Horse sports and greyhounds
Horse racing began early in the Whanganui region. In the 2010s, the Wanganui Jockey Club was one of the country’s oldest, and there was also a club in Waverley. Clubs formerly based in Marton and Bulls now hold their meetings at Awapuni in Palmerston North.
The region is home to two long-established hunt clubs: Rangitīkei, founded in 1881, and Egmont–Wanganui, which dates from 1894 and is based in Waverley. Polo has been played in Rangitīkei since 1891, and there are several pony clubs in the region.
Two horses trained in the region have won the Melbourne Cup – Wotan from Mangaweka in 1936, and Kiwi from Waverley in 1983.
Hatrick Raceway in Whanganui is the main venue for greyhound racing in the southern North Island.
The Wanganui Rugby Football Union was formed in 1888, and by 1889 included clubs from lower Rangitīkei, Hunterville and Waverley. The Taihape sub-union was formed in 1903, and Ruapehu in 1908. Ruapehu transferred to King Country in 1922 but rejoined the Wanganui union in 1970. Wanganui has dominated the Heartland Championship contested by minor unions since 2006. By 2019 it had won the Meads Cup six times and been the losing finalist on four occasions.
Seventeen All Blacks have been selected from the Wanganui Rugby Football Union, including Moke Belliss, Peter Henderson and Bill Osborne.
Row, row, row your boat
When William Webb successfully defended his world title on the Whanganui River in 1908, thousands of spectators lined the banks, and the race was followed by a flotilla of steamers.
The Whanganui River is a major centre of New Zealand rowing. The area’s clubs have been at the forefront of national competitions and have provided rowers and coaches for New Zealand teams competing overseas. William Webb won the world sculling championship in Sydney in 1907. Prominent later rowers and national coaches have included Clarrie Healey, Peter Irvine, Harry Mahon and Richard Tonks. Simon Dickie and Trevor Coker won Olympic gold medals.
Whanganui’s rowing tradition is evident at local secondary schools. At Wanganui Collegiate it stretches back to 1886. In 2019, ‘Collegiate’ had won the under-18 boys’ national eight-oar race for the Maadi Cup 17 times – five more than the next-best school, Christ’s College.
Women with wings
In 1934 the Wanganui Aero Club’s four women members flew down the coast in their de Havilland Gypsy Moths to meet intercontinental aviator Jean Batten and escort her to Whanganui, then on to New Plymouth and Hāwera. Two of them – Trevor Hunter and Jane Winstone – were among five New Zealand women to serve in the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain in the Second World War. Winstone was killed when her Spitfire crashed in 1944.
One afternoon in late 1911 thousands lined the riverbank at Whanganui as Arthur Schaef from Wellington made three attempts to take off from the river in a three-cylinder seaplane. An aerodrome was developed at Landguard Bluff in 1930, and over 10,000 people watched the North Island air pageant there in 1932. Notable airmen from Whanganui have included Sergeant-Pilot James Ward, the first New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the Second World War, and Air Commodore Alan Deere, renowned as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain.
Cooks Gardens in Whanganui was developed from 1896 as a ground for cricket, athletics, cycling and rugby. Regarded as one of New Zealand’s finest outdoor sporting venues, it made international headlines on 27 January 1962 when Peter Snell set a new world record for the mile – 3 minutes, 54.4 seconds. Extensive upgrading in 1996 included a new state-of-the-art athletics track and an innovative wooden velodrome. Local cyclist Gary Anderson won three gold medals at the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990 and a bronze at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Out of town
Access to remote tracks and hunting grounds improved considerably after jet boats were invented in the late 1950s. Improved maintenance of tracks, walkways and huts has also encouraged greater interest in tramping and walking in Tongariro National Park, Kaweka, Kaimanawa and Ruahine forest parks, and Whanganui National Park. Canoeing is popular on the rivers, especially the Whanganui, and the Rangitīkei is ideal for white-water rafting. For the less active, the homestead and 100 hectares of native forest at Bushy Park are a drawcard.
Development of skiing facilities at Tūroa, above Ohakune on Mt Ruapehu, began in 1962, and a major skifield opened there in 1979.