Exclusive: Massive changes for Auckland racing with Avondale track set to close

Auckland’s thoroughbred racing is set for its most dramatic and progressive change in a century in a move that will see Ellerslie upgraded to a world class facility with enormous stake increases.

The Herald understands the Auckland Racing Club and Counties Racing Club are planning to merge, which will be outlined to members today.

And while the Avondale Jockey Club will not be merging but instead retain their identity, their committee is now asking members to agree to close the West Auckland track in 2026 and thereafter race at Ellerslie.

All three clubs will stress to members that proposals are not finalised and the memberships will be widely consulted before plans are actioned.

But in the case of the ARC and CRC it is hard to see the majority of members not agreeing to plans that could double the new merged club’s income in five years, which will enable them to double Ellerslie’s current average race stake of $50,000 to $100,000 inside.

A new merged Auckland-Counties club, which could be called the Auckland Turf Club, would look to install a new StrathAyr racing surface at Ellerslie which would allow at least 40 race days a year at the central Auckland track.

The installation of the StrathAyr track would likely see no racing at Ellerslie for at least one year, probably longer. That would mean keeping Avondale open would be crucial for racing in the city and the northern region.

One of the other key goals, with club bosses believe are very achievable, is staging 10 races a year worth $500,000 and three $1million races.

The Auckland Racing Club already holds three $1million races but only one $500,000 race so that would mean some huge jumps in feature race prize money.

The benefits of a merger between the two clubs, including the dramatic stake increases, are confirmed in an independent reportfrom Deloitte.

“Amalgamation will deliver significantly better returns to the industry than the two clubs continuing independently, hence we recommend the amalgamation proceeds,” states the report.

Under the raft of changes across the industry, the Avondale Jockey Club will still exist as a separate club but will race at Ellerslie from 2026 with their West Auckland track to be potentially sold or developed with some money used for the benefit of thoroughbred racing in the region but some retained to keep the AJC alive and, ultimately, far better off.

An Avondale Jockey Club committee’s recommendation to members says they will ask AJC members to support “in due course a comprehensive asset-sharing plan between the clubs whereby the AJC site (Avondale) is ultimately to be closed.”

That is the first public suggestion from the AJC bosses they are looking at closing their historic facility as was initially suggested in the Messara report and even before.

Powers that could have ultimately forced Avondale’s closure were reinforced in the new Racing Act and the AJC were facing an increasingly difficult task to stay open and retain their racing licences issues by NZTR.

If the members support the AJC committee’s recommendations then the AJC name will never be lost and they will have plenty of money in the bank but be able to race at the world class facility Ellerslie is expected to become.

The prospect of Ellerslie doubling stakes in five years and potentially tripling them in less than 10 years is an enormous shot in the arm for the ailing racing industry which badly needs dramatic stake increases to make racing normal horses even remotely economic.

For the last decade our leading trainers have salivated over skyrocketing stakes in New South Wales and Victoria and while they can aim their best horses at the major carnivals, that is of little help to owners of average New Zealand-trained horses who will only ever race domestically.

Now real change, with a real bottom line boost, could be imminent, coming as a synthetic track at Cambridge is being completed and one at Riccarton started.

Finally there is light at the end of the long, dark tunnel that has been much of New Zealand’s domestic racing away from the carnivals in recent years.

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