The sun is coming out on New Zealand's near-$1 billion thoroughbred racing industry, out in the cold so long that one of its most successful businesses, David Ellis' Te Akau Racing, came within a nose of going overseas.
The dominant New Zealand buyer at the annual Karaka yearling sales for many years, outlaying more than $80 million, Ellis says he came close to moving his nearly 40-year- old racing and syndication business, which spans the Waikato, Australia and Singapore.
"We were so disappointed in the prize money and the Government's take, take, take," says the racehorse buyer, owner, breeder and bloodstock consultant.
"Big clients wanted us to take our business to NSW and Victoria, and 18 months ago we were very close to it."
But last year the thoroughbred industry found itself with a Beehive champion with real clout - coalition kingmaker and big racing fan, NZ First leader Winston Peters.
As Minister of Racing, Peters wasted no time in alerting Kiwis to the perilous state of the racing and bloodstock breeding industry.
Part of his deal for forming a Government with Labour was that the Provincial Growth Fund would stump up the money for three new all-weather racetracks – expected to cost about $30m in total – and this year he announced new tax rules for depreciation, to promote investment in thoroughbred breeding.
Now there is light at the end of the tunnel, says Ellis, who is also principal of Te Akau Stud, a picturesque 1600 hectare horse, beef and sheep spread on the Waikato's west coast.
Combined, the Te Akau Stud farming operation – which is made up of multiple adjoining properties and hosts up to 150 horses – and the New Zealand and overseas racing stables pull in annual revenue of more than $30m.
Ellis reckons Peters' policies will spawn a doubling of prize money in the next year, rejuvenating interest in racing and breeding. Importantly, he says, breeders will be able to afford much-needed new international bloodlines.
Total prize money for the thoroughbred racing code last year was just over $59m, according to NZ Thoroughbred Racing.
It would have been "a huge loss" to New Zealand if Ellis had decamped, says former Auckland Racing Club chief executive Cameron George, now chief executive of The Warriors.
"The industry can't afford to lose someone like David Ellis and his knowledge, professionalism and expertise," says George. "He's so passionate about the New Zealand racing industry and he not only demonstrates that domestically, but he's very vocal about it internationally."
New Zealand Bloodstock managing director Andrew Seabrook says no one has done more for the industry here than Ellis when it comes to buying young horses, "on spec really", and drawing new people into the sport of kings by selling shares through syndication.
"What he's done for the New Zealand industry is quite incredible. It would be a lot poorer without him."
But now, Ellis is staying put. The punters, he says, are already responding to the new mood of optimism.
"My wife Karyn and I have syndicated 57 horses in the past 11 months and we have over 155 new first-time owners and 800 investors. Horses have never sold so quickly.
"There's a lot of interest in racing – [Auckland's] Soul Bar told me [last month's] Melbourne Cup day lunch was their most packed ever and Ellerslie had a great day. New Zealand Cup day at Riccarton was sold out."
Ellis says former Finance Minister Bill English "certainly didn't get it" when it comes to the thrill and pageantry of racing and its "beautiful animals".
"He was against gambling but he still gave $38m to the Rugby World Cup and he watched the final. There was way more gambled on that than on any race meeting in the history of New Zealand.
"It's called the sport of kings, but it's been anything but in New Zealand. The racing industry is an important contributor to the economy and a huge employer of young people – just in our little business, we employ 85 people full time.
"And we take a lot of tax from those people for the Government. We pay a fortune in GST, also collected for the Government.
"Over the years, all Governments have done with racing is take, take, take."
"Bad management" by the Racing Board has also contributed to the industry's slide over the past decade, he says.
This is forceful talk for Ellis, widely considered a humble, warm and thoroughly genuine chap. He has a horror of being thought a braggart, or anything more than a cog in the Te Akau machine.
Asked why there has been such strong interest in buying shares in Te Akau horses this year, and why the business has been successful, he says it's "probably" due to the stable's string of premiership race wins in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore.
