Early horse racing
Horse racing with its associated gambling evolved as the colony’s most popular recreational activity. From the late 1870s crowds of over 30,000 could pack major race meetings. Bookmakers ran horse-race gambling until 1880 when totalisators (automated betting systems) began arriving on racetracks. Nonetheless, the bookmakers still dominated racecourse betting until they were banned outright in 1910.
For a time, bookmakers continued to thrive, despite their illegality. Renting rooms on main streets, they covered every race meeting in the country, linked to each other and to their regular punters by telegraph and telephone. This gave them an advantage as totalisator bets could not be placed from a distance.
Sweepstakes were big business at 19th-century horse races. The ‘prince’ of sweepstakes was Wellington barber George North. In 1881 he organised the colony’s biggest sweepstake, worth £4,000 ($624,000 in 2012 terms), on the Wellington Racing Cup. At £1 ($156) a ticket the sweep was quickly subscribed. Soon after, North boarded a steamer to San Francisco with the takings securely tucked inside his waist belt. Punters were angry at the deceit but police could do nothing.
The two decades after the Second World War were the peak of horse-race gambling in New Zealand. There were race meetings every day except Sunday, at any one or more of the 74 racetracks that dotted the country.
From 1921 off-course bookmakers organised themselves through the euphemistically named Dominion Sportsmen’s Association (DSA). The association’s turnover during the 1920s commonly exceeded £5 million per year ($451 million in 2012 terms).
On the racecourse the totalisator became the main source of income for racing clubs. In 1942–43 annual totalisator turnover hovered around £8 million ($653 million in 2012 terms). By 1947–48 it had increased to £24 million ($1,697 million).
Bookmaker profits off the course peaked over the same period, at around £29 million ($2.051 billion in 2012 terms) annually. Many bookmakers flaunted their wealth by purchasing homes in affluent Remuera (Auckland) or Fendalton (Christchurch) and driving late-model American cars.
Partly to counteract the bookmakers’ influence a new government-controlled agency to manage off-course betting was created. The Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) began operations in September 1950, and opened its first agencies in Dannevirke and Feilding on 28 March 1951. They quickly became popular, driving the DSA out of business.
In 1961 the TAB made a net profit of £900,000 ($375 million in 2012 terms). This made it the country’s fifth-most profitable enterprise.
In July 1970, 30,000 punters crowded the Matamata racecourse in queues that stretched more then 50 metres. They were lining up to buy one or more of 65,000 jackpot forms. After six races the sole winner of the $2 jackpot walked away with a staggering $482,687 ($7.2 million in 2012 terms). At that time it was the largest payment for the smallest investment in the nation’s history.
By the 1970s the growth of other recreational pursuits saw race meeting and TAB patronage fall off. In 1972 the government responded by allowing sweepstakes on selected horse races. The country’s first legal sweep since 1908 was run on the New Zealand Racing Cup in November. First prize was $200,000 ($2.5 million in 2012 terms). All 100,000 of the $5 tickets quickly sold out.
Jackpots drew huge crowds to some meetings until the government, frightened by the excesses, limited their amount and then banned them altogether.
By then greyhound racing had been given equalisator status (a temporary betting license). It achieved full tote and TAB betting in 1981.
Gambling on animal fighting has long drawn clandestine crowds. West Coast miners trained fowl (with spurs attached to their claws) to fight in brutal contests until the weaker animal was seriously wounded or killed. Some witnesses were disgusted. Dogs, cats and rats were also put up against each other with equally gruesome results.
New Zealand Racing Board
In March 2003 the TAB merged with the Racing Industry Board to become the New Zealand Racing Board. It controlled all horse and greyhound racing along with the gambling that provided their income.
Other sports betting
The colony’s earliest sporting contests were peppered with gambling. During the 1840s men raced whaling boats, waka, dinghies, scows and skiffs, and bookmakers set odds on the outcomes. On shore the contests involved running races, quoits and skittles, greasy-pole fighting, sack racing and barrow racing.
By the 1860s rifle-shooting, ploughing, wood chopping, bare-knuckle boxing, wrestling, 24-hour walking competitions and even cricket all attracted bookmakers, sweepstake organisers and punters.
Late in the 19th century professional sport flourished and gambling on the outcomes helped sustain its popularity. Cycling and athletics were the most common. Promoters and bookmakers would deceitfully ‘ring in’ less well-performing athletes under assumed names and offer attractive bets on their victories.
Rugby was an amateur game, but it too was permeated by gambling, much of it seditious. Players took bets on the opposition and played poorly. Bookmakers also scoured the sidelines setting odds and taking bets from spectators. Only after they were banned did such practices disappear.
Modern sports betting
In 1996 betting on a wide range of sports was introduced at the TAB. The TAB’s racing television channel Trackside (on Sky Digital and Freeview) began in 1992. In 2009 it was joined by another betting channel: TAB TV (on Sky Digital). In 2012 the TAB also operated New Zealand’s only betting website.