Racehorse buyers looking for the next champion will spend some $85m at this year’s Karaka yearling sales. Holly Ryan checks out preparations for the big event.

Forty kilometres south of Auckland, 1247 participants are preparing for one of the biggest parades of the year.

Their coats have been shone, hooves polished, manes and tails trimmed and halters cleaned, ready for a week-long event where $85m is expected to change hands.

The horse floats, trucks, Maseratis and helicopters flocking to the area can mean only one thing - it's time for the annual Karaka horse sales, starting from tomorrow.

The south Auckland site is impressive - some 16 hectares of land, nine barns, 821 boxes, manicured lawns and enviable rose gardens. At the centre is the 1000-seat auditorium where the horses are auctioned off.

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Compared with what's to come, the week before the auction is relatively quiet. The occasional neigh and clop of shod hooves on concrete mingle with the sweeping of brooms and the sound of a hoof banging on a stall door.

Trainers and grooms in their stable's uniform - usually a polo shirt with the stud farm's brand - walk horses in front of prospective buyers intent on making a pre-purchase check.

As well as being in peak physical condition, the horses have all been given plenty of care and attention in a bid to impress buyers with deep pockets, and dreams of buying the next Melbourne Cup or Hong Kong Derby winner.

Waikato Stud owner Mark Chittick says his team laugh at him for repeating it, but the two years they spend nurturing a horse all come down to four minutes to show a buyer everything it's got.

"There's the two minutes that [people] look at the horse here before the sale, and the two minutes that it's in the ring," he says. "That's it."

It's easy to spot the serious bidders - mostly in shorts and shirts, clutching an iPad or Karaka sales book, focused on the horses parading past.

For these people, the day is all business. It is a chance to finalise which lots they will be bidding on - although most will already have a good idea of which horses they are hoping to add to their stables.

In a break from examining the way horses move, and trying to gauge their temperament, buyer David Ellis explains what he is looking for.

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"The secret to buying horses is being able to visualise how they will develop from the yearling sales through to when they first go to the races," he says.

"The day you buy them, it is really irrelevant what they look like. What is really relevant is what they look like the day you leg the jockey on for the first time.

"There's horses here that will improve tremendously in 12 months and horses that will look the same in 12 months as today."

Ellis should know. He has been buying horses at Karaka for 30 years for his syndicates, picking his fair handful of winners in that time. The well-thumbed Karaka book in his hand contains notes in the margin on every lot, as well as his own ranking system. Every aspect of a horse is carefully considered.

This process has taken several months, but once he is finished, Ellis knows almost everything he can about each horse on sale, from its parentage to its height, brand and foaling date.

Over the annual sale's seven days, about $85 million will be spent as the 1247 horses go under the hammer.

The horses trotting past or fighting against their handler's lead have come from all over New Zealand, and sometimes from overseas.

New Zealand horses are known in other countries for their staying power - their ability to contest the longer, often more lucrative races.

A statistic repeated by almost everyone around the saleyards is that New Zealand horses make up just 5 per cent of racehorses in Australia, but win more than 20 per cent of the Group One, or major races.

In fact, Kiwi horses have won 30 per cent of all Melbourne Cups in the past 20 years, half of all Cox Plates run in the past 10 seasons, nearly half of Hong Kong Derbies and 60 per cent of Singapore Derbies in the past 15 years.

Despite the impressive statistics, the glitz of raceday and the obvious wealth of some of the more successful breeders and buyers, it is still a gamble. As Chittick says, "it's not all champagne and roses".

"There are massive highs and lows. Massive. And you need to be able to cope with that and be extremely resilient," he says.

"You can quite easily watch a horse you've bred win one of the big races on a Saturday, and that night go and foal one of your best mares and have a dead foal."

Chittick is one of the main sellers at Karaka, with 80 horses in this year's sale, mostly yearlings. With another 120-odd foals already born, he is hoping to sell as many of his yearlings as possible this year to make room for the newbies.

Years of preparation come down to a few minutes at the sale, says Waikato Stud owner Mark Chittick. Photo / Dean Purcell
Years of preparation come down to a few minutes at the sale, says Waikato Stud owner Mark Chittick. Photo / Dean Purcell

A lot of the purchasing is done based on the pedigree of a horse's dam or sire. A Zabeel or Sir Tristram descendant, for example, can easily fetch a seven-figure price tag.

Since 1989, 25 horses have broken the million-dollar mark at the sale - most famously Zabeel colt Don Eduardo, which fetched a record $3.6m in 2000.

Ellis has seen a lot in his day, including some of the big disappointments - yearlings bought for as much as $1m that never win a big race and are relegated to breeding stock based on the name of their sire or dam, rather than their own successes.

On the other hand, a gamble on a no-name or "cheap" horse can pay dividends. Horses Jon Snow and Bonneval, bought for a total of $215,000 at Karaka, won A$2m this season.

Sir Patrick Hogan's famed Sir Tristram was bought for a modest $160,000. He went on to earn his owner tens of millions.

This year will be the last crop of yearlings for Hogan, who last November sold his famed Cambridge Stud for an undisclosed sum to the founder of the Sistema plastics company, Brendan Lindsay and his wife Jo.

For the best heeled buyers, many studs put on events and hospitality before the sale to showcase their horses. At Waikato Stud, Chittick and Australian trainer John O'Shea have for the past 10 years set up an annual show for prospective buyers.

The first year, eight people came on the tour. For this year's sales, a group of 120 Australian visitors toured several of the farms. The group represents about $1b in investment.

"Of the 1200 horses that will be sold over the next week, 70 per cent of them will be going offshore," Chittick says. "So we brought these guys out here to show them New Zealand - the farm quality, the horsemanship and also the hospitality, and off the back of that we just built fantastic relationships."

Australia is the number one purchaser, says New Zealand Bloodstock chief executive Andrew Seabrook.

"Australia has been our biggest market since 1927 and always will be," he says. "Last year they spent $36m, year before they spent $30m, year before $26m and before that $22m so the Australian market continues to grow.

"But what we have seen in recent years is an increase in Asian spending, particularly in, for example, Hong Kong which is our second biggest market. I think they will be really strong this week at the sales."

More and more, however, these foreign owners are not taking the horse overseas, but leaving them in New Zealand to race. The businessman leading the way in this is self-made billionaire Lang Lin, founder of the Inner Mongolia Racing Club.

Lang has spent more than $11m on Kiwi racehorses. Perhaps his best-known purchase has been Melbourne Cup winner Mongolian Khan, which resides in New Zealand at Windsor Park stud.