Galloping Through Time: The Manco Easter Handicap

28 Mar 2024
Auckland Thoroughbred Racing

Since 1857, horse racing has been a prominent feature here at Ellerslie, firmly establishing our heritage as a cornerstone of New Zealand’s rich thoroughbred racing history.

Among our many group race features, the Manco Easter Handicap has emerged as one of the jewels on our calendar with this year celebrating the 150th running of this time-honoured race.

With the race set to be run as part of our Easter Handicap Day on Saturday 20 April, let’s saddle up and journey through time to explore a chapter of the race’s storied legacy.

The Easter Handicap, first run in 1864, holds the distinction of being one of the oldest horse races in New Zealand. The inaugural race, held on Easter Monday, attracted a crowd eager to witness the prowess of the finest thoroughbreds of the time. The event quickly gained popularity, becoming a staple in the country’s racing calendar.

The crowd in the straight after the Easter Handicap at Ellerslie on 29 March 1902


Over the decades, the Easter Handicap has seen its fair share of legendary moments and outstanding performances.

Horses like Kindergarten (a two-time winner), Tudor Light, Grey Way, Sedecrem, El Gallo, and Foxbridge have left an indelible mark on the race, etching their names into New Zealand’s racing lore.

However, it was a ‘little known’ racehorse by the name of Sleepy Fox for whom the lens is on today.

This was a horse who most certainly did not sleep on the job with the gelding dominating the race an incredible four times in succession in the mid-1940s, earning admiration from fans and experts alike.

While the gutsy gelding has been described by some as not a “champion… but out of the top drawer” of trainer Tom Verner’s stable, there is no doubting his astonishing feat most definitely deserves a spot in the race’s history books.

Sleepy Fox’s journey to Easter Handicap glory began with an unassuming start, with the then three-year-old not placing in the 1943 edition. However, he quickly emerged as a force to be reckoned with when securing a win in the 1944 feature by an impressive five lengths carrying a weight of 8 stone (approx. 51kg in modern day metrics) under the guidance of Joe Williamson.

The following year saw him defy expectations again, this time with jockey Ian Galvin aboard where he shouldered a hefty burden of 9 stone 5 (59.5kg) to clinch the coveted title.

His path to glory, however, was not without its trials.

A trip to Australia that saw initial triumphs in the Canterbury Stakes and Chelmsford Stakes earn him acclaim as a rising star. It wasn’t to be however, with a sudden decline in form leaving him a mere shadow of his former self with commentary on his return home to New Zealand describing the gelding as “like a skeleton”.

Miraculously, just six weeks later, Sleepy Fox defied the odds, emerging victorious in the 1946 Easter Handicap.  A true showcase of the horse’s mettle, he carried a staggering 10 stone 2 (64.5kg) to victory – 20kg more than second placegetter, Prince Revel.

One year later the now seven-year-old horse returned for his fourth and final Easter Handicap victory.  Despite being given 9 stone 13 (63kg), Sleepy Fox rose to the occasion with the race favourite taking out the win and reaffirming his status as perhaps the race’s most beloved champion.

Owned by Eliot Davis in partnership with Oliver Nicholson, president of the Auckland Racing Club from 1933 to 1945, Sleepy Fox’s legacy endures as a testament to the indomitable spirit and unwavering determination that defines the essence of the Easter Handicap.

The Verner name too has lived on with the race, with Tom’s son Ray producing a Turfcutter-Pheroz Jewel quinella in the 1974 edition, and Ray’s son Kerry then training the winner of the 1991 edition with the aptly-named Ray’s Hope before going on to win it again as an owner with Zayyad in 2000.



The 150th running of the Group III Manco Easter Handicap will take place here at Ellerslie on Saturday 20 April 2024.

General admission is free with the first race kicking off at about 12.30pm.

Click here for more information.

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