It is hard to believe that it is 50 years since the first running of the Japan Trophy race at Tauranga racecourse.

What started life as the Bay of Plenty Japan Trophy, is still attracting some of the best horses in the country to the Tauranga track, some five decades later.

In 1971, the international race played second fiddle to the Bay of Plenty Racing Club WFA (Weight for Age) invitation race, that in quick time had become the second most prestigious WFA race in Australasia, bowing only to the Cox Plate in stake money.

The story of the Stars Travel Invitation Stakes started with a passing thought of Glyn Tucker, former Keeper of the New Zealand Stud Book.

Tauranga wasn’t in the frame when Tucker suggested that the Wellington Racing Club invite the three best three year olds and the six best four year olds and upwards, along with the top two South Island stayers to compete at weight for age at Trentham.

However, the idea of an Invitation (WFA) race didn’t seem to impress the Wellington Racing Club officials.

Ian McEwan, who was the livewire Secretary of the Bay of Plenty Racing Club, was quick to take up the opportunity and soon had his committee agree in principle to staging a true WFA Invitation race.

With the race in jeopardy because of lack of finance, the proposal was revived when Bob Owens entered the picture.

Under the auspices of Stars Travel, which was one of Bob Owens companies, the Bay of Plenty Racing Club Invitation WFA race became a reality.

Sadly, the Stars Travel race became just a small blip on the horse racing radar of the country.

From the first Stars Travel Invitation Stakes in 1968, to the last Stars Travel Stakes in 1978, the premier race day at Gate Pa attracted huge crowds and mammoth wagering.

The original concept was a WFA Invitation race over 10 ½ furlong, which became 2100 metres when metrics were introduced.

After 1973 the invitation format was dropped, the race was run over 1600 metres in the last two years.

The winners of the 11 Stars Travel Stakes reads like a who's who of the countries best horses, trainers and jockeys, of the late 1960's through most of the 1970's.

Five-year-old mare Fairfleet, ridden by Melbourne Cup jockey Bob Skelton and trained at Matamata by Russell Campbell, won the inaugural Bay of Plenty WFA feature in 1968. Honour Me, took the second running of the race, defeating Shantung and Auckland and Wellington Cup winner in Il Tempo.

Game, who contested the Stars Travel Invitational on four occasions, won the third event in 1970, while the champion three-year-old Kirrama with Grenville Hughes on top defeated Game and Spectre, twelve months later.

The 1971-72 Horse of the Year in Sailing Home triumphed in 1972, with the only two time Stars Travel winner in Duty Free ridden by multiple premiership winning jockey David Peake, grabbing the honours in 1973.

The dropping of the invitation status in 1974, didn't diminish the quality of the entries, with the bony mare Pegs Pride ridden by Grenville Hughes, defeating two of the country’s best thoroughbreds in Hi Bing and Furies Order.

Duty Free won his second Stars Travel event in 1975, with Happy Union, giving David Peake his second success the following season, the last time the race was run at 2100 metres

There were few better milers of his time than Copper Belt, who had a battle royal to defeat the People's Champion of the time in Grey Way, with the very good mare in Battle Eve running third, when the race was reduced in distance to 1600 metres.

The last Stars Travel Stakes in 1978, resulted in Silver Wraith who was another very good 1600 metre horse, beating Vice Regal and Carlaw.

While sadly the Stars Travel events have long been consigned to history, the Japan Trophy remains a big prize on the annual thoroughbred racing calendar, with its Group two status drawing the best milers to the Western Bay of Plenty each autumn.

Sideline Sid
Sports correspondent & historian