By Kelsey Riley
One year on from the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, each and every individual in the racing and bloodstock realms has been faced with decisions they never wanted to, or dreamed they would have to, make. Those sentiments certainly ring true for the board and management team at Goffs. Faced with enduring national lockdowns and quarantine measures far more strict than those experienced by its competitors and clientele across borders, the Irish auction house found itself constantly returning to the drawing board throughout 2020 and into 2021. A measure of the immense challenges Goffs faced is borne out in the reality that, since the pandemic hit on the heels of its 2020 February Sale, the company has held just one sale as planned, on its original date at its Co. Kildare headquarters.
“Exactly this time last year, the pandemic was just starting but the Cheltenham Festival hadn't happened yet and there was no restriction on moving,” recalled Henry Beeby, chief executive of Goffs Group, which also encompasses Goffs UK headquartered in Doncaster. “We understood it was serious, but I don't think any of us understood how serious it was and how far-reaching its effects would be.”
Beeby said the first revision the company was forced to make was with regards to its annual budget.
“Our financial year is April to March,” he said. “So around this time of year we're signing off on budgets for the next financial year. We had prepared a budget for Goffs for the next year and when the pandemic really hit–so about two or three weeks from now [a year ago]–we said, 'forget that, this is going to be a very different year.' None of us, though, believed it would be as challenging, as difficult, as long-lasting, as far-reaching and as deep as it has proved to be. And it's obviously still not over.
“When we realized that it was serious I essentially took the view, and the Goffs board took the view, that this was a year for surviving, and our primary goal was to survive the 12 months without recourse to outside assistance from shareholders or banks. We set about a rationalization program and a cost-cutting exercise to protect the business as much as we could.”
“The keyword there was survival. The second keyword was adaptability,” Beeby continued. “It was to never say never to anything. To rule nothing in and nothing out. And the usual rules of engagement, whereby we knew we were having a sale on a certain date, it quickly became obvious that wasn't the case for the time being. The Irish government took a very conservative and cautious approach and I've said to many people I don't think it's for any of us in any country to criticize their approach. You elect your leaders and your leaders make their decisions hopefully by having more information than we have. And being a small island, it was imperative that the Irish government protected the population of Ireland as much as they could.”
Survival and Adaptability
One of the first steps of adaptability for survival for Goffs was putting competition to the side and working for the greater benefit of vendors and purchasers with its key rivals, Arqana and Tattersalls.
“The first sales we had were the breeze-up sales,” Beeby said. “We worked with Arqana and we identified quickly that with most of the breeze-up vendors being based in Ireland, we thought we might have to move the Doncaster breeze-up to Ireland. That wasn't then necessary, but we realized it was going to be virtually impossible for Arqana to hold their breeze-up. So I made contact with Eric Hoyeau and we offered to host their sale in Doncaster, which we did. That suited them and it definitely helped us as well because it meant people could come to one place for two very different sales in the same category but two very good sales with strong selling points. I think we both benefitted from that.
“At the same time we were coordinating everything with Tattersalls and I was in contact with Edmond Mahony as my opposite number on a very regular basis. In a normal year we would liaise properly two or three times a year on things like sales dates and veterinary matters or anything that might pop up. But in the last 12 months I've spoken with Edmond far more than I normally would. We're very competitive and we think that's good for the market, but we decided very quickly that our usual rivalries should be put to one side. We obviously wanted to do the best for our own organizations, but we recognized that a collaborative approach to a very difficult situation was absolutely in the best interest of not just Goffs and Tattersalls but of the entire British and Irish bloodstock industry.”
In August, Goffs was at last able to hold a live sale at Kill Paddocks when it staged its Land Rover sale, delayed from June. Beeby paid credit to Horse Racing Ireland's Brian Kavanagh for his role is making that happen.
