Pitched in to ring of truth
Buying and selling unproven horses is now a gamble many trainers have to take, writes John O'Brien
IT was nearing the end of the third day at the Goffs yearling sales on Thursday when Shane Donohoe sprang into action. Shortly after 3.30 he clinched the bidding on a Pleasant Tap colt for €10,000 and, by the day's end, he had added an €11,500 Sirocco colt and a Strategic Prince filly for the handy price of €6,000. All in all, he figured, a good day's business.
There was only one kicker. Any other year he would have been taking his purchases home to begin the process of plotting their futures on the racetrack. This time the two colts were bought on behalf of clients in Hong Kong who will sell them on again as two-year-olds. The filly came right at the death, when bargains were easier to be had, almost as an afterthought. If he can't find an owner, she'll likely be sold on too.
For Donohoe, this is a reflection of his changed circumstances. For 15 years he has held a training licence in Co Cavan and surfed the wave of prosperity while it lasted. Now the Quinn empire has gone bust, the county is blighted by unemployment, and the training business which carried him through the good times can no longer sustain a family with mouths to feed and children who need to be educated.
"I think it's going to come out very shortly about small- and medium-sized trainers having to quit," he says. "Unfortunately, training isn't a business. It's a disease. That's the problem they have. They can't do anything else. Like, what else could I do? I left school at 14. All I know is horses.
"So if I can't make a living doing that, I have to do the next best thing, preparing horses and try to sell them on. And the reason the Flat game will hold up better than jumping is because it's a worldwide market. There were something like 28 different nationalities buying horses this week. Twenty-eight! If you have a jumping horse you have two markets: England and Ireland. That's it."
By any standard last week's sales were a reasonable success. The top price of €350,000 was modest when compared to other years and the average dipped slightly, yet the clearer picture came from the accounts of buyers who found it hard to nail their targets due to the brisk nature of the trading. "I couldn't buy at least 10 horses I bid on," says Donohoe. "So they made more than I valued them at. Any breeder saying it was cheap just didn't have nice horses to sell."
Essentially it was a week that showed the wheels of an industry still turning as efficiently as could be expected in the present climate. "It's our lifeblood," says trainer Ger Lyons. "It's a huge industry -- from the people preparing the foals to the guys getting the horses ready for the sales. That's before us trainers even get a look in. We shouldn't take this for granted. It's a huge part of our heritage and it's something we remain very good at."
To understand the sales you need to appreciate the various, often conflicting, narratives. On the first two days when the bluest of blood goes through the ring and the big buyers arrive by helicopter, their splurges -- even if more restrained these days -- still dominate the headlines and create an impression that the sales are the preserve of those with deep pockets and elaborate dreams. It is the equivalent of seeing Manchester City's salary book and concluding that every professional footballer in England earns a weekly six-figure wage.
The essence of the sales, though, lies in the need for smaller operators to earn a livelihood and, for trainers like Lyons, the critical task of replenishing stock. "It's the cornerstone of our next two years," he says. "If I buy rubbish and next season's two-year-olds are ordinary then I've missed a two-year-old season plus a three-year-old season as well. It knocks you back two years, maybe even three. So it's critical you get it right."
He's getting it right more often than not. Two weeks Lightening Pearl -- bought for €125,000 at the 2010 sales -- delivered his first Group One success when landing the Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket. It cheered him too that the week's top purchase at €350,000 is a half-sister to Future Generation which won a Group Three for Lyons at Leopardstown in August. Such associations augur well for the future.
Lyons didn't buy Lightening Pearl himself. The filly was bought on behalf of Sheikh Fahad to whom Lyons had sold his first winner. Thus a fruitful partnership was born. Lyons now hopes the Sheikh will pass more yearlings his way, yet it is no reason or excuse to take things easy. His sales season began at Doncaster in August and runs through Fairyhouse, Goffs and Newmarket next week. So far he has picked up 14 yearlings at an average in the region of €40,000. Time, he knows, will tell if he has done good business.
