The formation of an Auckland horse racing super club to revitalise the struggling industry looks an important step closer even as the sale of Ellerslie's famous steeplechase hill becomes more realistic.
Auckland Racing Club bosses were thrilled with the positive reactions to plans to amalgamate with the Counties Racing Club at their member's forum held in front of 120 yesterday.
The Counties Racing Club held an identical forum last night and members of both clubs will be asked to attend special meetings in late June to vote on the amalgamation.
Ellerslie bosses are forecasting average stake at their track could rise to $100,000 per race inside five years, with 10 races with at least $500,000 on top of the three $1million races held there now.
They would also install a StrathAyr track to provide the region with a world class racing surface while the Pukekohe track will be used for more industry-level racedays as well as have its training facilities developed.
The new mega club, with a working name of the Auckland Turf Club, would have far more scale and therefore the ability rationalise, or sell, some of the enormous real estate holdings alongside the two track in the most profitable manner.
The biggest asset which could ultimately be for sale is the famous steeplechase hill that runs above the Ellerslie back straight and has iconic status among some racing fans even though it is only used for about 10 races a year at its busiest.
The emotional attachment to the hill and jumps racing in general among some in the industry is very real but with so few steeplechase races at Ellerslie and the hill valued at upward of $100million, the reality is selling the most unused piece of real estate in New Zealand racing could enormously help secure the sustainability of thoroughbred racing in Auckland.
Races like the famous Great Northern Steeplechase would most likely be moved to Te Aroha.
"The feedback we got today was fantastic and I think it showed most of our members realise the amalgamation is not only the way forward but something that has to happen," says ARC chief executive Paul Wilcox.
"Yes, that could also mean the sale of the hill which would be a critical piece of the puzzle as far as securing the future of the industry.
"We respect all our member's opinions on that but judging by the tone of today's forum I don't think any potential sale of the hill will be an issue that would halt the amalgamation."
The point may even become a moot one as the advisers Ellerslie is working on about the crucial installation of the StrathAyr track have suggested no jumps racing be held on it, so therefore the hill would become irrelevant.
Members who attended the two forums were also told there would be reduced members fees for five years to allow Counties members to remain members of the new merged club without paying any extra.
For the amalgamation is to go through it will need a 60 per cent yes vote from Counties members at their special meeting and 66.6 per cent from Ellerslie members.
The new mega lub would also work alongside the Avondale Jockey Club, who will retain their name, but are likely to eventually race at Ellerslie from 2026, allowing rationalisation of their assets.
The numbers behind the amalgamation, backed by a independent report from Deloitte, are nearly impossible to argue with, with the new club potentially able to have between $200million and $250million in an investment fund even after the improvement to the Ellerslie track.
The prospect of Ellerslie as the nirvana of New Zealand racing, the track everybody aspires to race their best horses at, with stakes even approaching a $100,000 average, almost sounds too good to be true for most in the battling industry.
But it is realistic, the clubs just need to be given the green light by their members to start down that path.
Pitman reflects on career of grand campaigner
Dual Group One winner Enzo's Lad has been retired after trailing the field home in the Listed Daphne Bannan Memorial Great Easter Stakes (1400m) at Riccarton on Saturday.
The Michael and Matthew Pitman-trained eight-year-old retires sound after a career which spans 50 starts and six seasons, with a record of eight victories and 13 minor placings.
The son of Testa Rossa won the Gr.1 Telegraph (1200m) on two occasions and finished runner-up to Avantage last year.
Michael Pitman credits the grand galloper with providing him with the motivation to overcome life-threatening bowel cancer.
"He is the reason I got through my cancer as well as I did. I know that because I had a huge incentive to keep going," Pitman said.
"He retires 100 percent sound and he will go to a former staff member and she is going to take him on a farm in North Canterbury. It's a forever home and part of the deal is that if he needs to move for any reason, he comes back to us as he has been part of the furniture."
Enzo's Lad also campaigned internationally in Hong Kong and in the UK, providing the Pitman family and the horse's owners with a thrill of a lifetime, at a time in which the Christchurch trainer was gravely ill.
"We got offered the trip to Hong Kong after he won his first Telegraph but I didn't think he was the right horse to go there, "Pitman said.
"After he won his second Telegraph, I thought he was. I called Mark Player from the Hong Kong Jockey Club in the middle of the night to check if the invitation still applied.
"When he ran last in Hong Kong, I said to the guys who issued the invite for us to go to Royal Ascot not to worry about it. I said we'd just go home. The horse didn't race that well right-handed.
"They said 'no way, we want you to come' and it was one of the best experiences of my life.
"I was crook as a dog at that stage of my life. I made a big point of being very accessible to the media to tell my story, because Royal Ascot were just so accommodating to the owners and I."
While Enzo's Lad finished down the track in both the Gr.1 King's Stand Stakes (1000m) and Gr.1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes (1200m), the presence of the Kiwi horseman and the syndicate of owners in the $15,000 purchase added colour to Royal Ascot, best known for pomp and ceremony.
"Each day he raced at Royal Ascot we had our own corporate box alongside the rich and famous, including all of the Sheikhs. You had to pinch yourself," Pitman said.
"All the owners went to Ascot and we got dressed up in our top hat and tails. One owner in the syndicate, who was a tough cookie, had tears running down his cheeks on the last day when it struck him what a monumental occasion it was."
The father and son training combination had thought about pressing on with Enzo's Lad, having had good success with veteran gallopers previously.
"I was very keen on bringing him back to have a crack at the Pegasus Stakes (Listed, 1000m) and the Stewards (Gr.3, 1200m), which we won with El Chico as an 11-year-old, but I cannot rely on the track at Riccarton to be a genuine firm track anymore," Pitman said.
"I have had the favourite for the Stewards in the last two years but both times the track has been irrigated to the extent that it is rain-affected going.
"People asked what it was about Trentham and the Telegraph, but it was just the firmer track and he doesn't like racing right-handed.
"He has been a really good horse the whole way through. He was a colt until he was four-years-old and his record would have been even better had we had firmer ground."