“We got enormous help from Horse Racing Ireland, and Brian Kavanagh in particular who had a direct link into the department of health and agriculture,” he explained. “HRI have enormous credibility with government, and that's why we work so closely with HRI. We sought to mirror the protocols that are in place at Irish racecourses at our sales. We took a lot of guidance from HRI and Brian and his team on that and they were very helpful.”
“We were able to hold the [Land Rover] sale in a safe and compliant way and it actually exceeded expectations,” Beeby continued. “It was very disappointing that we couldn't have any UK buyers in for that sale but still they engaged online and that's been one of the positives out of the last year, the advent of Goffs Online, which has become an excellent platform. The most credit in the Goffs team goes to Michael Orton, because he did all the technical work on it and was assisted by the likes of Nick Nugent and Joey Cullen. But Michael did a great job and produced a platform that has been universally praised for its ease of use. We've sold over €8-million worth of horses on the platform either via specific timed or live online sales or online where people haven't been able to attend live sales. That's business that otherwise wouldn't have been attainable.”
“It Didn't Work. It Was Disappointing”
The Goffs team, unfortunately, wasn't able to bask in the relief of a successful sale for long before it was faced with some difficult decisions regarding its flagship Orby Yearling Sale. Strict quarantine protocols for visitors to Ireland threatened to throw a wrench into the jam-packed international yearling sale calendar, and when speaking with Beeby about the company's choice to move the Orby-and the Sportsman's Yearling Sale–to Doncaster, one is left with no doubt that it wasn't only a complicated business decision, but an excruciating personal one. “The Orby Sale's traditional title is the Irish National Yearling Sale,” Beeby said. “It's a huge event in the bloodstock world, a major European yearling sale, but to the country of Ireland and Irish bloodstock it's our flagship event. For Goffs, it's our most high-profile and highest-earning sale, and it was a very difficult decision to move it. There were suggestions from some that we should move it to Newmarket and Tattersalls, and Edmond [Mahony] very kindly said he would accommodate the two-day Orby sale-he wouldn't be able to accommodate the Sportsman's Sale in Newmarket, and there were some people who thought we should have taken that option. I think, with the benefit of hindsight, there is no doubt there were some people who thought we made a mistake by not going to Newmarket when we couldn't hold it in Ireland. We'll never know. I know some people felt that was an error, and I'm sorry people felt let down.”
After seven consecutive years with an average of €100,000-plus and a seven-figure top lot, the 2021 Orby Sale at Doncaster-which also suffered the blow of a few high-profile withdrawals-returned an average of £67,981 (down 35% from 2019) and a median of £47,000 (-18%) from 311 yearlings sold, with a top price of £450,000. The aggregate, at £21,142,000, was down 44%.
“History tells us the Orby Sale was not a success,” Beeby said. “Irrelative to previous very vibrant renewals of the Orby Sale, it didn't return the trade that we're used to. Some vendors were very disappointed and upset and I completely understand that. It was a very hard time for everybody and it was very upsetting primarily for the vendors but also for us. On a personal basis, it broke my heart. In our world, we take it very seriously–when someone gives us a quality horse they're placing a lot of trust in us and they're relying on us to do a good job. And there was no doubt that the results were not up to par. I think as well the Orby catalogue suffered from Covid because some people took the decision when they were entering and the sale was still going to be in Ireland, to sell in England instead. So maybe our catalogue wasn't quite what it normally was, and some buyers told us that.
“It was an imperfect storm and the Orby sale was the one major catastrophic disappointment for us. I've rarely been as distraught at a sale as I was at that one and I think I was only bearing the feelings of a lot of our vendors.”
As always, Beeby wore his love for Goffs and the bloodstock industry on his sleeve.
“I am passionate about it,” he said. “This is my entire life. I always laugh when I tell people I'm the most boring man in the world. I do two things: I spend time with my family and I work. And I'm very lucky that I have a job that isn't a job, it's a way of life and I adore it and I care about it deeply. Normally there are far more good days than bad days. Of course I like to sell a horse that makes a top price and of course I like to attract a Galileo yearling that makes €3-million. But there's a huge sense of pride in getting €100,000 for a horse that the vendor thought might get €60,000 or €70,000. And there's equal pride in getting €10,000 for a horse that somebody thinks might have made €5,000. I still get a buzz from it, I still care about it. I'd be lying if I said I take everything and just roll and nothing gets to me. It does get to me. I think about it all the time.
