This Side Up: How Reliable a Signpost is the Yearling Market?

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Yearlings on display this September | Keeneland

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If there’s anything as groundless as the commercial market’s obsession with new stallions, it’s the haste with which they then tend to be abandoned.

We all know that drawing definitive conclusions even from first runners can be premature. Some great stallion careers have been built on apparently thin foundations, while conversely many a prolific rookie has sunk without trace. Galileo (Ire) started out with 13 juvenile winners, less than half the “star” of his intake in Europe, Bertolini.

On both sides of the ocean, many of those stallions to have burned brightly but briefly were only taken to market in the first place on the premise that they would produce fast, early types. And you need only browse through the freshmen standings of years past to see what kind of damage that can do to the gene pool, in terms of the number of mediocre mares thrown at fast-buck, fast-draining young sires.

But what’s even more alarming is the way the market today increasingly narrows even those parameters to judge the odds against a stallion building a sustainable career. Year by year, the road seems to be steepening against stallions the moment they have completed their sales debut, with fewer and fewer breeders prepared to stick around long enough even to see whether any of these yearlings can match (or defy) market opinion once actually making it onto the track.

Yet while this trend contains the obvious danger of turning auction vogues into self-fulfilling prophecy, the fact is that the yearling market has historically proved an even less reliable signpost than the performance of those first 2-year-olds.

Let’s take the most spectacular class of North American freshmen of recent times: the group who launched their first runners in 2008. Ranked by prize money, the top five were Tapit, Lion Heart, Candy Ride (Arg), Medaglia d’Oro and Speightstown.

Browsing the equivalent table in other years will quickly show how rare it is for their first runners to make such a legitimate announcement of sire power. Let’s take a single step back, however, and see whether or not the sales ring anticipated the exceptional success of that vintage.

Well, in fairness, Medaglia d’Oro gave a strong hint of what was to come. His stellar presence was sufficiently mirrored in his stock for him to finish a very respectable fourth in the yearling averages, processing his $35,000 covers at an average $124,215. Rachel Alexandra was not among those to go through the ring, but her sire had landed running and would never look back.

Another who was already on his way was Speightstown. In fact, he weighed in second in the averages at $185,415. It is a measure of the assumptions made in favour of new stallions that even his splendid career since has only really maintained those numbers (2019 average $215,526, median $157,500).

But the story was very different with Candy Ride and Tapit, their yearlings coming through 10th and 11th in the averages at $54,482 and $53,250 respectively.

Those who received a warmer endorsement from the market were headed by Smarty Jones, who topped the averages at $201,029. By 2012 he was in Pennsylvania, and his fee three years later had collapsed to $4,000 from an opening $100,000, albeit he was subsequently restored to Kentucky.

A real standout was Strong Hope. They loved his yearlings, conceived at $30,000, trading them third in the averages at $132,603. He had the looks, of course, as a $1.7 million yearling himself, but by 2012 he could be found in Indiana at a fee of $2,500.

Fifth at $99,195 was Lion Heart who, as we have seen, kept what has proved to be pretty exalted company when his first crop made a fast start on the track. While he was in Turkey by 2010, at least it turned out that he had managed to leave behind one or two eligible heirs, notably Kantharos.

He would soon be followed to Turkey by that admirable racehorse Pleasantly Perfect. Having failed to follow through a $96,107 average, sixth of the intake, he plunged from $40,000 to $5,000 before his emigration in 2014.

A big splash was made at No. 7 by Friends Lake, who parlayed a $15,000 fee into a $74,829 average. Yet he was exported to Saudi Arabia in 2010. Congaree, No. 8 at $62,514, is still in domestic business but only at $2,500 in Texas. And while Perfect Soul, No. 9 at $59,185, has staged a touching revival to $5,000, he has meanwhile stood for as little as $2,000.

Only then do we reach Candy Ride and Tapit. Ranked by his $25,000 median, moreover, Candy Ride was keeping even more forgettable company: exceeded by Toccet, Peace Rules, The Cliff’s Edge, Chapel Royal, Action This Day, Canadian Frontier, Even the Score, Tomahawk and Cuvee; and matched by Saarland and Spanish Steps, an unraced brother to Unbridled’s Song who was standing at $2,000 in Indiana by 2011.

You might wonder whether the market’s failure to identify two of the four stallions who were about to lay down a lasting marker, as soon as they moved their first crop from the sales ring to the racetrack, was itself also exceptional?

On the contrary. The first yearlings by War Front managed eighth place in the averages. Twirling Candy was 15th in his intake–in a table led by Trappe Shot. Into Mischief, famously the pauper who became a prince, was 12th in his year.

So let’s please apply a little more perspective. End users, certainly, should persevere in their own judgement. But all of us share a responsibility, faced by the impulsive pronouncements of the marketplace, to keep faith with our own experience; with all the knowledge and instincts we have developed, over the years, by patient increments.

Because any young stallion who appeared to make only an ordinary start at the sales this year retains every right to overtake those who outsold him–once, that is, his foals are given a chance to do what they were actually bred to do. Run.

So whatever your opinion, value it. Don’t yield meekly to the same panicked, irreflective consensus that told us Smarty Jones, Strong Hope, Friends Lake, Congaree and company were among those who were going to make it bigger than Tapit and Candy Ride.

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