Pristine thoroughbred nursery Valachi Downs, in Matamata, has been sold to Lib and Katrina Petagna’s breeding business Elsdon Park.
Kevin and Joanna Hickman quietly built the stud that now operates on more than 600 acres and covers all aspects of breeding and racing, including significant expansions in 2018 with the standing of stallions in a new purposely built station and the acquisition of a private training facility adjacent to the nearby Matamata racecourse.
The transaction, which involves solely the stud operation, completes at the beginning of August to coincide with the new racing season.
Valachi Downs will undertake a final dispersal of its bloodstock via a series of sales managed by New Zealand Bloodstock between mid-June and the end of July, with 20 quality weanlings supplemented as part of the National Weanling Sale at Karaka on June 17.
For Wellington businessman and passionate racing and breeding enthusiast Lib Petagna, it was a case of opportunity knocking at the right time.
“It’s a bit of preparation meets opportunity. I am in Blandford Lodge with Graham and Helen-Gaye Bax,” Petagna said.
“With the number of horses I have collected over the years we were getting too small, so I have been looking for an opportunity to somehow expand.
“When I heard Valachi Downs might be coming available I approached Brent Schumacher, who has been acting for the Hickman family, and suggested there might be something to do there. It has moved rather quickly from there.
“It is about my bloodstock holdings expanding and getting too big for Blandford.
“The Bax family is going to be buying me out of Blandford Lodge, which is a good outcome. It has been a very good partnership over the last eight years.
“My bloodstock portfolio will move over to Valachi come early August. It is a phenomenal property, it is naturally beautiful. Kevin and Joanna have done a wonderful job developing it and hopefully my family can continue the journey with that property.”
Racing fans will be familiar with Petagna’s apple green, dark blue sash and dark blue and yellow striped sleeves and cap silks, worn successfully by the likes of Group One winners Lucia Valentina, Tivaci, Sofia Rosa and Crown Prosecutor, to name but a few.
“Racing is how I got into the business, but I had been breeding a few under the Blandford brand and a few had been going through the Blandford Lodge drafts,” Petagna said.
“That has been increasing. I have kept fillies that I have raced that have kept showing ability. By the time you race a few fillies each year and keep them, the numbers soon start getting up there.
“I think there is about 50 mares going to stallions this year, so it grows rather quickly.”
While the Hickmans have been noted for retaining their fillies, Petagna will have a slightly different business model with a more commercial focus.
“I am expanding breeding and keeping the racing the same, or slightly less. It is a big farm and it has got to pay its way. It is a business, not a hobby, so we will be looking to breed to sell,” he said.
“You always try to keep one or two fillies from the nice families, but they have got to get out there as well and prove their worth.”
Valachi Downs will be rebranded as Elsdon Park, with Petagna, who is of Italian background, and often names his horses as a nod to his heritage, bowing to family pressure when it came to the name.
“My wife decided that (Elsdon Park). It is a suburb of Wellington, so that is how the name came about. I would have been tempted to do something Italian,” he quipped.
While Valachi Downs is set up to house stallions, Petagna has no need to fill the boxes just yet, with a good spread of stallion shares.
“I am a shareholder in Savabeel and I raced Tivaci and Alabama Express, so I have kept 10 percent of those stallions,” he said.
“I have got a few other bits and pieces along the way, but Per Incanto is another that has certainly been very good to me and I hope Ardrossan will do a job too.
“I would look at it (standing stallions) into the future. There is no particular hurry. I have got more than enough shares in stallions at the moment.
“I think the first job is to settle into the property and continue to improve it and see if there are any opportunities down the track with stallions, but it is not on the horizon at the moment.”
Petagna, who part-owns the Wellington Phoenix, has enjoyed a fruitful career in investment banking and funds management, which has enabled him to gradually expand his racing and breeding interests.
“I was involved with a company called Morrison & Co. for a number of years and left there six or seven years ago. I just do my own thing now and more and more in the thoroughbred space now going forward,” he said.
“My father was a weekend punter and I would occasionally go out to Trentham with him. I started racing horses when I was very young, not long out of university when I had my first job.
“I got back into it in the early 2000s. We ended up buying Clean Sweep and she won the New Zealand 2000 Guineas (Gr.1, 1600m).”
Well-regarded horsewoman Kerrie Cox has been appointed General Manager of Elsdon Park, having previously spent 17 years at Waikato Stud, the last eight as Bloodstock Manager.
Meanwhile, Petagna’s long-standing bloodstock adviser Bruce Perry will also be heavily involved.
“Kerrie will be the GM of Elsdon Park. We will be offering a nice draft at Karaka in January. She will be running the operation and Bruce is always involved. He has had a phenomenal impact on the operation. We are running at about a third of stakes winners to runners with fillies and stock he has picked for me, so he has done a great job,” Petagna said.
The astute businessman is bullish about the future of the thoroughbred industry and appreciative of the lucrative opportunities that present given New Zealand’s proximity to Australia.
“Anyone involved in racing is an optimist because there are more downs than ups,” he said.
“I am always optimistic about racing, we know we can breed a good horse.
“We probably need a bit more stallion depth in New Zealand but hopefully there are some promising ones coming through with Almanzor and Tivaci, and the likes of Turn Me Loose are doing a good job now. Hopefully that continues.
“At the end of the day, the main market is Australia and that is where the horses have got to continue to perform. That is where the majority of the buyers are and the majority of the stake money is.
“We are lucky we are close to a booming bloodstock market in Australia, so hopefully we can continue to capitalise on it.” – NZ Racing Desk