“Where I'm very lucky is that I work with very good people. I'm supported by a very good board chaired by Eimear Mulhern, and senior colleagues like Nick Nugent and Rae Lawless and across in the UK Tim Kent and the team there. They're good people and we're all working towards a common goal.”
So, with the benefit of hindsight, what would Beeby change about the way decisions were made around the 2020 Orby Sale, or the way it was conducted?
“Probably I would have liaised more closely with more people,” he said. “I think there was a feeling that we ploughed on regardless of what some people thought and that's unfortunate. It saddens me; that wasn't the case. We did what we did because we thought it was the right thing to do. There are polarized opinions; some people say, 'you did the best you could, that was just the way it was and it wouldn't have made a difference.' Some people are of the view that we should have taken different decisions. And they could be right, but they might not be. We'll never know. I hope we're not ever placed in the same position. But I think some people felt we didn't listen and I hate that people think that. I don't think that is the case, but the fact that people think that demonstrates that we were giving that vibe and it therefore behooves me and us going forward to ensure that people feel better engaged.
“Goffs has 600 shareholders, and when the modern-day Goffs moved from Dublin to Kildare in 1975 a lot of Irish breeders bought shares in the company, and there is still that sense that Goffs is there entirely to serve the Irish breeder, which it is. So I think if there was any feeling that we hadn't listened, that was very unfortunate and it's something we are addressing. Would it have changed anything? I don't know. But it might have brought more people with us and helped them understand better.”
Beeby continued, “We are everybody's servant and nobody's master. Auction houses exist to serve the industry. We work for both vendor and purchaser and we have to deliver for both of them. When they're happy, we're happy. When they're upset, which was the case with a number of people at the Orby Sale, there is nothing good in it for me. We don't look back and think, 'well, we're alright, we hit a turnover target.' It doesn't work like that. If there is a vendor that's unhappy, I'm unhappy, because I work for them.”
A top priority for team Goffs in 2021 is to restore the lustre of the Orby, and that will include zeroing in on the quality that buyers at such a sale deserve and demand.
“I think we're looking to tighten the numbers and take a very strong view on selection with vendors,” Beeby said. “If I come to Kentucky and talk to a trainer and say, 'you really need to come to the Orby Sale,' we need to be able to make it worth their while and say there will be two days of real quality there. It isn't about us telling the vendors what to do, it's about us persuading breeders, vendors, pinhookers and consignors to let us have a share of their quality. I think we'll tighten numbers, and it'll be about selecting each horse on its merits.”
Fortunately for Goffs, vendors and purchasers alike, there was some good news following the Orby: the Goffs Autumn Yearling and Horses-In-Training Sales both returned vibrant trade despite being forced to a strictly online format due to lockdown measures. The December National Hunt Sale was staged live and on its original date and saw figures consolidated from the year prior. The November Foal and Breeding Stock Sales-moved to mid-December to accommodate those needing to serve quarantine-saw minor declines in trade but returned results in line with expectations in an unprecedented year.
The challenges for Goffs and Irish vendors continue into 2021. Goffs just last week conducted the foal (short yearling) session of its February Sale; it was delayed in hopes of staging it live, but ultimately it was forced online. Owners of 84 foals opted to offer them online rather than prevail until the yearling sales-to which Goffs offered to re-direct them free of charge–and the virtual format facilitated sales for 35 of them.
Now, with the most tumultuous year in its history behind it, Goffs is back in the position of planning for its next fiscal year. If the plans for 2020 became survival and adaptability, what are the goals for 2021?
“I'm hoping it's to rebuild,” Beeby said. “It might not happen in a hurry; we're still feeling quite cautious. We have to see this go the right way and we have to get to May and June and see things really start to open up again, not just in Ireland but in Britain and the United States and across the world.
