Then and now; introducing the next generation of thoroughbred racing...

Whatever way you look at it, thoroughbred racing is, as it has always been, a cultural and sporting touchstone that combines spectacle, tradition, socialising and sheer grit that will make the likes of winning a heavyweight championship look… tame.


But, recent years has seen the racing industry come under assault from activists whose ideas have been picked up and disseminated by bloggers and columnists.  When an event like the Melbourne Cup (which draws millions of casual fans who are otherwise uneducated in the world of racing to the television coverage) involves an incident, it attracts unwelcome attention indeed.


But, what goes on behind the scenes?

Imagery from LIFE at the Kentucky Derby: Classic Photos From the Run for the Roses


Like all sports, there is risk and reward involved, but unlike almost any sport in the world, nearly all that motivates those closely involved in thoroughbred racing is an indescribable love for an animal.


Excruciatingly early mornings, hours spent mucking out boxes, and individually-tailored feeding, grooming, training and “care” regimens (yes, there’s such things as horse physios, dentists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, osteopaths and more) paint a considerably less prosaic picture than what sensationalists would have you believe, and speak volumes to the amount of care required to own and race a horse. 


Think thoroughbred racehorses are subjected to having to run around a track at full pace day after day? Think again! Their training regimes usually involve a lot of variety, and fun, like this little guy going for a swim below…


What’s more, the New Zealand thoroughbred, in particular, has an excellent reputation as a sports horse, with many equine owners clamouring to get hold of one once its racing career has finished… as Cambridge-based Gina-Lee Shick’s Event Stars’ thoroughbred rehoming Facebook page, with close to 20,000 fans, would attest. 


I know what you're probably thinking... what credentials do I have to be commenting on the life of a racehorse? Well, for starters I grew up on a stud farm, where sleeping in the freezing cold barn or even a paddock during August and September in case a mare went into foal was commonplace. Where my mother would routinely stay out all night looking after a sick yearling, and, don't even get me started on the work hours... But despite all that, as soon as I turned 17, I knew my ideal summer job was just around the corner at Westbury Stud, where I completed three full yearling preps. 

Me and my favourite yearling, Romancer. 

Horse racing is an industry that often suffers from spectators not being able to see the whole picture. I've experienced first-hand horses in training, enjoying ranging motion, wandering freely in large paddocks often accompanied by friends, and exercising in water, grass, hills, and tracks. When the footing is hard, they slow, when something hurts, they rest. 


So I sat down with a few likeminded people who know the gruelling dedication better than most, who are committed to preserving the decades of history, while also breathing new life into the world of racing. Here is the next generation of thoroughbred racing in New Zealand…



Daughter of two of the biggest names in New Zealand thoroughbred racing, David Ellis and Karyn Fenton-Ellis, Julia-Rose knows her way around the races, and Karaka Yearling Sales, like the back of her hand. Now, she is staking claim to a number of her own entrepreneurial endeavors, including Selfie Station and Neon Signs NZ, all the while remaining committed to her role as marketing manager for her family’s business, Te Akau Racing.  A busy mother of one, she stays true to her racing roots, and is shining new light on the way the sport is presented to the masses… 

What is your earliest horse memory?

When we were four or five my mother and Trackside stalwart of 25 years, Karyn Fenton-Ellis, used to take my sister and me to the Trentham & Teranikau races while she was presenting.


We’d annoy the racecallers & the Trackside (then known as Action TV) team, have the odd “dollar each way” on a horse with a pretty name and feast on a sausage and punnet of chips.


Living the good life, some may say!


I hope to celebrate memories like this with our daughter Lucia-Rose. 


What is your top raceday survival tip?

Doing the form with my husband Hamish who is a form pro (you would have to be to live in our house!) or asking David or Jamie Richards (our stable trainer) for a winner prior to the races.


Being in racing I constantly get asked what’s going to win by my friends - if I knew that every time I would be rolling in it, let me tell you.


The obvious ones like drinking plenty of water, having a big breakfast and having comfortable shoes as you will be on your feet dawn till’ dusk… never ever under any circumstances take off your shoes ladies. 


The racing calendar is always jam-packed for you. What’s your favourite raceday of the year?

I love all of the big carnivals but for me the Karaka Million at Ellerslie is a standout - it helps that we have won this million dollar race for the last three years in a row! It takes place on the eve of the New Zealand Bloodstock yearling sales. There’s massive international interest, great racing and there is always a buzz in the air. The Auckland Racing Club and NZB do a stellar job with this event - It’s an electric evening never to be missed. 


