Buckley Capitalizing on Lower Market Pinhooks

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Sophie Buckley | Tattersalls

By Amy Lynam

When Sophie Buckley went to last year’s foal sales, she had a plan. She would buy only high-quality stock.

Operating from Culworth Grounds Farm in Banbury, Northamptonshire, the pinhooker and yearling consignor travelled to the one-day Flat Foal & Breeding Stock Sale at Tattersalls Ireland and bought three foals for €9,000, €4,000 and €6,500.

“Then I went to Goffs, where I couldn’t get one,” Buckley explains. “I spent a whole week shopping with a healthy budget and couldn’t buy a single foal. But I didn’t want to buy one for the sake of it, because you have to always think where you’ll resell it and how much will it make.”

“So then I went on to Tattersalls,” she continues, “My husband was teasing me, because I bought the Fulbright for 2,800gns and the Fast Company for 8,000gns. So he said, ‘I love this strategy of only buying high-end,’ but I said–you have to go with what the market dictates. Last year, when things got tough, everyone’s strategy changed to buying expensive, high-quality stock, but then what happened, in my opinion, is that that sector were making a premium. I’m not a big vendor and you need to be seriously brave to play those games.”

Others would say it takes a different type of bravery to buy a foal at ‘cheap money’ when your aim is to resell in an increasingly selective market. Not Sophie Buckley, though.

“I love that sort of thing,” she says. “I don’t come away thinking ‘Oh, I’ve only spent 2,800gns–no one else wanted it;’ I come away thinking ‘That was a belter, I’ve only spent 2,800gns and I know I’ll be able to sell this.'”

Her bravery paid dividends this October. The Fulbright (GB) became the highest priced yearling by his sire when selling for 30,000gns–not a bad return on 2,800gns, but it was her €4,000 Cable Bay (Ire) colt that really got people talking.

By the Highclere stallion, whose first foals are juveniles this season, he sold as a foal by Touraneena Stud and, at the time, the only winning sibling listed under the first dam had gained his three racecourse successes in the Czech Republic. Fast forward to November 2019, his dam was responsible for three winners from three runners, including the listed-placed Fifth Position (Dark Angel {Ire}). Updates are all well and good, but if the individual does not match up to his pedigree, the importance soon fades.

The bay needed to be a taking type to be catalogued in Book 2, though his final price of 160,000gns paid by Shadwell Stud’s Angus Gold really tells us all we need to know.

Explaining his appeal as a foal, Buckley says, “He was a great foal–there was nothing wrong with him. He was correct, he walked well, he looked straightforward and the Dark Angel half-brother had sold for 68,000gns as a yearling. The mare’s first foal by Mastercraftsman (Ire) had sold for 210,000gns as a yearling, so she had obviously produced some nice horses who had sold well.”

She was also aware of some potential updates, adding, “The consignor told me that the Dark Angel was with Roger Varian and that they liked him. I know that might have amounted to nothing, but it’s better than him being further afield.”

And as for predicting Cable Bay’s early success, she says, “I knew Cable Bay had been well-supported in his first year–I heard the Warrens had sent him some nice mares, so he had a good chance.”

That’s not to say Buckley honed in on a particular stallion.

She quickly points out, “No, I never do that. I’m sifting along the bottom, really, so I pretty much look at everything, unless I’ve had a problem. If people go off something really badly, I will probably take those off the list to look that. Other than that, I don’t mind left-field stallions, and if the foal is a really fantastic individual, I’ll consider anything. I’d probably buy anything, at a cheap enough price.”

Her successful Fulbright pinhook is a good example.

“No one opened the door to him because he was by Fulbright, but the dam was a Group 3 winner and had bred a Group 3 winner,” she recalls. “On top of that, he looked like a fast type of horse, was good-looking and had a great walk. Someone will always buy one of those, once I can get him out the door. I asked to add him to people’s lists [at the yearling sales] and they asked what it was by–I said ‘don’t mind what it’s by–you’ll like it,’ and they did.”

As much as Buckley is keen to recommend, she is also quick to take a hit.

She explains, “I suppose that’s why I go for an individual. Because you don’t want to ask someone to look at your horse, and they’re not a nice type. I would never add a horse to someone’s list if I didn’t think it was worth it. It’s a long game, so I would rather leave it be, because you win some and you lose some.”

Her relationship with buyers is very important.

“For me, it’s all about selling,” says Buckley. “This is my fourth year and I haven’t kept one yet. I think that’s important–that people know they can buy a horse off me. Whatever the price–win, lose or draw–the horse goes through the ring and I don’t own it when it comes out.”

Producing a good-looking yearling really begins at the foal sales, where Buckley aims to find a correct type, who may just need a little help.

“I don’t mind if a foal looks rough,” she explains, “But regarding conformation, they have to have the bare bones there, for me. That’s something I’ve become a lot more ruthless about. I’ve got a really good farrier who works with them from the very beginning. I’m sponsored by NAF, so I work very closely with them. There’s huge benefit in their supplements, especially when some horses need a helping hand.”

Marginal gains, whether they be gained through nutrition or yearling prep methods, are something Buckley constantly references during our conversation. Her inspiration, or comparison, is an unusual one.

