King of the Karaka Ring: David Ellis

Date: 24 Jan 2020

King of the Karaka Ring: David Ellis

Reproduced with permission of TDN Australia & New Zealand - -

By John Berry

As Karaka 2020 approaches, TDN AusNZ's John Berry looks back at the career of David Ellis, who is odds on to become leading buyer for the 15th consecutive year.

When the time comes to write the definitive history of racing in New Zealand, one of the characters to feature most prominently will be Te Akau Racing principal David Ellis. Syndicators and bloodstock identities come and go, but Ellis has stood the test of time.

Having first gone to the races in 1971 and owned his first winner in 1978, Ellis owned his first Group 1 winner in 1986 when the Bill Ford-trained Cosmetique (NZ) (Barcas {USA}) landed the G1 Easter H. at Ellerslie under Gary Grylls.

In the subsequent three and a half decades, Ellis has remained one of the game's most significant players to the extent that it would be fair to say that few, if any, have done more to boost the health and promote the international profile of racing and breeding in New Zealand.


The birth of a kiwi giant

Cosmetique's victory fulfilled a dream for Ellis but also spurred his ambitions to greater levels still, giving him the confidence to build up the Te Akau Racing operation into the giant which it has become.

Realising that concentrating on excellence would be the key to attracting the level of investment required to turn Te Akau Stud into the nation's top syndicator, Ellis set up Te Akau Stables in Matamata and made sure that it was run by the best horsemen around.

Roger James, who had been firstly foreman to and then co-trainer alongside Jim Gibbs, was appointed the trainer there, to be followed by former jockey Stephen Autridge. Each had already proven his calibre before joining the Te Akau team but the next trainer was a Te Akau protégé from the beginning.

Mark Walker came to work for Ellis on leaving school, graduating to a foreman's position under Autridge. After the latter moved on, Ellis placed his faith in his protégé, promoting him to the trainer's position, a decision which he has never had any cause to regret.

Walker climbed to the head of the trainers' tree in New Zealand before doing the same in Singapore once Ellis, realising the potentially rich rewards available to investors there consequent to the creation of the new track at Kranji, had decided to create a branch of the Te Akau brand in Asia. The culmination of this intercontinental project came in 2016 when Te Akau Stable won the premiership in both countries, Walker topping the table in Singapore and the Jamie Richards/Stephen Autridge partnership taking the New Zealand training premiership for Te Akau's Matamata stable.


Putting faith in young talent

Jamie Richards is yet another top horseman who has thrived since being given responsibility by Ellis, just as Jason Bridgman had been before him, and he is now the sole license-holder for Te Akau Stables in Matamata. Richards currently holds a clear lead in this season's premiership in New Zealand, with Mark Walker leading the table in Singapore as he bids for a fourth premiership there.


It has been a similar story with jockeys, with top riders to have been apprenticed in Te Akau Stables including Vinnie Colgan and Troy Harris.

Opie Bosson, though, stands out. He started his career there in the 1990s when apprenticed to Stephen Autridge and now, over quarter of a century later, he is still the stable's principal rider. He was on board the outstanding mare Melody Belle (NZ) (Commands) in five of her seven Group 1 triumphs in 2019, culminating in victory in the G1 TAB Empire Rose S. at Flemington on Victoria Derby Day in November; and most recently helped the brilliant 4-year-old mare Avantage (Fastnet Rock) to double her Group 1 tally by taking the G1 JR & N Berkett Telegraph H. at Trentham on Saturday.


Other recent Te Akau stars with whom Bosson is synonymous include this season's G1 Ladbrokes Cox Plate placegetter Te Akau Shark (NZ) (Rip Van Winkle {Ire}) and the ultra-charismatic Gingernuts (NZ) (Iffraaj {GB}) whom he guided to brilliant victories in 2017 in the G1 Vodafone NZ Derby, the G1 Sky Racing Rosehill Guineas and the G1 Windsor Park Plate.


There are plenty of stars in the Te Akau firmament at present but that is, of course, the rule rather than the exception. The past 30 years have seen a regular succession of top-liners headlining the ultra-reliable Te Akau production-line of winners.

"There are plenty of stars in the Te Akau firmament at present but that is, of course, the rule rather than the exception." - John Berry

The Group 1 winners have included Darci Brahma (NZ) (Danehill {USA}), Princess Coup (Encosta De Lago), Distinctly Secret (NZ) (Distinctly North {USA}), Maroofity (NZ) (Maroof {USA}), Kings Chapel (NZ) (King Of Kings {Ire}), Rock ‘N' Pop (Fastnet Rock), Xtravagant (NZ) (Pentire {Ire}), King's Rose (NZ) (Redoute's Choice), Age Of Fire (Fastnet Rock), Hall Of Fame (NZ) (Savabeel), Kindacross (NZ) (Cape Cross {Ire}), Heroic Valour (Fastnet Rock), Sword Of Honour (NZ) (Savabeel) and Embellish (NZ) (Savabeel).

