Owen Hembry

Owen Hembry is the business news editor of the New Zealand Herald

World to spend up large at Karaka auctions

Millions spent after yearlings get their two minutes in the ring.

David Ellis, owner of Te Akau Stud, has a close look at an O'Reilly colt ahead of the Karaka sales. Photo / Richard Robinson
David Ellis, owner of Te Akau Stud, has a close look at an O'Reilly colt ahead of the Karaka sales. Photo / Richard Robinson

Horse buyers from around the world are descending on the National Yearling sales at Karaka in search of the next Phar Lap - some arriving by helicopter.

The furious whirring of a chopper coming in to land gives way to the gentle clip of hooves as horses are paraded for buyers at New Zealand Bloodstock's complex before the 86th auction gets started on Monday.

The frisky one-year-old horses are in rows of more than 800 boxes laid neatly with wood chips. It may smell like a day in the countryside south of Auckland but the yearling auction is big city business - more than $88 millon in turnover last year.

Petrea Vela, co-managing director of sales and marketing at organiser New Zealand Bloodstock, says about 80 per cent of the company's auction turnover is generated during the week.

"This is our harvest," Vela says.

The complex at Karaka covers about 12ha (30 acres), 813 boxes for horses, a sales auditorium with capacity for 1100 people and will catalogue 1444 horses for sale across six days from Monday until Sunday (there is no auction on Saturday).

Each horse gets two minutes in the auditorium, during which vast sums of money can change hands - Don Eduardo fetched $3.6 million in 2000.

"It's always difficult to anticipate how the market's going to behave but we do take a bit of a lead from the other auctions that have already happened around the world and given the uncertainties and challenges in the economy the auction market has actually held up reasonably well," Vela says.

New Zealand horses had had an exceptional season.

"So hopefully that will stimulate demand and we've got the exchange rate in our favour which is great for our international markets so we think we're well placed to capture the demand that will be there and we're hopeful that we might hold up against last year's figures."

At last year's sale more than $48 million of bloodstock was bought by Australian buyers, about $9 million from Hong Kong and more than $3 million from Singapore, with people also coming from as far afield as the UK and Ireland.

David Ellis, owner of Waikato-based Te Akau Stud, has been buying horses at the yearling sale for 31 years.

"The sales this week will see the big names in world racing come to New Zealand ... we've got bloodstock experts from Ireland, England, America, Hong Kong, Singapore, they all come to our sales," Ellis says.

New Zealand horses are in demand on the world stage because they perform well above their weight, he says.

Ellis is expecting a good sale.

"I think people recognise that an investment in a horse is a very good investment, it's safe," he says. "If she's got a good pedigree she's worth big money even if she doesn't win."

Ellis will buy horses for clients of the stud's racing stable, which could be individuals or a syndicate, and on average could pay $100,000 an animal, although about six years ago he paid $2.2 million for one horse.

On the other side of the stable is Curraghmore Stud owner Gordon Cunningham, who will be selling about 41 horses for himself and clients.

Cunningham says the Karaka sale has a standing of huge tradition and success, with facilities and grounds second to none.

"One of the biggest features here is that it stands alone in the facilities that exist for buyers to inspect horses," he says. "It's recognised world-wide as the best sale complex in the world."

New Zealand Bloodstock had made Karaka into an event, Cunningham says.

"They [trainers] know their clients will enjoy coming here and they engage them in the search for the horses and make them part of the whole journey of actually finding your next star, your next race horse."

Vela says the racing industries in the major export markets of Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore were robust and had held up well against the economic challenges.

"So that's certainly held us in good stead but our domestic industry has probably taken a little bit more of a knock and last year we saw that the domestic spend [in the auction] dropped about 30 per cent," she says.

New Zealand buyers spent $24.7 million last year. "We'd certainly love to see that domestic strength improve this year and if it were to fall again certainly we'd be very concerned."

The number of domestic races in 2009/10 was down slightly on the previous season at 3068 but the total prize money paid fell 15 per cent to $49.6 million.

The overall returns to breeders are good but there could not be a successful breeding industry long-term without also a strong domestic racing industry, Vela says.

"I think that there's enough new initiatives in the pipeline that it should be inspiring some confidence within the domestic market so hopefully that will be reflected in the ring."

Hong Kong was a wealthy and restricted industry where, because of the size of the region, they could not have unlimited horses.

"Demand is very high to be racing a horse there, the integrity is very high, they're very, very well supported from a wagering perspective," Vela says.

Australian racing was extremely competitive with good levels of prize money underpinning the industry.

"Those certainly go in our favour, it's important to us that those industries are strong."

International buyers had a high regard for New Zealand horses, which represented about 5 per cent of the racing population in Australia last season but won 31 per cent of the highest level races.

New Zealand was an idyllic environment for breeding horses, with a temperate climate, the right amount of rainfall, space, rich soil and grass that grew on most days of the year, Vela says.

The strength of the New Zealand industry has always been in breeding staying horses - those that can run strongly over a longer distance.

UP FOR SALE

National yearling sales
* 1444 thoroughbred yearlings up for auction over six days.
* $88m turnover in 2011, with $48m bought by Australian buyers.
* $3.6 paid in 2000 for Don Eduardo is a southern hemisphere yearling auction record.
* $1.1b thoroughbred industry contribution to GDP in 2008/09 (including racing).

Thoroughbred racing 2009/10
* $463.9m total bets.
* $49.6m prize money.
* 3068 races run.
* 5794 horses racing.

Pedigree, science, a hunch

In motor racing there's an old adage that if it looks fast it probably is, and much seems to be the case when buying a thoroughbred horse.

Science plays a part in examining a would-be champion but picking a winner is very much in the stockman's eye.

Buyer David Ellis says three things are important when buying a horse, including pedigree and inspection of the athlete.

"And the third most important thing is finding owners for them and paying for them ..."

New Zealand Bloodstock's Petrea Vela's advice - find an expert.

"Different buyers take in lots of different considerations so that's what makes it unique and that's why we're able to sell 1400 horses and not just one or two because everybody's looking for something different."

The science includes looking at the performance of the horse that sired the animal.

"Every now and again you get something that's by a hopeless sire out of a non-performing mare and it might be a superstar," she says.

"So there's this element of art ... as well that keeps everybody trying to stick to their own strategy because they think that their formula might be the one that hits the jackpot."

- NZ Herald

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