By Kelsey Riley
Overseas buyers are an ever-increasing fixture of the American yearling sales. It is not only the big-spending Maktoum family and Coolmore partners who are vital to the health of the market; an international presence stimulates spending at all levels of trade, fueled by visitors from all across Europe-not least the pinhookers who have enjoyed so much success with their buys at the breeze-ups-and Asia, Australasia and the Middle East.
Global travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have, naturally, caused some unrest in the minds of sellers as they put the finishing touches on their yearlings ahead of Fasig-Tipton’s Selected Yearling Showcase in Lexington on Sept. 9 and 10 and Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale from Sept. 13 to 25. Foreign nationals traveling from Europe-as well as Brazil, Iran and China– are currently not permitted to enter the U.S., but Keeneland Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Vince Gabbert said that Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton are together working with government officials on an effort to allow foreign buyers to gain entry for the sales. Gabbert said he is “cautiously optimistic” that they will reach an agreement.
“The way we’ve approached this has been a combination between what we’re seeing with the sports leagues and what we know from a business interest side,” Gabbert said. “We’ve been working very closely with homeland security and we’ve essentially engaged every person we can get a hold of to help us with this, from Congressman [Andy] Barr, who has been extremely helpful from the outset-Senator [Mitch] McConnell, Ambassador [Kelly] Craft and Commissioner [Ryan] Quarles through his relationships with the USDA and Secretary [Sonny] Perdue [of the USDA]. All of them have been really willing to help us and to foster these conversations with homeland security because there are specific waivers that we will have to fill out for our customers who want to travel to make sure they’re able to get over here. All of our conversations with them have been, ‘tell us what protocols you need us to follow for you to have confidence that we’re not going to create an issue, and we’ll do that.’ All of those folks have been extremely helpful, and each individual I’ve mentioned has assigned a specific staffer to our issue so we have specific folks in each of those offices that we’re working with to make sure we get as many people over here as possible.”
Gabbert said ensuring government has an understanding of the importance and economic impact of the Thoroughbred industry is a priority for the Keeneland staff even during normal times, and so the foundation was already laid.
“I feel good about the conversations we’ve had,” he said. “I feel really good about the effort that our government officials are putting in on our behalf. A lot of it is just working through that bureaucracy that just automatically exists within government. I’m cautiously optimistic; we feel like we have a good plan in place for the entirety of the sale and we’re working in concert with Fasig-Tipton as well so we have the same protocols in both places and we’re working together with them on this request as well, so this has been a joint request on behalf of both sales companies. We have an unprecedented partnership with how we’re working together and I feel good about the request and what we’ve put in place. We just have to continue to navigate it and make sure we’re talking to the right folks.”
While overseas visitors may be faced with quarantines upon returning to their home countries, Gabbert said that doesn’t seem to have dampened enthusiasm.
“A lot of our international buyers, especially the Europeans, have expressed a strong, strong interest in coming over here regardless of what happens when they get back,” he said. “We are very excited about the amount of enthusiasm that people are showing in wanting to be here. We’re doing everything we can and we’re fortunate there are still a number of countries that are not on that prohibition. Japan, Australia, and a number of the South American countries that are our markets as well, people are free to travel to and from. They may have different requirements when they return to their home countries, but we are going to do everything we can from a protocol standpoint and everything we can to provide a safe and secure facility so people can come over here with confidence and return home with confidence.”
Gabbert said at this stage that it doesn’t look as if visitors will be required to quarantine when arriving in Kentucky, but COVID testing may be a part of the process.
“We don’t have everything finalized but we’re working very closely with our local health department and both us and Fasig-Tipton are working very closely with local health professionals to make sure that we’re following all the recommendations from the CDC and the local health department,” he said. “Right now we would not anticipate any need for a quarantine or for people to isolate once they get here, but we are looking at what might be available from a testing standpoint, how we monitor that-our goal is to give everybody the confidence that they’re coming onto the grounds in a safe and secure manner, and what all does that entail? Testing is part of that, enforcing social distancing and requiring a mask, reducing capacity in the sales pavilion but still providing other opportunities for people to bid on horses; those are the things we’re working through.”
Gabbert acknowledged that the presence of overseas buyers is “extremely important” and that the Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton teams will continue to lobby for their presence and update their customers along the way.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much we need and want everybody that can get here to get here,” he said. “Especially when you look throughout the sale, each book essentially has a really different feel to it and it’s imperative that we maintain that strength and that buying bench throughout the entire sale, and the international presence is a tremendous part of that. We’re going to keep working on it until we get definition and we’ll be communicating out to our customers and if there is paperwork they have to fill out we’ll be in a spot to assist them to navigate that process.”