By Emma Berry
In an ordinary year, the breeze-up consignors, just like any trainer targeting a race, would have a sale date in mind for each horse under their care and work backwards from that date in tailoring the horses' preparation. This year, of course, is anything but ordinary. Along with sweeping date changes to the breeze-up sales calendar, auctions have either been relocated or, in the case of the Osarus Breeze-up, will be held solely online.
Goffs UK and Arqana have taken the sensible approach of moving sales that were due to take place in England and France to Ireland, where 84% of the 330 horses catalogues in those two auctions, are currently based. On Wednesday, Tattersalls, which had already combined its Craven and Ascot Breeze-up Sales to one fixture, announced a further delay until June 23, while the Guineas Sale had already been rescheduled until July 6 and 7, and the Tattersalls Goresbridge Breeze-up Sale will, in theory at this stage, bring the curtain down on the protracted European season on July 24.
Following last Saturday's announcement of two sales companies forging an alliance in times of trouble, Goffs UK and Arqana have come in for much praise for their plans to uproot their traditional settings and head to Naas racecourse for a combined breeze followed, perhaps up to two weeks later, by the actual sale at Goffs in Kildare.
In preparation for a disrupted season, plenty of breeze-up consignors have already taken marketing matters into their own hands, presenting their horses on video via their websites and social media. Johnny Hassett of the Bloodstock Connection has recently launched a daily video blog via his Twitter account. While acknowledging the need to sell the 20 breeze-up horses currently being prepared at his Ballyhannon House Hassett does, however, take a pragmatic view of the current situation.
“It's all about perspective,” he says. “There are people dying around the world and, yes, my racehorse isn't worth as much as he was when I bought him and of course I would like to get on well, but if I got my money back and was going to sales in September or October, that's more than I had when I started.”
But he warns that what happens at the sales over the next few months will have consequences for those staged later in the year.
“The money we get for these horses is going to affect everybody with a mare or a foal or yearling, or whether they are a blacksmith, an exercise rider, or vet or feed man,” Hassett says. “It is critical that the breeze-up men get on well. We buy more horses than Sheikh Mohammed and Coolmore put together. We buy 750 to 1000 yearlings every year and we have to. The customers who race horses don't have to buy one. They could take a year out from the sales.”
John Cullinan, who sells breeze-up horses in conjunction with Roger Marley through their combined Church Farm and Horse Park Stud operation, is one of the leading players in the Breeze-up Consignors Association and is thus at the forefront of the many discussions to have taken place between his colleagues and the sales companies as they strive to find the best solution to a far from perfect situation.
He says, “We're all genuinely conscious of the real world. Life has become very difficult for a lot of people. But I also think there is a genuine acknowledgement of the breeze-ups to the overall market. We spend more than €20 million on yearlings a year so we're significant players.”
Cullinan points to the fact that on the rising tide of the breeze-up sales, pinhookers have increased the quality of the yearlings bought, both physically and on paper.
“The guys and girls have all raised their game and their average spend has increased,” he notes. “There are six-figure sums paid now quite commonly for yearlings to go breezing with. So the stakes are high, and the quality of horse that's coming out of this sector is as well.
“It's not just all about early 2-year olds and hopefully this year, even with the racing season truncated through starting late, a lot of the consignors would have a progressive type of horse who would be on an upward curve later this year and next year.”
Hassett concurs with Cullinan's assessment on the upgrade in quality. He says, “The figures say we spent more last year than ever before. The pedigrees are better. I've got two American Pharoahs, a Night Of Thunder, an Iffraaj. I spent a lot more last year than I did the previous year and it's not just me. Everybody has. We've all moved up a gear. The breeze-up curve was on the up and it's a bit disappointing that this has happened this year. But again I'm qualifying that with the fact that people are dying, which is much more of a concern.”
He adds, “It's admirable the way the sales companies are communicating and cooperating with each other. And the breeze-up lads are more cohesive as a group than other vendors. I applaud the innovation. They are going to breeze and then sell the horses two weeks later which gives people a chance to market their horses online. Because it's different I think it's only logical to think that we are going to make some mistakes the first time we do it. The second time we do it is going to be better than the first time.”
Irish Thoroughbred Marketing (ITM) is of course very keen that the now enhanced breeze-up programme in Ireland runs as smoothly as possible. From originally having just one sale at Tattersalls Ireland, it is now involved with combined Goffs UK and Arqana sale on June 29 and 30. Charles O'Neill, the CEO of ITM, is focusing his team's efforts initially on assisting the vendors, particularly through ensuring that information on their respective drafts is transmitted to ITM's network of contacts across the globe.
