New Zealand has long been recognised as an ideal country for producing thoroughbreds, which thrive in temperate climates and on open pasture. This reputation grew through the shrewd judgement of the earliest breeders in selecting quality bloodlines from Australia and England.
All racehorses have their official birthday on 1 August (or, in the northern hemisphere, on 1 January). July foals are officially classified as yearlings when they are actually less than a month old (unless there is proof the mare was not served before 1 September the previous year), so breeders ensure no foals are born too early. The dates fit normal breeding seasons and provide practical uniformity for races restricted to certain age groups. The New Zealand racing season also begins on 1 August.
The first thoroughbred brought to New Zealand, Figaro, sired the first thoroughbred born in New Zealand, from an English mare imported in 1842. The foal, named Il Barbiere, was a good racehorse and in turn became a significant sire. Horses descended from Figaro made up some of the colonies of wild horses that later roamed in the greater Wellington region. Astute settlers and Māori picked out the best for racing and riding.
Nelson and Canterbury
In the 1840s and 1850s the hub of thoroughbred breeding shifted from Wellington to Nelson, with the arrival of several racing enthusiasts there. Henry Redwood, George Duppa and future premier Edward Stafford imported quality bloodstock. During the next decade Redwood established another large stable at Riccarton, reinforcing the gradual shift of thoroughbred strength to Canterbury. By the 1890s and 1900s, George Stead and Sir George Clifford were the leading owners and breeders in Canterbury.
The king’s horse
Moifaa, owned by Spencer Gollan of Hawke’s Bay, won the 1904 Grand National Steeplechase, becoming the first New Zealand-bred racehorse to win a major event in England. King Edward VII’s own horse Ambush fell, and before the following year’s race, the king bought Moifaa to run in his colours. Unfortunately Moifaa developed respiratory problems, fell in the 1905 event, and failed to win subsequently. He appeared at the king’s funeral in 1910 – not, as has been claimed, as the riderless horse, but ridden by the king’s friend, Major General John Brocklehurst.
Hawke’s Bay and Auckland
At this time, Sir William Russell, John Ormond and Tom Lowry were prominent breeders in Hawke’s Bay. One of the greatest mares bred in New Zealand, Desert Gold, was born at Okawa Stud, Hawke’s Bay, in 1912. Auckland had also become an important centre, with large-scale breeding establishments. Sylvia Park in Mt Wellington was home to the influential English stallion Musket, sire of New Zealand’s first undisputed champion, Carbine.
The first horse sales
By the early 1880s Australians were buying young horses at sales in Auckland – the forerunner of a lasting trend. In 1927 the National Yearling Sales began at Trentham, near Wellington. The following year a youngster destined to become New Zealand’s greatest champion – Phar Lap – was sold to Australia.
Modern stud farms
Studmasters throughout the country have continued to select overseas horses astutely, with limited funds by international standards. The Waikato region has been especially successful, led by Cambridge Stud’s Patrick Hogan. Since 1986 his Irish-bred stallion Sir Tristram and his son Zabeel have been dominant. The most notable sire previously was Trelawney Stud’s Foxbridge, who was champion for 11 consecutive years from 1941. Windsor Park’s Volksraad was champion sire eight times between 2002 and 2010 for New Zealand earnings only. All three stud farms are near Cambridge. The greatest modern mare, Sunline, was also bred in Waikato.
Most stud farms gain fame through successful stallions, but an exception was George Currie’s Koatanui Stud at Whanganui. This was home to the legendary brood mare Eulogy. Imported in 1915, she founded one of New Zealand’s most prolific families, still flourishing in the 2000s.
During the boom period of the mid-1980s, several stud farms listed on the stock exchange, but after the sharemarket crash of 1987 they reverted to private ownership.
Yearling sales are highly sensitive to economic fluctuations and fashions in stallions, but they still provide the main source of earnings – over $88 million in 2011. Many go overseas. While Australia remains the biggest market, in recent years Asia has also become important, for proven racehorses as well as yearlings. In 2017 the Karaka Million for two-year-olds bought at the Karaka Yearling Sales was one of New Zealand's richest races. The other million-dollar race was the Vodafone New Zealand Derby for three-year-olds. Both races are run at Ellerslie.