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On the nod of his head, maybe a wink and an inevitable smile, David Ellis has conducted millions of dollars’ worth of business at Karaka. New Zealand Bloodstock’s arena has long been the Te Akau chief’s favourite domain and with numerous Group 1 reasons.
It’s serious business and the Te Akau chief delights in his pursuit of young thoroughbred talent and off the back of meticulous homework he rarely fails to land his catch. Multiple champions have been secured over the years for an ever-growing number of clients to share in the joy of winning.
“It’s a big team effort, for sure. The preparation for Karaka 2023 started with the release of the catalogue and each night I spend a couple of hours going through the pedigrees,” said Ellis, who has been the leading buyer at Karaka for the last 17 consecutive years.
“The physical inspections start in December and we’ve got a lot of owners that are interested. It’s hard to say how active I’ll be until I see all the horses. That probably drives me most, if I see a nice horse I just want to buy it.”
Ellis has been purchasing at New Zealand’s National Yearling Sale for decades and enjoyed instant success, although not on the racetrack. “I bought my first horse at Trentham in 1984. It was a Sovereign Edition filly that I paid $65,000 for and we sold her for about five times that because the brothers and sisters had done exceptionally well in Australia,” he said. “She improved so much in value, we never raced her so it was a huge result.”
Soon after black type success came Ellis’ way with a daughter of Sir Tristram. “I remember the first stakes winner I bought out of Trentham was Sarah Fay, who broke the track record at Randwick winning the Craven Stakes-Listed,” he said. Sarah Fay, who out of a Sovereign Edition mare, was a $210,000 purchase in 1987 and also finished third in the New Zealand Oaks-G1.
“The first Group 1 winner was in 1986 with Cosmetique (Easter Handicap) and I bought her privately. The last year at Trentham was 1987 and the first at Karaka in 1988 and I’ve bought there every year since. I think all up I’ve had 82 Group 1 winners.
Among his favourites is King’s Chapel, a relatively cheap buy who went on to enjoy a much- decorated career. “I bought him for $35,000 and he became the Champion New Zealand Three-Year-Old, Champion Sprinter-Miler and Champion Weight-For-Age Horse and Horse of the Year,” Ellis said. “He also won the equivalent of the Karaka Million, which in those days was run at Te Rapa.”
Ellis’ purchases have also gone on to success at the end of their racing careers. “We’ve got seven stallions at stud at the moment that we have bought out of the Karaka sale ring, that’s something we’re all pretty proud of,” he said.
Another remarkable purchase, and at just $57,500 in 2016, was the 14-time Group 1 winner Melody Belle. “She won the most Group 1s and then there was Avantage, who won nine, and she sold for $4.1 million, which is still a world record online price,” Ellis said.
Avantage had been a $210,000 Karaka buy while four-time elite level winner Probabeel came with a $380,000 price tag. “Fillies like Probabeel are hard to buy so naturally I’m really proud and I look forward to seeing all their offspring,” Ellis said.
Restocking Te Akau’s Matamata stable is paramount with Te Akau Head Trainer Mark Walker quickly back among the winners since his return from Singapore, now in the talented hands of expatriate New Zealand horsewoman Donna Logan, following Jamie Richards’ departure to Hong Kong.
“The future of the stable is buying nice yearlings and we’re lucky that we have a stable full of top owners who will want to reinvest. It’s exciting times,” Ellis said. “The stables are really going well and with all the big races to come.
“We’ve got a lot of nice horses like Wild Night (a $50,000 Karaka purchase), who won the Sarten Memorial-G2, and he’s coming back for races like the Karaka Million 3YO Classic and we’ve got a lot of nice youngsters for the two-year-old race.
“We trifectaed the Welcome Stakes-Listed recently with our juveniles and Mark still holds the record for the number of two-year-old wins in a season, 22 or 23 it was. Mark had his 100th stakes win in New Zealand when we won the Counties Cup-G3 with Aromatic and considering he’s been out of the country for the last 11 years that’s a pretty big achievement.” The daughter of Sacred Falls was bought by Ellis for $160,000.
Te Akau Racing has also been the dominant force in New Zealand’s richest juvenile event restricted to New Zealand Bloodstock graduates. “We have won the last six Karaka Million 2YO Classics in a row and the first five all went on to win Group 1 races and Dynastic was beaten a nose in the Sistema-G1 and he’s been gelded and will train on,” Ellis said.
Melody Belle started the ball rolling and was followed by Avantage, Probabeel, Cool Aza Beel, On The Bubbles and in 2022 with Dynastic, but their talents went beyond precocity. “Melody Belle was still winning Group 1s as a six-year-old and Avantage was still also winning Group 1s at that age,” Ellis said. “We buy horses that train on and we’ve won three of the last four Counties Cups with horses that we’ve bought at Karaka, we’ve had a lot of success with stayers as well.”
Ellis is acknowledged as one of the most successful and astute racehorse buyers, breeders, owners, and bloodstock consultants in New Zealand with his Te Akau operation employing more than 100 people in New Zealand and Singapore.
Brought up rurally in Pakuranga and a member of the Howick Pony Club, Ellis excelled at school and represented King’s College, Auckland, at rugby, cricket, swimming and rowing. He developed an early love of animals and farming life and also attended Flock House Agricultural College in Bulls. He later graduated with a Diploma Degree in Agriculture, which required three years of practical farming experience, from Massey University.
Ellis subsequently purchased 575 acres in 1979 at Waimai Valley and bought a neighbouring farm in 1982 to develop the 4000-acre Te Akau Stud. His thoroughbred success was acknowledged in 2017 when he was honoured with the Outstanding Contribution to Racing Excellence at the New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing Awards. Three years later, he was appointed as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) in the Queen’s Birthday Royal Honours.
Ellis is married to broadcaster Karyn Fenton-Ellis, who was an inaugural Trackside TV presenter and continued in the role for 26 years. She is heavily involved in Te Akau Racing in specialist areas of communications, client liaisons, marketing, social media, website and co-hosting owners and friends with David at Te Akau Stud.
Like her husband, she has featured in the New Year Queens’ Honours’ List when in 2014 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to the community, to the Arts, and to racing.
“We strive to provide owners with the same emotional thrills of winning that I first experienced many years ago and carry on reliving every time we train a winner,” David Ellis said. “We continue to work with a great team of people and try to do the job better than everybody else.”
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