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Could you race a champion?
In theory, those owners with the greatest resources should have a virtual monopoly on the best horses, but that's just not how the game works!
Tim Barton | April 27, 2021

One of horse racing’s enduring charms is that buying or breeding a racehorse remains an imperfect science.

The first Epsom Derby was run in England in 1780 and since then a lot of knowledgeable participants have spent a lot of money trying to perfect the science - but without success.

In theory, those owners with the greatest resources should have a virtual monopoly on the best horses but that is not how the game works. In the complex but always intriguing world of racing, two and two doesn’t always equal four.

A mating between a top class racemare and a top class stallion will usually produce an expensive yearling but not necessarily a top class racehorse – or even a winner.

There are numerous examples of multi-million dollar yearlings who made little or no impression on the track and of bargain buys who match the best. The pedigree page and the individual can be assessed but with untried horses it is still a case of having to judge a book by its cover.

Certain patterns can be identified and having the resources to operate at the top end of the market is a big advantage. Those operating are that level should find a decent number of good horses, but a champion racehorse remains a largely random result and akin to winning a lottery.

This means that a first-time owner can end up with a horse on par with those raced by the international breeding and racing conglomerates, such as Godolphin and Coolmore Stud.

In New Zealand, small scale owner-breeders, who often also trained their own horses, have played a large part in the racing scene, particularly in rural areas.

Those numbers have dwindled in recent years, but the rising role of syndicates and professional syndicators has enabled novice owners to enter the industry at a relatively modest cost and gain access to industry high-achievers.

An obvious example is current Kiwi star Melody Belle. The champion mare has won more Group I [elite level] races than any other New Zealand-trained horse, since the Group classification system was introduced almost 50 years ago.

There are 37 people involved in the ownership of Melody Belle, including six who had never raced a horse previously, and the biggest shareholders are Waipukurau couple Trevor and Debbie Walters, who have a 10 per cent share.

Melody Belle was syndicated by Fortuna Syndications director John Galvin, after Te Akau Racing’s David Ellis bought the mare for $57,500 as the national yearling sale at Karaka.

Ellis, consistently the major buyer at the national sale, bought 17 horses from the premier catalogue in 2016 and Melody Belle was the second cheapest of those and one of only two who cost less than $100,000.

The sale average for the premier session that year was $176,000, with a median price of $140,000. Which means that the most successful horse of the 316 sold was secured for less than half of the sale average and median.

Melody Belle, already a dual NZ Horse of the Year, nearing the end of her race career, has grossed more than $4.2 million in stake earnings. There should be another multi-million dollars return when she is sold at auction in Australia next month and the experience she has given her owners has been priceless.

The only downside for Melody Belle’s owners is that the mare has set the bar impossibly high for their future ownership ventures!

The likes of Sunline, Bonecrusher, Veandercross, Rough Habit, Tidal Light and Grey Way are among other glamour Kiwi gallopers of modern times who have been gross overachievers based on their initial value.

Sunline, who earned word-wide renown, was leased, sight unseen, by Auckland trainer Trevor McKee, with a $40,000 right of purchase. McKee and his partners in Sunline, Thayne Green and Helen Lusty, exercised the right of purchase after the mare’s sixth win.

Sunline, who retired in 2002, was never beaten in New Zealand and was voted NZ Horse of the Year four times and Australian Horse of the Year three times. She won 32 of her 48 starts, earned more than $14 million in stakes and changed the lives of all of those who were closely associated with the mare.

Bonecrusher, who became a household name in New Zealand in the 1980s, was a $3200 yearling buy and New Zealand Derby winner Tidal Light cost $4250.

Whanganui school teacher Chris Turner owned and trained Veandercross, after paying $1400 for a three in one package. Turner bought the in-foal mare Lavender, with a foal a foot. The foal was Veandercross who won 15 races, ran second in both the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups in 1992, and earned $3.5 million.

Rough Habit, a plain and unfashionably bred gelding, raced in the 1990s, winning 29 races and earning more than $5 million.

Grey Way, who was retired in 1980, won 51 races in New Zealand – more than any other horse – and raced every season from two to 10. He was raced by South Canterbury farmer Peter South who bred the grey gelding after mating Waybrooke, a non-winning mare who had been gifted to South, with local sire Grey William.

Waybrooke was put up for sale when carrying Grey Way but as the biggest offer was less than Grey William’s modest stud fee, South made the fortunate decision to retain the mare.

Mongolian Khan, the only horse since Bonecrusher to win both the New Zealand and Australian Derbies, was sold at auction three times. He made $220,000 as a two-year-old but not before being sold for $9000 as weanling and $140,000 as a yearling.

Gingernuts, another recent NZ Derby winner, fetched $5,000 as weanling and $42,500 as a two-year-old.

Takeover Target, who finished racing in 2009, created one of the great bargain stories in Australian racing.

Takeover Target was owned and trained by Queanbeyan taxi driver Joe Janiak, who paid A$1400 for the horse as an unraced four-year-old.

Takeover Target, who won 21 of his 41 starts and earned more than A$6 million, took Janiak on much bigger journeys than his taxi. The horse made four trips to England and also raced in Japan and Singapore and at his peak was rated the best sprinter in the world.

It just goes to show, anyone can own a champion racehorse, even you!