“I’ve told this story before, but the British cycling team weren’t very good before,” she says. “Then they got a good guy in who told them it’s all about marginal gains. So they started looking at the tyres, what the cyclists were wearing, they materials of the bike, all that sort of thing–to gain the millisecond that will win them the race. So why shouldn’t it be the same with the horse? So I look at the inside of the horse, the outside, their confidence–all elements. Because races are won and lost by a nose.”

Much of the yearling prep at Culworth Grounds is done looking towards the more distant future, the farm aiming to produce racehorses, as opposed to just sales horses.

“We have them for a short period of time before we send them into the big, bad world. I want someone to get a yearling of mine and think that it’s straightforward,” Buckley says, as she explains her method. “Leading them on horseback gives them the confidence to go out and about, to go alongside another horse which is something they have to do in training, to trot up and down the gallop or around the farm. If they’ve been around the farm, they hopefully won’t be frightened by the big, open spaces of Newmarket, for instance. The idea is to throw them into all sorts of situations, so that when they leave me, they don’t lose their lives.”

“When I lunge a horse, they have to lunge beautifully with balance, in walk and trot, back and forth,” says Buckley, who has a background in showing. “I believe they learn their natural balance in the beginning. Not many of my yearlings will go into canter–only if they’re walking and trotting really well. The idea is that if they’ve mastered the basics well, it will show when they go into the higher gears. Maybe it’s bonkers, but maybe it will be the nose in the finish.”

Going that extra mile shows, judging by Buckley’s next comment.

“[Sir] Mark Todd bought one off me this year and got one of his team to ring me to ask if I’d broken the horse in,” says Buckley. “He got on it and was riding it around the arena within a week–he’s never seen a yearling like it–it’s doing a flying change. That’s what I want, never mind the price.”

Buckley’s lunging theory makes sense when she speaks about her first job in the horse world; working for top dressage trainer Gisela Holstein.

“She’s an amazing lady,” says Buckley. “I was [a] working pupil to her and when she taught you, she wanted the best. When I started with Gisela, she gave me a 45 minute lesson on how to lunge a horse properly–who does that now? I do–I train my staff in. We all sit in a room and watch people lunge. Gisela would say ‘Just move your left hand a little bit to the right,’ and when you did that, you could feel the whole horse change.”

“Then I went to work for the show horse producer Frances Cash,” Buckley continues. “She’s now passed away, but she won Supreme Champion at the Dublin Horse Show seven times. She had a great eye for a horse, as well as producing them. Show horses are a bit like racehorses in that you have to fit them into categories; riding horse, light weight, heavy weight, etc. So you have to train your eye with that in mind.”

Showing was Kildare-born Buckley’s first introduction to horses, her mother a keen fan despite not coming from a horsey background. It was in this competitive sphere that a 16-year-old Buckley got her first taste of polishing a diamond, when producing a pony to be crowned champion at the Royal Dublin Horse Show.

“I think that was the turning point,” she notes. “It becomes a bit of an addiction–once you win once… Although showing is all about the glory–you just get a rosette and 50 quid, but it’s all about finding that horse that is going to be the next champion.”

Her first foray into horse racing and bloodstock came ‘opening doors’ at the sales for Angus Gold and Hubie de Burgh. Having taken a year out at 19, before attending university, she attended sales in England, Ireland, France and the US.

“Angus and Hubie took the time to teach me,” Buckley explains. “They sent me off to look at horses and then went back to look at them with me, which was invaluable.”

Her knowledge of preparing dressage and show horses gave Buckley a sort of an edge when looking at sales horses.

“It was then that I looked at all these yearlings and thought ‘You could do this.’ That was 20 years ago and I think then, the showing world was ahead of the racing world, although now everyone’s caught up.”

Next came university and an MBA, before spending a year in the marketing department at Darley’s UK base. Her dream was still to pinhook, but without a base, or funds, she went down the line of other ‘pinhooks.’

“At this stage, I’d met Charles who I’m now married to,” she says. “I went to London and worked for a gold mining company, as well as doing some property development. Charles worked in property and we sold one really well–a great ‘pinhook.’ That was the deposit on the farm.”

Business hat still on, and with two small kids in tow, the pair built an equestrian facility to rent out and, in time, took back one barn and bought three foals. They sold well and soon it was six.

Buckley’s business acumen is integral to her approach at the foal sales–those who think her ‘cheap’ pinhooks are for some sort of sentimental reason or done on a whim, are very much mistaken.

“I did some statistics last year,” she explains. “I looked at the foals bought at Goffs for €80,000 upwards and only 50% of them made a profit. That’s not good enough for me–I can’t spend €80,000 with only a 50:50 chance I’ll make money. It was actually the €22,000 and under foals that had a 70% chance of making a profit.

“The way I look at it, there will always be trainers buying. They might spend £30,000 on spec, but they can’t spend twice that on spec. So someone has to feed them nice horses. Some people wouldn’t be bothered by the £30,000 horse, but if you buy it cheap enough as a foal, I’m very happy with that.”

If profit isn’t the whole aim of the game, one would be curious to know if the Cable Bay colt is the pinhook Buckley is most proud of.

Smiling, she says, “When I come back to the foal sales again now, I think wow–that was a great achievement. But I probably got as much happiness from watching the Fulbright sell–it was less stressful and there was less pressure.”

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