Matthew Theunissen is a business reporter

Sheikh comes shopping for NZ bloodstock

New Zealand's thoroughbred horses have caught the attention of one of the world's most powerful men, who has sent a representative to check out the talent at this year's Karaka bloodstock auctions.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the architect of modern-day Dubai, is a major player in international racing and owns the world's largest horse breeding operation, Darley Stud.

The Sheikh has sent his principal bloodstock adviser, John Ferguson, to New Zealand to attend the National Yearling Sales Series, and he's impressed by what he has seen so far.

The sales are the New Zealand industry's premier showcase of racing stock, and the horses on offer can fetch millions of dollars each.

Ferguson told the Herald the world was starting to take notice of New Zealand's bloodstock.

"There are some great pedigrees down here and it makes sense for us to really understand and work with the New Zealand bloodstock industry," he said.

The most telling statistic was that last season in Australia, New Zealand thoroughbreds won 25 per cent of top-tier races, despite accounting for only 5 per cent of the racehorse population, Ferguson said.

"At the end of the day, Sheikh Mohammed's always had a huge respect not only for the horses but for New Zealand generally and has always been very positive about New Zealand as a place."

A colt is paraded for potential owners. The horse is a descendant of the legendary race horse, Frankel. Photo / Nick Reed
A colt is paraded for potential owners. The horse is a descendant of the legendary race horse, Frankel. Photo / Nick Reed

Ferguson, who heads the Sheikh's Godolphin racing organisation, has been taking a whirlwind tour of this country to see some of the top breeding operations ahead of the Premier Sale on Monday and Tuesday.

He wouldn't be drawn on how much Sheikh Mohammed, who Time estimates has a personal fortune of over US$4 billion, was willing to spend in New Zealand.

"We'll see the yearlings on Sunday and then I will consult with Sheikh Mohammed and we will make a plan and decide what action we will take," Ferguson said.

Any horses the Sheikh did purchase would most likely be raced in Australia.

Ferguson said there were three things he looked for when deciding to buy a horse: pedigree, conformation - its body structure - and athleticism.

"You just look them up and down, spend some time with them and get a feel for the individual and then you make your decision."

But the horses on sale have never been in a race, and Ferguson said that no matter how experienced a buyer was, there was no guarantee that paying top dollar would buy a winner.

"At the end of the day you have a process that you go through and if you do it correctly you narrow the odds. But that's not to say you can't make mistakes - you do what you can to minimise those."

Sheikh Mohammed is the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Emir of Dubai.

A rare white Windsor Park stud is paraded at the Karaka yearlings sales. Photo / Nick Reed.
A rare white Windsor Park stud is paraded at the Karaka yearlings sales. Photo / Nick Reed.

He is seen as the man behind modern-day Dubai and its most famous enterprises, including launching Emirates Airlines, constructing the famous Palm Islands, the Dubai International Finance Centre, the Burj Al Arab hotel and the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa.

Ferguson was keen to sing his employer's praises.

"It's been an honour to work for him and he's an extraordinary man when you consider what he's achieved in Dubai and how it's gone from being a relatively small hub to a global city in a lifetime. That's really down to him."

NZ Bloodstock managing director Andrew Seabrook said the Sheikh's interest in New Zealand horses reflected the huge splash they were making in the racing world.

"Racetrack performances and statistics in the major racing jurisdictions of Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore speak for themselves: the Kiwi thoroughbred is in demand internationally and with a limited foal crop, close to 3500 live foals per year, it is a very desirable product," he said.

"[Godolphin] are the biggest yearling buyers in the world, so to have John Ferguson here for Sheikh Mohammed is fantastic."

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum on the fourth day of Royal Ascot in Ascot, England. He has sent his principal bloodstock adviser to New Zealand. Photo / Getty
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum on the fourth day of Royal Ascot in Ascot, England. He has sent his principal bloodstock adviser to New Zealand. Photo / Getty

Other notable people expected to attend the auction include New Zealand's "$660 million man" Brendan Lindsay, who last year sold his Sistema plastics company for that huge sum. Lindsay has long been interested in racing and in 2009 established Lindsay Racing in Karaka, which has more than 80 horses.

Ryman Healthcare co-founder Kevin Hickman is also expected to attend, as is Wellington real estate baron Tommy Heptinstall. Former Black Caps skipper Brendon McCullum might also make an appearance.

Seabrook said the horses went through a rigorous assessment before being auctioned, which could include being x-rayed or probed with an endoscopic camera to check their airways. Their lineage was also rigorously collated.

"They're all 100 per cent pure thoroughbred so all of these horses go back to the three stallions from hundreds of years ago. Every horse is registered and has a family tree just like a person, going back generations and generations."

This year's auction will see 1347 yearlings put up for sale over six days, with about 450 in the Premier Sale on Monday and Tuesday.

One to watch will be a colt by champion racehorse Frankel, unbeaten in his 14-race career. Another Frankel colt sold for $1.3 million at Karaka in 2016.

Last year saw record sales totalling about $86 million, with 979 horses going for an average price of $88,000.

Seabrook said it would be hard to top that figure, but he wouldn't be surprised to see it rise by 5 per cent this year.

But you don't have to be a Sheikh to pick up a horse at the auctions. Seabrook said some could sell for as little as $5000, particularly towards the end of the week.

Buyers to watch:
• Former Black Caps skipper Brendon McCullum is well known for his love of horse racing and is expected to make an appearance
• Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum is sending Godophin chief executive John Ferguson to Karaka on a buying trip
• Brendan Lindsay, who last year sold his plastics company Sistema for $660 million, will be among the crowd
• Other familiar faces include Steve Hansen, Kylie Bax and Prime Minister Bill English, who is set to open the auctions.

By the numbers:
• $3.6m: The most expensive horse ever sold at Karaka, Don Eduardo, in 2000
• $86m: Amount spent at the auctions last year, a record for the event
• $88,000: Average price of a horse at last year's event
• 1347: Number of yearlings going under the hammer this year

- NZ Herald

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