"The thing is do you just sit down and wait in your armchair for people to give you horses? Or do you go out and make it happen? We go out and make it happen. Nobody owes you a living." Lyons is a young man but it took him "20 years to become an overnight success", a landmark achievement made possible through a combination of hard work and a relentlessly upbeat nature. "I'm an eternal optimist," he smiles. "If you weren't an optimist, you wouldn't be doing this job."
It is a sport that tests the limits of your endurance, though. In racing, you understand -- or learn quickly if you don't -- that dealing in horseflesh implies an intimate acquaintance with regular crushing disappointment and books a ringside seat for the fantasy adventure where swans magically metamorphose into geese. Attending sales and not finding what you want is a small precursor to the frustration that often follows.
Like every buyer, Edward Lynam went to Goffs with a plan. For weeks he had pored through the catalogues, identifying horses he liked, and then spent the mornings of the sales checking them out, putting initial impressions to the test. The problem came when he started bidding for the ones he wanted. Lynam operates in the mid-range market where competition is at its stiffest. "I couldn't buy colts," he says. "The market was just too strong."
Of the eight yearlings Lynam bought, seven were fillies. On the first day he splashed out €80,000 for an Elusive City colt, a significant investment by any standards. For the most part, however, he was confined to less cut-throat bidding exchanges over fillies. Because they don't have as high a residual resale value as colts, fillies are easier to buy. But it also makes them a higher risk.
"If you buy a yearling colt and manage to win a maiden with him," Lynam says, "you'll probably be able to sell him to Hong Kong or somewhere else. With a filly you'll probably need black type so you'll have to win at least two races with her. But it's a cheaper source of horse. It's the way I have to go because I'm buying for myself. I don't have the money to buy lots of colts. I could buy cheaper but I still have a certain standard, a degree and certain type of conformation I require."
For Irish trainers, the sales present a strange dilemma. To replenish their stock, to renew hope and keep their business ticking over, they need to invest in yearlings but, without client orders, they are effectively buying for themselves and hoping against hope to find owners in an adverse climate. It is classic Hobson's Choice territory. "You have to replace horses," says Joanna Morgan. "Fifty per cent of the horses that won for me this year I bought. So if I didn't buy horses, I wouldn't have half the winners."
Morgan bought four horses at the 2010 sales and, as of yet, hasn't been able to find owners for any of them. One of the quartet has turned out to be useful and she thinks she won't be significantly out of pocket on that outlay. Yet Morgan is in the training, not the owning, business and gambling on yearlings repaying their value isn't a sustainable means of running a stable long-term.
She buys because it is her trade and it is hard to resist the allure of a nice horse. On Tuesday, she had her eye on a nice Alhaarth colt and managed to secure him for €27,000 which was dangerously approaching her limit. "Not a very popular sire so that's why I got him for the price I did. I had his full brother who was rated 105 so I knew it was a solid family. That's why I bought him."
On Thursday, she tried to buy a second but it slipped away. She bid €27,000 but the price went to €30,000 and, though it pained her, she folded. She liked the colt so much, though, that it was too much to bear the journey home without the ownership slip in her pocket. So she met the buyer and tried to cut a deal. "I offered him €3,000 profit there and then, but he'd already sold the horse to a client in Russia. So he couldn't sell."
And that told the story. That there was a market now in Russia for Irish yearlings was good news for a struggling industry but a double-edged sword for the likes of Morgan and others who need good horses to compete and can take little consolation in the fact that a sizeable majority of the horses sold go for export. In that scenario, the rich stay rich while the poor get gradually poorer. Ultimately, how beneficial is that for Irish racing?
"Well, there's one thing you can bank on," says Shane Donohoe. "The dearest horse at the sales will not turn out to be the best. That's been proven down through the years. A lot of it is down to luck. And thank God it is. Because if it wasn't, the big men would buy the best every time. When someone develops a test that can take a sample of blood that tells you how many races a horse will win we're in trouble.
"But that isn't the case. Any man off the street can put his hand up, place a minimum bid of €3,000 and buy himself a very good racehorse. That's reality. He can also spend €300,000 and get a pig in a poke. There are no guarantees. That's the way it will always be."
Sunday Indo Sport