“The watch words would of course be survival with a bit of caution, but we are looking to grow and adapt and try to rebuild, particularly with the Orby Sale. We accept last year didn't go well. I'm not shying away from that. My modus operandi is normally to spin everything as positive as possible. I'm not going to do that with last year's Orby sale. It didn't work, it was disappointing, and I'd be certainly naive and probably a bit stupid to try to say it was fine. It wasn't good, but there were reasons for that, largely because of Covid. But if you look back at Orby, every year since 2012 or 2013 we'd had a six-figure average and a seven-figure top price and clearance rates of a minimum 84% and up to 89%. That's what the Orby is all about: consigning a concise, two-day catalogue of quality, well-bred, good-looking potential racehorses of note. That's what our goal is for this year alongside all our other sales. That's the sale we have to rebuild the most, because it was the one that was most disappointing. We have to get the faith and trust back of the breeders that felt let down last year that didn't have a successful sale, and we have to persuade as lightly and gently but as eloquently as we can that there were reasons for last year. Give us a chance, put your trust in us and we will deliver for you.
“So the watchwords for 2021 would be a bit of survival and certainly some adaptability again, and then adding a third word, which is rebuilding.”
With level five lockdown restrictions in Ireland recently extended through Easter it would be understandable should the bloodstock community be feeling anxious. Beeby said he can assure his team is doing everything in their power to get the sales back to Kill Paddocks.
“We'll be working hand-in-glove with Brian Kavanagh and all the people at HRI and ITM and everybody in Goffs and everybody we can to ensure sales will be held in Kildare this year,” he said. “We have protocols that are ready to be enhanced, evolved and developed to ensure that we can bring in overseas buyers in a safe and compliant way. We were able for our November Foal and Breeding Stock Sales [held in December] and our December National Hunt Sale to bring in some buyers from overseas-primarily the UK in a strictly controlled way; they had to stay in one place, they had to use certain transport. And I think it went well. There were no issues with it. As long as the vaccination program continues to [progress] and this current lockdown has the desired effect, we are strongly of the belief that we can evolve those protocols and improve them so that we can invite people from overseas to come to the sales-primarily the Land Rover sale in June, so we can have British buyers in, and then looking forward to the Orby Sale, buyers from places like the U.S., Australasia and across Europe and Britain. That's why it's been important to work with Brian and HRI. We're not going to take any risks on that. Brian has been an enormous help and I cannot stress enough how much it's helped to have HRI working with us and the contacts and credibility they have with government. We've found government completely understand; they have to balance risk with economic factors and we've found them to be helpful, understanding, and proactive.”
“If I had to give a message to people in the business, I'd just say I'm grateful that people continue to support us,” Beeby said. “We're grateful for the fact that people have accepted we're doing our best. We had a lot of decisions to make last year and we got most of them right. I accept we probably got some of them wrong. I'm sorry for the mistakes we made but I'm grateful for the support and for the fact that people continue to believe in us. I hope we can continue to rely on their support and their belief. My line is always, 'we're nothing without the horses.' So we'd just say to Irish breeders, 'give us your horses, we'll give you everything we've got.' We have a good track record and normally we prove your trust was well-placed and we hope we can rely on it going forward.”
When at last live sales do return to Kildare with international participants in place, there will be possibly no one happier than Beeby.
“There was a journalist about 25 years ago, I think her name was Judith Oliver, and she said she had a nickname for me once,” he recalled. “I asked, 'what is it?' She said, 'it's “Thrilled”, because Henry Beeby is always “thrilled.”' We were going through a good run and every time I said I was thrilled with the sale. That's what I want to get back to, is being thrilled, because if we're happy it means all our clients are happy.
“I want to be back in the ring and looking people in the eye and seeing them thinking about it and listening to the horse walking around and people craning to see who is bidding. I can't wait to get back to that. That's what I live for.”