take a moment to consider the name behind the race , and recall a great man who made such an enormous contribution to New Zealand public life.

John Rowe, 1855-1935.

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