By Chris McGrath
NEWMARKET, UK–Business as usual? Hardly. But at least things don't feel quite as unnervingly unusual as last year.
At the best of times, breeze-up pinhookers have a precarious window of opportunity. After a long winter of preparation, their horses get a few, fleeting seconds between those timing lasers–and if for any reason they misfire then very few prospectors nowadays, whatever they may claim, will give them the benefit of the doubt. And, unlike with foals and yearlings, there is no second chance. All you can do is put the horse into training yourself, and hope to sell off the track.
On the one hand, then, it was especially hard on this sector that it should have been the first exposed to the terrifying economic uncertainties that accompanied the outbreak of the pandemic this time last year. On the other, you could argue that the resilience and adaptability routinely demanded of its practitioners made them more eligible than anybody, once the time came for the industry to send someone back up that ladder and over the parapet.
The belated resumption of the breeze-up calendar, then, was not just an exercise in damage limitation in terms of their own profit and loss. It also became a gesture of perseverance on behalf of horsemen everywhere. They would absorb the shock and, so long as they could still afford it, they would be back in the autumn to restock.
In the event, that actually proved a somewhat more expensive process than they might have imagined in the summer. But the confidence that had returned to much of the market, by the time of the yearling sales, at least entitles consignors to return to Newmarket on Tuesday with some hope of due reward for their exposure last year.
For all the Covid protocols still to be observed, the Tattersalls Craven Sale is not only restored to its customary slot–having last year been staged the week after Royal Ascot–but coincides with the latest easing in national restrictions. Just to be here, renewing such familiar rituals, heightens a sense that things may finally be getting back onto an even keel.
Yes, the calendar remains in a state of flux, not least given the contrasting Covid picture in France and Ireland. Yet those present for the breeze show were nonetheless heartened to renew one of the most timeless spectacles anywhere on the Turf: the silhouette of a young Thoroughbred pulling up against the horizon of the Rowley Mile. Pandemic or no pandemic, the skylarks remained delirious as ever; and the slow clouds, hanging high in the East Anglian sky, alternated the lingering chill of winter with samples of brighter days ahead.
True, the number of spectators appeared down on years past, but then this is hardly the only environment where remote retail has matured in consumer trust over the past year. Besides, we know how many people nowadays view even breeze videos through a prism of evidence gleaned by their timers, stride-counters and all the rest. Quite how many buyers are still incorporating old-fashioned horsemanship into their shortlisting is another matter. As always, it was fascinating to observe the observers: which agents, for instance, didn't bother to make a single note all morning; and which, equally, sited themselves to pick up any “straws in the wind” as the horses were eased.
Tattersalls, for their part, have assisted the regrouping process by introducing a twin bonus scheme, worth £125,000 to any graduate of the sale who can first win a juvenile race at Royal Ascot; and another £125,000 to any who can first win one of the 15 European Group 1 races open to 2-year-olds. (This would be split in a ratio of £100,000 and £25,000 to owner and vendor, respectively.) Consignors are complimenting Tattersalls on looking to their laurels, regarding this sale, with Doncaster having made such an effective play for the precocious types likely to be ready for Ascot, and Arqana muscling in on pedigrees that might take a little longer but also reach a little higher.
As ever, of course, it all boils down to flesh and blood and the associated roll of the dice. Few consignors ever get a pleasant surprise at the breeze show, and there were the usual cases of stage fright and/or soreness reported here. But at least those are familiar challenges. By the time this sale was eventually staged last year, with many horses sold to regular clientele off the home gallops, a catalogue of 154 had shrunk to 84 in the ring. Of these, 70 sold for a 61,000gns median and 94,993gns average, down from 85,000gns and 121,682gns, respectively the previous year–and from sale records of 110,000gns and 144,082gns in 2017. Yet it was a relief just to get the cycle renewed in some form.
Overall, the salvaged calendar contrived what was generally considered an acceptable return in the circumstances. Many had feared real carnage.
“It was all little bit nervous, to say the least,” recalls Brendan Holland of Grove Stud. “Would there be a marketplace at all? And if so, how would it happen? And not only was there a marketplace, but an amazing increase of about 20% in the amount of individual buyers.”
The clearance rate was strong, too, though it must be said that would prove a trend in every sector, suggestive of a “fire sale” mentality.
“For sure, there was a higher-than-normal level of pragmatism in the valuation of stock,” concedes Holland wryly. “And possibly there was an element, in the increased number of purchasers, of people seeking value as a result. But ultimately it was about the success the horses have had on the track. Even in an uncertain year, that over-rode everything. There was bigger participation than you'd ever have imagined, and that was because the track end is what it's all about. The breeze-up horses are performing consistently at a higher and higher level every year.
“It's so important for the overall health of the industry that our particular part held up, because we're such important investors in the yearling market–and of course that feeds into the foal market, feeds into the mare market. I'm also a yearling seller, so a healthy breeze-up market was as important for me in that way as it was as a breeze-up seller. They're all links in the same chain and thankfully it held up.”
Holland found Book 2 of the October Sale as strong as ever, but did feel that restocking was slightly less expensive elsewhere.
“The other sales, worldwide, were all back a little bit,” he says. “Back by acceptable margins, but still back: it was a little bit easier to buy. Because I think people in the autumn were still in that pragmatic mood, with their valuations, and there was still uncertainty.”
His biggest concern, as an Irish consignor, is that the business has jumped straight from the frying pan of Covid into the fire of Brexit.
“And that, to me, is much more challenging even than Covid,” he argues. “It has different and long-term implications, for the economy and for the ability to do business. Covid will pass. Brexit's not going to pass. You couldn't describe the headaches it's causing, in unnecessary paperwork and cost.”
Routines that Holland has been following for 20 years have suddenly become complicated and expensive.
“I had the Department of Agriculture checking my horses coming here,” he says. “Then we had another check for Doncaster. Because I'm now exporting to a 'third country' outside the E.U., by law they have to check all these horses before they can travel. Brexit is adding costs not just to the British economy but to other economies as well, and there's no gain: only extra cost, extra bureaucracy. People give out about E.U. bureaucracy but it's been replaced by even more.”
But if the goalposts keep moving, then you can fall back on one constant.
“Your job is to produce nice horses,” Holland stresses. “That's what keeps you in business. Your job is not to forecast trade, economies, currency differences. You can't start thinking about things that you have no control over. Producing the horses is what will get you out, in good times and bad.”
Holland himself has started the cycle with familiar challenges. Only three of his original six entries made the journey, thanks to untimely setbacks. One will make another sale, but the other pair will have to go into training. But it's precisely because such experiences are so familiar that this sector has its reputation not only for resilience and adaptability, but also for world-class horsemanship.
“This is an extremely tough way to make a living for many reasons,” Holland reflects. “First of all because you're dealing with something so unpredictable, in livestock. But also because of who you're competing against. When most people go to work in the morning, they're not competing against the best in the world. But we are: every sale we go to, Europe and America. So you just have to make the most of your good luck, and hope that you have a proper card somewhere in your deck. Because some years you won't–and you will always have the other kind!
“It wasn't just our industry that faced challenges last year. It was the whole world. So you just had to be accommodating, had to be flexible. And yes, I'd say we are flexible by nature anyway. When you work with animals, you're being challenged daily, never mind annually. So it was a big deal, but we coped.”