“We are working closely with the Breeze-up Consignors Association to help to give a flavour of the horses that will be coming on stream,” he says. “We're also trying to work with various new people in different parts of the world to help us find buyers in the Mid-Atlantic area of North America, people who are interested in turf horses, and the same in the Middle East.
“The important thing is to supply all the information. People need to have the confidence to buy online, and of course breeze-up sales are very different because it's all about the gallop, so we're working on that plan with the guys to try to help them with their videos and to get a package in place.”
O'Neill continues, “First and foremost we hope that all the videos will be going to the sales companies so they can have footage of horses to show, along with the individual websites of the consignors, and we will put them on our website as well. In the last couple of days we had feedback from a couple of English bloodstock agents that they have orders to fill and they have business to do, so there is a bit of positivity, it's not all doom and gloom. Yes it's going to be a different playing field but there are still people out there wanting to buy horses and we have to facilitate that and make it happen.”
Like O'Neill, Hassett is keen that agents have easy access to videos, scopes and x-rays. He says, “The agents are our link to the world economy and they need to be supported with technology as much as we can. As an industry we are blessed in Ireland with the support that we get, from the likes of Brendan Holland and John Cullinan who work tirelessly. They have put together a promotional video and there's a proposal to have standardised conformation shots, films at walk, trot, and a three-quarter speed breeze with all the horses on the same track. Charles O'Neill is playing a blinder, as is John Osborne.”
While the majority of breeze-up vendors are based in Ireland, there are some in England and France, and Mark Grant, now in his third year of preparing breezers, is one who will now have to ship horses to Ireland to sell. The jump jockey is an Irish native but is currently based in Lambourn, where he also runs a pre-training yard with his wife Eimear, who is also ITM's client relations manager.
“Obviously it's not ideal but the goal posts have been moved so many times now and I'm just glad that there's a sale on,” he says. “A sale is better than no sale. Nobody could have foreseen that this would happen.”
Having bought three horses for last year's breeze-ups, Grant has seven horses to breeze in total this season: five for Goffs UK, one for Tattersalls and one for Tattersalls Ireland Goresbridge.
He continues, “It does make sense to hold the [Goffs UK and Arqana] sales in Ireland. Obviously it does make it more difficult for us and it's not ideal to load everything up and go to Ireland but the Irish boys do it every year to come over here, and horses are still travelling so that's fine.
“Goffs and Arqana have had great foresight to have come together and put the sale on. They're doing their best. Obviously we don't know how it's going to work over there and what the restrictions are going to be at the time. To breeze four or five days before the sale is a good idea and it gives people the chance to get two different yards to see horses.”
Having had the majority of his horses almost ready to sell this week, Grant backed off their preparations a couple of weeks ago. He says, “They're just hacking away, and we'll keep doing that until the end of the month. They are all ready I don't need to teach them any more, it's just about keeping a lid on them now.”
Even with substantial revision to the breeze-up programme this season, uncertainty still abounds. People from many parts of the world remain under fairly heavy constraints when it comes to freedom of movement, so dates and formats may yet have to change, particularly if racing does not resume, as hoped for, in the next couple of months.
One of the major roles for ITM, and indeed for the individual sales companies, is welcoming buyers to the sales.
“At the moment the big unknown is whether or not hotels will be open for people to stay in,” says O'Neill. “The English people certainly want to travel and at least that's a major positive. There are a lot of agents in Ireland and I hope they will be working closely with their counterparts around the world to share their information if some of the agents aren't allowed to travel. It can be done—we've seen the sales companies working more closely than ever before.”
John Cullinan confirms that plans are afoot among his fellow consignors to ensure that there's a plan B for buyers if travel is still restricted some sales time. He says, “Given the fact that it's going to be harder to get around to see horses this year, the more information we get out there and the more video footage the better. We have some ideas along those lines and that's what we're planning to do.”
The breeze-up pinhookers have long had a reputation for bravery as well as resilience and this is perhaps summed up best by Johnny Hassett's final word on the matter.
“The goal is to stay alive and to stay in business,” he says. “And if I'm at Book 2 bidding on a yearling I will consider it a big win. I think the odds are good that that's going to happen.”