The last-named recorded his biggest win when taking the G1 Al Basti Equiworld NZ 2,000 Guineas at Riccarton in 2017. This victory represented Te Akau's sixth triumph in the race in 14 years and it only narrowly fell short of providing the operation with a Group 1 trifecta: Age Of Fire finished second and Te Akau Shark was beaten only a short head for third.

While Te Akau Racing's overseas ventures basically revolve around its stable in Singapore, it has also dipped its toe into the European market, most obviously with the tough Irish-trained stayer Torcedor (Ire) (Fastnet Rock) whose many good runs in the orange and blue livery included wins in the G3 Coolmore Vintage Crop S. at Navan in 2017 and the G3 Longines Sagaro S. at Ascot in 2018. Later that year Torcedor finished third in the G1 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot and second in the G1 Qatar Goodwood Cup at Glorious Goodwood.


The most notable instance of a Te Akau horse trained in Australia came nearly 30 years ago when Te Akau Nick (NZ) (Grosvenor {NZ}) became the first Group 1 winner trained by Gai Waterhouse by taking the G1 Metropolitan at Randwick in October 1992 and then finished second to the Irish history-maker Vintage Crop (GB) (Rousillon {USA}) in the following year's G1 Melbourne Cup.

Unearthing stars at Karaka

Ellis has bred some of his brightest stars including Cosmetique, Te Akau Nick and Distinctly Secret. However, buying at Karaka has been far and away his most notable method of recruitment. He has been the leading buyer there for well over a decade and doubtless will be making a major impact again next week.

Ellis' assessment of pedigrees and judgement of physical potential is superb, and it is no coincidence that the past three runnings of the Karaka Million have all been taken by Te Akau horses: Melody Belle in 2017, Avantage in 2018 and Probabeel (NZ) (Savabeel) in 2019. They were picked up by Ellis for NZ$57,500 out of the Haunui Farm draft in 2016, for NZ$210,000 out of The Oaks Stud's draft in 2017, and for NZ$380,000 out of the Waikato Stud draft in 2018 respectively.

David Ellis' contribution to New Zealand's racing and bloodstock communities was rightly recognised in 2017 when he received the ‘Outstanding Contribution to Racing' Award during the NZ Racing Awards Ceremony in September 2017. These words from the citation of NZ Thoroughbred Racing Chairman Dr Alan Jackson are worth repeating:

“He has been a racing fan since attending Ellerslie and backing a $30 winner. Today he is a thoroughbred breeder, owner, syndicator, administrator, sponsor, stud master, punter, and operates premiership-winning stables in two countries. He is also a farmer and oversees a large sheep and cattle enterprise that runs alongside the thoroughbred breeding and pre-training operation on a 4000-acre property in the Waikato.

“But his profile probably peaks at the national yearling sales. This ambitious, competitive and passionate man has become the King of the Ring at Karaka. With a nod here and a wink there, he has been leading buyer for the past 12 years and purchased 369 yearlings in that time. More remarkably, he has subsequently syndicated and managed most of those horses, bringing hundreds of new owners into the industry.

"This ambitious, competitive and passionate man has become the King of the Ring at Karaka. With a nod here and a wink there, he has been leading buyer for the past 12 years and purchased 369 yearlings in that time." - Alan Jackson

“He has established successful stables in both Matamata and Singapore… He has become the seller of dreams, highlighting the one true constant in the racing industry: the thrill of racing a winner or, better still, a major-race winner. In many cases those dreams have become a reality for his clients … It has required an enormous amount of work to both establish and maintain such a large operation but the rewards have been outstanding. The name Te Akau has become a global thoroughbred brand and the choice of an army of owners

“In addition, he has made a significant contribution to our industry beyond the track. He is a life member of the Waikato Racing Club, after being a Committee Member for 18 years, including a stint as President, spent seven years on the NZ Racing Conference/NZTR Executive, and has been a member of the NZ Thoroughbred Marketing Board.

“Let me personally assure you he is a colourful and positive individual and forthcoming in his passionate views to improve the industry and sport in New Zealand.”

The achievements of this David Ellis over the past four decades have been truly remarkable. Happily for New Zealand racing, it is fair to assume that there are plenty more chapters still to be written into the story of his massive contribution to the health and prosperity of the sport in his country.”


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