Juveniles Sparkle On Eve Of Craven

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A 2-year-old breezes for the Craven sale | Alayna Cullen

By Chris McGrath

NEWMARKET, UK–It was enough just to watch the horses pulling up, silhouetted against the East Anglian sky. For even that snapshot of shape and movement permitted no doubt that the breeze-up circuit reaches a new level in the Tattersalls Craven Sale; never mind the way these youngsters stretched through a demanding under-tack show yesterday morning: across the Dip and up the hill, through soft ground and a crosswind.

Several had cost more, as yearling pinhooks, than was realised by the top lots in the first two auctions of the European breeze-up calendar at Ascot and Doncaster. After their dress rehearsal on Sunday, John Cullinan of Horse Park Stud was shaking his head. “We’re going to have to be on our ‘A’ game here,” he said. “That’s the nicest bunch of horses I’ve seen at a breeze-up sale. Every horse a proper job: big, scopey, strapping horses winging past, one after the other.”

Since 2015, graduates of this sale have included 42 individual group or listed winners. Over the next two evenings, however, consignors will be hoping to stem a worrying tide in year-on-year indices at the sales so far staged by Tattersalls Ireland and Goffs UK. Only every other lot was sold at Ascot; and if that improved to three in four at Doncaster, the median still took a hit.

No wonder some consignors are feeling a little queasy as they bring their most precarious punts to market. At least the root problem of overproduction should prove less corrosive here. Cullinan, who has done such good work heading up the Breeze-Up Consignors’ Association, does not want it undone by expanding catalogues as “a dumping ground” for unsold yearlings. Investors, after all, have never had such confidence in the quality and competitive longevity of breeze-up graduates. “Bad horses only devalue our product,” Cullinan stressed. “The sales companies have to limit the numbers coming in, and consignors have to be more discerning.”

Even this catalogue has been squeezed up from 152 to 172, before withdrawals, and accommodates no fewer than 20 rookie sires. Nonetheless, it remains the premier showcase for the format. It was here two years ago, for instance, that Cullinan and regular collaborator Roger Marley sold a colt to Peter and Ross Doyle for 170,000gns. Mehmas (Ire) (Acclamation {GB}) won two Group 2s and was retired to stud within six months of his sale. He had been pinhooked out of Book 2 for 62,000gns.

“Effectively we take 20 per cent of the yearling crop out of the system, sort the wheat and chaff, and put them back into a sale,” he said. “As a result there’s going to be high wastage. The ones that don’t face it, or aren’t sound enough, fall by the wayside; but the ones that are up to the job, we’re adding value to. Pound for pound, I think that makes this a very good value way of buying a racehorse.

“Some of the horses here are obviously going to make big six figures; many aren’t even going to make their purchase price. What they cost [as yearlings] is irrelevant. They’re here now with their drawers down! A lot of the rules when you’re buying yearlings go out the window. If they come up quick, and they’re sound, that’s three-quarters of the story. The pedigree only decides what you’ll pay for it.”

“But a young horse that will come up here and gallop into a headwind at 11 seconds a furlong? If you asked every trainer in this town to send up their smartest 2-year-old, without a lead, there’d be loose horses all over Newmarket. It takes a brave 2-year-old to come up there on its own, not hang, not look around, do his job.”

Paradoxically, Cullinan believes that elite auctions can sometimes be a victim of their own success. “People with limited budgets tend to shop at the smaller sales,” he said. “And I always feel they’re missing a trick. We ourselves will go to Book 1 and try to buy a yearling that falls between the cracks. People coming here to buy the elite horses will expect to pay proper money, but some get left behind and represent very good value.

“Last year we sold only 15 out of 25 through the ring. We’ll take our beating on a bad horse. What’s hard to take is a beating on a good one. We’re not protecting them. But if there’s nobody there to buy them, what do you do?”

The answer, if he and Marley really like the horse, is to keep it in training themselves. That brings its own risks, but their perseverance could yet be rewarded with Future Proof (Ire) (Dream Ahead), who was unsold at Arqana last year but won on debut for Ger Lyons at Leopardstown on Sunday.

Over the years Cullinan has found this medium a reliable signpost to the prospects of a young stallion. Kodiacs, for instance, soon proved to be unusually fast learners. With the sire now in his pomp, Cullinan and Marley are glad to have three in their draft.

“The colt out of Dolly Colman (Ire) (Diamond Green {Fr}) [lot 110] is a five-furlong 2-year-old who can run as soon as he gets a name,” he said. “He’s a lovely correct horse, a typical Kodiac, very fast. The one out of Folegandros Island (Ire) (Red Rocks {Ire}) [lot 122] is a different type, he might get seven. He has a brilliant mind and fantastic stride. And the filly out of Graphic Guest (GB) (Dutch Art {GB}) [132] is very quick. Her dam got injured in the stalls at the Queen Mary. She’s bred to be fast and does what it says on the tin, a ready-made 2-year-old.”

Cullinan also likes a scopey Coach House (Ire) (Oasis Dream {GB}) half-sister to Tasleet (GB) (Showcasing {GB}) [80]. “She’ll be for July onwards but she has loads of talent and the heart of a lion,” he said.

The same will doubtless be required of consignors and buyers alike, in setting their reserves and limits respectively. As ever, that is going to raise a conundrum or two. Cullinan’s draft appeared to be in conspicuous demand during the post-breeze inspections; nearly all, it appears, had indeed been on their “A” game. One or two other respected consignors, in contrast, had been disappointed by horses they rate very highly.

The times, moreover, were evidently pointing towards one or two lots with relatively unglamorous pages. If nothing else, then, we will find out afresh quite how credible are all those protests about the stopwatch only being one factor among many; whether buyers are still capable of taking a leap of faith with the instincts of a trusted consignor.

“The clock is a big part of this game, there’s no point denying it,” Cullinan said. “However it’s only one part of the jigsaw, and I think it’s probably doing a disservice to the buyers to pigeonhole them all that way. Yes, the fast horses are going to make the money. But there’s a lot more trade done below that, so you’ll have guys like Alan King and Anthony Bromley coming here looking for a nice dual-purpose horse. First and second in the 2016 St Leger were breeze-up horses. There is a more discerning market out there now, I believe. People take the overall package into account.”

“Say a horse didn’t handle the ground, or there’s greenness, or jockey stage fright. These things can happen. Your opinion of the horse, before you come to the sale, is usually right—but they can’t always deliver on the day. The thing is that when we sell yearlings, all we can say is that we like the horse on the lunge, his attitude, and so on. But we know so much more about these horses. So vendor input is very important, and your track record of calling it right. That’s the added value we’re giving.”

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