It’s been a long time since Andrew Seabrook, the managing director of New Zealand Bloodstock (NZB), witnessed this much positivity from the Kiwi racing industry. In fact, he’s hardly seen it in his 30 years.

“I’ve been in the game that long and never have I seen such excitement and people so enthused about the future and where we’re going,” he told The Straight.

“Hopefully it will rub off on our sale, which starts on Sunday.”

The positive vibes out of Karaka are largely down to the partnership between betting giant Entain and New Zealand racing. In June last year, it was announced that Entain had signed a 25-year partnership with TAB NZ, which would deliver about $NZ1 billion into racing in the first five years alone.

Announcing it was one thing, but this week, just six months into the alliance, the first changes were delivered. New Zealand will get a new $NZ3.5 million slot race next year called The NZB Kiwi, plus a raft of new changes that will deliver nearly $NZ25 million in stakes money across 51 black-type races between January and April.

It’s a shot in the arm for the local product and, particularly in the wake of The NZB Kiwi this week, Karaka is buzzing.

“It’s been amazing how quickly the landscape of our industry here in New Zealand has changed since Entain came into the game mid-last year,” Seabrook says. “The positivity and the vibes just walking around the sales ground now, it’s wonderful. It can’t be underestimated how important that is.”

The NZB Kiwi is the first slot race of its kind in the world that will be age-restricted. 

While The Everest, The Pegasus and The Quokka are open-age, The Kiwi will be for three-year-olds on a new ‘Champions Day’ in March 2025. Since its announcement on Monday, Seabrook has been swamped with enquiries about how to buy a slot.

“What took me by surprise wasn’t necessarily the number of owners and studmasters that were asking about a slot, but the number of trainers. I know for a fact that NZTR (New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing) has already received a number of expressions of interest ahead of the auction (for slots) on February 27,” he says.

Around Karaka, the buzz from Monday’s announcement is everywhere, and the timing of the announcement was also no accident. Seabrook would have been disappointed if The Kiwi had dropped at any other time of year.

The flow-on positivity is a good thing for the 682 horses catalogued in the NZB National Yearling Sale, which will commence with Book 1 on Sunday, because buyer spirit is high and, as a result, so is that of the vendors. Whether that will hugely affect results in this sale remains to be seen.

“I could probably answer that better at the end of next week when the last lot goes through the ring,” Seabrook says. “But if I had to guess, I’d say it might not be one thing (The NZB Kiwi) that will make a difference, but the whole raft of changes that have been promised the last six months. 

“The Kiwi is just another incentive to get involved with racing, and I think what the race might do is encourage people to hold on to their horses for a little longer, maybe not sell so quickly.”

Last year, when the partnership between Entain and TAB NZ was announced, it felt like the fruits of the alliance would be realised quickly. The promises were specific, as were the dollar figures. 

But even Seabrook admits that few were expecting the speed at which the industry-changing announcements were made.

“We were all, everyone in the industry, hoping that it would make an impact, that Entain would make a difference,” he says. “I had talked to Cameron George, the chairman of NZTR, a couple of times and he’d said to me that Entain was going to be great for the game, and he was right.

“That immediate impact has taken everyone by surprise, and a very pleasant surprise. What they’ve done has been done in such a short space of time, and long may it continue.”

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David Ellis, the boss of Te Akau Racing, has been in the industry for a long time and, as one of the formidable buyers in the Karaka landscape (he’s been leading buyer at this sale for the last 18 years), he’s uniquely placed with perspective.

“It’s so heartening to have such capable people running the industry,” he says. “The management of NZTR and the management of Entain, they’re people that make a success of everything they do in their lives, and for them to be so keen on racing is such a thrill.

“We’ve really battled down here but we’re in business now big time. The whole industry is buzzing.”

Ellis made a big splash at Magic Millions earlier this month. He’ll likely do the same at Karaka next week, but if the spring in everyone’s step is sustained around the sale ring, he may have more spirited competition than usual.

