A race horse stumbled into a 6m-deep sewerage hole which opened up on the track during a race at Ellerslie yesterday sending the animal tumbling and the jockey flying.
Auckland Racing Club officials say it was lucky neither jockey nor horse was killed.
Runners in the seventh race of the day had gone only 400m when Buckles, ridden by Rogan Norvall, suddenly stumbled and fell just behind the leaders.
Norvall landed on his head when the horse tripped as the ground gave way under him but escaped being run over by following runners and was only dazed and bruised.
Buckles suffered only superficial head injuries but when track manager Jason Fulford examined the area he was amazed at how lucky the horse was not to break a leg or even its neck.
Just 30cm under the surface, an old piece of timber had been displaced, exposing an ancient sewerage inspection hole which he measured at 6 metres deep.
"I'm so glad I checked it with only one leg," Fulford said. "If I'd put the weight of both my legs on it, I could have fallen in."
At the bottom of the hole, which appeared to be a metre in diameter, running water could clearly be heard and a metal stepladder was visible descending into the gloom. "I can't believe a racetrack could be built over the top of this," he said.
Stipendiary steward Matthew Williamson said it was unbelievable the hole had remained hidden all this time. "I would have ridden over this area hundreds of times as a jockey."
ARC racing manager Andrew Castles, who called off the final race, said it was likely the old drain had been there for 50 years - long-time staffer Ross Hawthorne estimating it might date back to the 1960s.
"The reason the wooden board has moved is the horse has gone in so far because the ground is the heaviest it's been in years.
"But it's lucky the horse hasn't gone straight into the hole or it could have been in up to its shoulder straight away."
Fulford, who has been at Ellerslie for 15 years, said a similar hole was discovered some time ago and it had been fixed by covering with concrete and a big steel plate.
Castles said it was lucky the incident happened in the second-to- last race of the Ellerslie season.
"We don't race again until August 25. On Monday we'll start a full investigation round there and see if there are any other drains on the old plans.
"We'll come up with a formula for compensating trainers of horses in the last race for travelling expenses and nomination and acceptance fees."
- Sunday Star Times