Auckland's newly-formed mega racing club has pushed the button on some of the most significant stake increases in New Zealand racing history and their next big announcement also looks imminent.
Auckland Thoroughbred Racing is the new club formed by the merger of the Auckland Racing Club and Counties, an amalgamation made possible by the near unanimous support of members at special meetings over winter.
ATR was conceived with the hope that by combining assets, with the co-operation of the Avondale Jockey Club, it would eventually be able to boost stakes for the main Ellerslie meetings to levels at least approaching those in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as substantially increase stakes for industry days at Pukekohe.
ATR started down that path yesterday with increases that put their standard Saturday stakes almost 50 per cent above the industry-required minimum for many races.
ATR chief executive Paul Wilcox announced they will be contributing an extra $2 million above what is required to stakes, including a 10 per cent increase for most group and listed races that will mean the club's glamour Karaka Million meeting has a minimum stake of $110,000.
But more importantly to the connections of most horses who will never get to those heights, are the increases to stakes for lower grade races.
Starting November 20, which is Counties Cup day at Pukekohe, stakes for iconic, premier and feature meetings will see R74, R65, MAAT and 3-year-old races at least $15,000 above the industry minimum for such days.
That means rating 65 races at feature meetings rise to $45,000, giving mere one-race winners stakes that would see the winners effectively cover their training bills for an entire season.
Saturday and feature raceday maidens will rise to $20,000 and even the industry days at Pukekohe will now see maiden stakes at $15,000, while R74 those days will rise to $18,000.
"We are thrilled to be able to put this money back into the industry and flow through to the pockets of owners," says Wilcox.
"It is a great start and we want to not only have the best stake money in the country but keep improving to the point where owners think twice about sending their up-and-coming horses to Australia because they can race for such good money here."
Those even higher levels are what Wilcox and his team will aim for after Ellerslie's closure next year for the installation of a StrathAyrtrack, which is likely to see it reopen in late 2023.
By then, ATR should be starting to really see the financial benefits of asset sales or development that could turbo-charge stake increases.
The biggest of those will be the sale of the famed Ellerslie steeplechase hill, a cornerstone of ATR's drive to establish an investment portfolio large enough to make long-term stake increases sustainable.
After a tender process, ATR are in the early stages of negotiations with a preferred partner for the sale or development of the hill land but Wilcox would, understandably, not be drawn on whether any sale figure is north of the $100 million that was being bandied around last year.
The way the Auckland property market has gone, it wouldn't surprise to see the final figure significantly higher, which would go a long way to not only securing the future of major stake increases, but appeasing jumping enthusiasts still mourning the closure of the hill and the end of jumps racing at Ellerslie.
Of more immediate concern for ATR is somehow getting jockeys allowed to compete in the Auckland region so racing can resume at Ellerslie, with the lack of riders living inside
the northern border meaning no racing there since the lockdown.
NZTR are understood to be in discussion with Government officials to have jockeys declared essential workers so they can cross into Auckland, ride at Ellerslie where they can be kept separate from other riders and the public, and then return to the
Waikato without stopping inside the Auckland region apart from the track.
Unless that solution is worked out quickly, meetings like the Ellerslie fixture on Melbourne Cup day are under threat, with long-term fears about the even bigger December meetings.