Immediately, he forbids the interviewer from making him sound "all I, I, I" or "showing off".
But the fact is that horses Ellis has purchased have won more than 150 stakes races and he can claim more than 40 Group One race winners.
Horses he has bought for syndication include Maroofity, Warhorse and War Affair, which were champion 2-year-olds in New Zealand and Singapore; Princess Coup and Darci Brahma, champion 2-year-old, champion 3-year-old and champion sprinter/miler - and that's to name only a few.
Ellis bought Darci Brahma in 2004 and the horse went on to win five Group One races and was sold to stud for $10m. He stands at Waikato's Oaks Stud for a $20,000 service fee.
Princess Coup, which notched up more than $4m in prize money, was another example of Ellis' famed "good eye", which allows him to visualise the sort of performer a youngster will grow into.
It's a real gift, say those who know. The way a sleek, showy colt or filly yearling looks in the rarefied atmosphere of the Karaka sale ring usually has zip to do with what it will grow into.
More facts: in the past 18 months there have been five $1m races in New Zealand.
Te Akau horses won two, were placed first and second in another and missed victory in the other two by a nose and half a head respectively.
At Cambridge Stud's final Karaka yearling sale with Sir Patrick Hogan in January, Ellis bought two blockbuster youngsters, seeing off strong international competition to keep the colt and filly in New Zealand.
Ellis paid $900,000 for the filly and the colt topped the 2018 sale at $1.025m.
"We do an enormous amount of homework ... I think people come to appreciate that and want to join us," says Ellis, who is the majority shareholder in Te Akau Racing.
The other shareholders are his wife, industry television presenter and Waikato Racing Club chair Karyn Fenton-Ellis, and trainer Mark Walker, who has worked for Ellis since he left school and heads Te Akau's Singapore operation.
Auckland-bred Ellis has done nicely out of blueblood horses, but he doesn't make a show of it. He says if he'd just stuck with his first passion, farming, he'd have made more money.
"It's very hard with our prize money in New Zealand to charge enough in training fees to make it work financially. But we've been very lucky, we've sold a lot of horses for very big money and that's what's made it profitable.
"We're fortunate we've had so many champion horses - our stable, I think, won about $8m prize money in Singapore and New Zealand last year but I think that will go to another level once these policies of the coalition Government are put in place."
Most of that prize money went into the pockets of the syndicate share owners – the Te Akau business itself gets 10 per cent.
Through syndicates, Ellis brings together hundreds of people who might otherwise have little in common and know little about horses. Strong friendships are forged and romances have blossomed, he says.
And it seems that having a share in the sport of kings doesn't always require deep pockets.
Ellis cites the example of one of his favourite champions, Gingernuts – now retired on the farm. "I paid $42,500 for Gingernuts, who won the (NZ) Derby. A 10 per cent share in him would have cost $4200 plus GST."
Ellis loves hearing the pride of ownership that even the smallest share brings. "Even if they have only a 5 or 10 per cent stake, if it wins they still say 'this is my horse' or 'did you see my horse win yesterday?'.
Shareholders must also pay the costs of racing a horse. "It costs about $35,000 a year to race a horse, so a 10 per cent share means $3500, which is about $70 a week. Each month we either pay the prize money out or they pay us the cost of having the horse."
The three Te Akau shareholders are more than happy to keep any syndicate stakes they don't sell. They back their buying judgement, says Ellis.
He thinks his business strengths are "crossing t's and dotting i's".
Thoroughbred industry people need to be workaholics, Ellis says.
The ability to keep your feet on ground can also come in handy. "Karyn and I try not to get too high after a big win and not too low after a bad day. We try to stay steady.
"It's an industry with a lot of very talented people. There are a lot of very good trainers out there and we have to work very hard to keep up with them and be at the top."
Staying at the top means Te Akau must keep growing and developing. "We'd like to buy more good horses and another farm to put them on. That's how you grow a business like this – with good horses."