When The Ponies Raced In Kailua

Bob Hogue
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Wednesday - September 07, 2005
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The winners on a long-ago day at the races in Kailua

This month marks the anniversary of a once-popular sport here in Hawaii. It was on Labor Day weekend in 1940 that horse racing made its triumphant return to the island of Oahu.

In a day and age when Seabiscuit and War Admiral were stealing Mainland sports headlines, more than 6,000 fans turned out for 10 races at the brand new Kailua Race Track.

“The race meeting started in sunshine with fans thronging the grandstand and bleachers and stretching out along the rail of the beautiful Kailua course,” read one newspaper account of the day. “At the running of the sixth race, however, storm clouds gathered on the peaks of the Koolaus let go in a sudden squall which brought out umbrellas, slickers, and newspapers and drove some of the spectators to shelter.”

The so-called “Sport of Kings” had been around in Hawaii since the 1800s, enjoyed by Hawaiian royalty and others in the latter part of the 19th century and well into the early part of the 20th century. But there had been a 14-year hiatus on Oahu before the sport reared its head again in Kailua.

Efforts had been made in the Territorial Legislature to allow pari-mutuel betting, and a bill passed in 1940. However, legalized gambling never came to fruition because the measure was vetoed by Gov. J.B. Poindexter.

Still, the Kailua Race Track opened to much fanfare at the beginning of the decade. It was built on an open plot of land near where Oneawa and Kaha Streets are located today - west of Kailua Town and Coconut Grove. The precise location is nearest to what is now Kaimake Loop.

The weekend crowds were large, quadrupling the population of Kailua at the time.

“There are more horses and cows in Kailua than people,” was a popular quip of the day.

And that was true. The 1940 census showed only about 1,600 folks lived in the Windward town. Travel over the two-lane Pali Highway was rigorous, as the Pali and Wilson tunnels wouldn’t be built for nearly two decades.

Nevertheless, horse racing brought sports fans to Kailua, no matter how difficult it was to get there from Honolulu. The races featured some of the best horses in the islands, including prize-winning thoroughbreds.

For example, the winner of the feature race on that Labor Day 1940 was a prize mare of one of Maui’s wealthiest kama’aina families. Mrs. F.F. Baldwin shipped the mare Alice Byrd from

Maui to Oahu in time for the Kailua season. (Horse racing was already a popular pastime on Maui, as well as on the Big Island.)

Alice Byrd, with jockey Kenji Ikeda aboard, won the Mile Free-For-All, as it was called, in a driving finish over Oahu-favorites Kaneohe, Ikaika and Koolau. The winning purse was a whopping $500.

“The crowd roared approval as she strode to the judges stand for the trophy presentation,” reported the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

But there was so much more to a “Day-at-the-Races” than rich people and their thoroughbreds. Newspaper accounts tell of trick-roping demonstrations, cowboy singers and even yodelers to help keep the fans entertained.

It seemed that races were for just about everyone. The fifth race, for example, was for plantation lunas. And the ninth race was a cowboy relay, featuring some of the top paniolo from Kaneohe Ranch and other Windward ranches.

Kailua Race Track was a popular weekend attraction throughout 1940 and 1941, but shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the nearby Kaneohe Naval Air Station, the track closed during World War II. It reopened immediately after the war for a second rebirth of horse racing and continued pleasing crowds until 1952.

For a brief time thereafter, it was used as an auto racing track. But that didn’t last long; Kailua was growing up, and the race track was bulldozed away to make room for single-family homes.

It’s a bit of local sports history that isn’t well-known. Happy 65th birthday, Kailua Race Track. Gone, but not forgotten.

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