Tom Magnier and David Ellis.
Te Akau Racing's David Ellis (right) says the New Zealand racing industry is in good hands. (Photo: Magic Millions)

Brendan Lindsay, studmaster of Cambridge Stud, told The Straight that, speaking to his trainers, they’ve had a lot more enquiries about ownership the last few months since the Entain deal was announced.

“I think we might be looking at a lot of people buying horses that maybe haven’t bought horses in the past,” he says. “Quite a few of the trainers here said they’ve been contacted by people they haven’t heard from before, just off the back of the last six months.

“I think a lot of people were starting to target the Australian races, but you won’t need to do that if you’ve got those races at home, will you?”

Lindsay will send out 36 yearlings for sale next week, and while the Cambridge Stud product has always been elite, thanks in part to the legacy of the late Sir Patrick Hogan, no operation ever turns down new business. 

“It’s been amazing how quickly the landscape of our industry here in New Zealand has changed since Entain came into the game mid-last year” - New Zeland Bloodstock managing director Andrew Seabrook

If Entain’s presence in New Zealand racing is a shot in the industry’s arm, it will be felt in the sale ring.

“Since Entain has got onboard with TAB, racing in New Zealand has changed considerably. There was a 30 per cent increase in stakes alone last year,” Lindsay says. “But there’s been a lot more publicity in the media and, consequently, a lot more awareness. Karaka Millions is sold out on Saturday night.

“For us, the more people that attend the sales with the intention of owning a horse is good, and not just for us but for all vendors. For every horse you sell, you need an underbidder and you need interest. We’re very confident, and most vendors are this year, that the sale is going to be a great success.”

Historically, 60 per cent of Cambridge Stud’s sold yearlings have gone offshore. Lindsay is considering that that figure might be different this year with prizemoney on the rise and rich racing at home in New Zealand.

“We’re hoping that it flips around this year and that 60 per cent will stay onshore,” he says. “The flow-on effect is enormous.”

Is it a renaissance that is occurring in the New Zealand industry? Seabrook thinks so.

“It needed to happen. Six to 12 months ago it was doom and gloom here, not necessarily on the breeding front, but certainly on the racing side. There wasn’t a lot of momentum going on. Stakes money was at a standstill and there wasn’t a lot of incentive to go out and buy a horse.

“The sales have survived to an extent, but take away three, four or five of those big Kiwi buyers and we’ve relied on that Australian market, so the landscape has definitely changed a lot in the last few months. These extra races on the calendar are going to encourage new investors into the game, and the future is bright.”

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If there are any conversations at Karaka right now that aren’t about Entain, they’re about what to expect from the National Yearling Sale. The Magic Millions equivalent this month was typically buoyant, albeit down a few per cent on last year, but Seabrook says any sales company would accept that result in this economic climate.

However, he says NZB was encouraged by the results of its Ready to Run Sale last November, and that bodes critically well for next week.

“If that sale hadn’t done so well, I’d be quite nervous about our yearling sales this year,” he says. “But we had such a fantastic Ready to Run Sale, which was up 40 per cent with an extra $NZ10 million in vendor pockets, that it’s given everyone a little bit of confidence and the pinhookers will be active here.

“I thought the Gold Coast sale held up remarkably well, and I’d like to think that if we can match last year’s figures we’ll be very pleased. It’s hard to say at this stage what impact the recent announcements are going to make, but I’d like to think they will have a positive influence on the sale.”

Last year’s Karaka results returned an aggregate of $NZ82,158,500, which was up $NZ7.7 million on 2022. The combined average was $NZ110,726, which was also up, as was the clearance rate (77 per cent from 75 per cent). The top price was the $NZ1 million filly by Fastnet Rock bought by David Ellis, the first million-dollar filly at Karaka since 2005.

“I’m a pretty conservative person,” Seabrook says. “So I’m cautiously optimistic that we can at least hold last year’s figures.”