Racing has come under some harsh scrutiny in the last few years… what’s one thing you’d like everyone to know about it?

Please know your facts before holding placards and obstructing people trying to enjoy a day at the races. Often the people protesting have never stepped foot in a stable or racing operation and generally the horses that need the biggest voice are the ones in backcountry paddocks around New Zealand that aren’t involved with the racing industry whatsoever. 

We welcome any people with concerns to come and see our horses at Te Akau Stud or at our stable in Matamata. They are looked after impeccably well and all of our staff have a true love for these equine animals. They get up 
at 3am every morning and love these horses like their own pets, friends of family.


Animal welfare is massively important aspect of our training success and we work hard to help find new homes for our horses after they finish their careers as racehorses.


Like any industry it can often be the 1% that can let everyone down. NZTR and other agencies are working hard at developing strategies for minimising harm from that 1% - and we are massive supporters of this. 


How would you like to see the industry portrayed in the future and how do you think those involved can make it happen?


Perception is everything and I think as an industry we need to be aware of that. We need to work hard to educate industry participants, the public and the mainstream media.


We need to continue to tell positive stories of people and horses - great things happen in racing every day and have done so for the past 100 years and this is what binds our community of people together.


Racing is a family, it was once known as the sport of kings and was very much elitist. We need to change these perceptions, continue to promote our sport to anyone and everyone with open arms. 


Daughter of one of the country’s most well-known jockeys, Lance O’Sullivan, Caitlin, like Julia, is staying true to her horsie heritage. She and sister Georgia are both regulars on the social scene, as well as both being keen riders themselves. Lance has traded in the saddle for the stable, and now is a very successful trainer, and Caitlin is working for The Races NZ…


What is your earliest horse memory?

Riding my first pony, Shorty. He was an 11hh white pony and I thought he was the bee’s knees!


What is your top raceday survival tip?

Don’t wear brand-new shoes! Be sure to ‘break them in’ before hitting the track.


The racing calendar is always jam-packed for you. What’s your favourite raceday of the year?

It’s hard to narrow it down to just one!! I have three favourites, all for different reasons. The Karaka Million at Ellerslie - the atmosphere is just electric; plus their SkyCity Boxing Day Races - from the racing, to the fashion and hospitality, I think it has everything a great raceday should; and Matamata’s Breeders Stakes - it’s our local raceday and always gets a great turnout.


Racing has come under some harsh scrutiny in the last few years… what’s one thing you’d like everyone to know about it?

The level of love and care racehorse receive. From feeding to dentistry work, no stone is left unturned. As my grandfather has always said ‘happy, healthy horses run well’ - their wellbeing is our priority.


How would you like to see the industry portrayed in the future and how do you think those involved can make it happen?

I would like to see it portrayed than more than just a sport and as a lifestyle. Those involved in racing dedicate their lives to it and so much goes on behind the scenes. There’s also no better day out than at the races - I’d love to see the crowds return to the track and enjoy the sport from a social standpoint.


Documenting what goes on behind the scenes and sharing this with the wider public. Our industry cops a lot of criticism from well-intentioned, ill-informed people and it’s about time we stood up for ourselves.


Also daughter to racing-royalty, Trelawney Stud owners, Brent & Cherry Taylor, Gracie – who was the 2017 Jockeys’ World Cup ambassador - is no stranger to a racehorse. Gracie is now living in Auckland and working in the media industry, but she never misses a raceday, and always manages to nail her look…


What is your earliest horse memory?

I was lucky enough to start my equestrian career very early and I had my first pony when I was 3 years old. Her name was Papoose and she was the cutest, loving, chocolate-coloured mare with the gentlest nature. I have always had a soft spot for mares since. 


What is your top raceday survival tip?

Don’t wear brand new heels. Always bring sunglasses and don’t drink too much. 


The racing calendar is always jam-packed for you. What’s your favourite raceday of the year?

I always love the SkyCity Boxing Day Races at Ellerslie. There is a lovely feeling of everyone in the Christmas spirit and most race-goers are on their summer holidays so there’s a relaxed vibe. I also adore Auckland Cup week in the heat of summer. Very exciting and vibrant. 


Racing has come under some harsh scrutiny in the last few years… what’s one thing you’d like everyone to know about it, how would you like to see the industry portrayed in the future and how do you think those involved can make it happen?

Do your research and don’t just re-post anything you see / or believe on social media. The New Zealand racing industry is full of the most hard-working, educated and dedicated animal-lovers I have ever met.