This should have been the week when Newmarket, and the new Flat season, burst into life, with the Craven meeting on the Rowley Mile, Classic trials and more than 100 two-year-olds breezing on the track in the morning and then going under the hammer at the famous Tattersalls’ sales ring a few hours later. Normally, some would be making their racecourse debuts for their new owners in a matter of weeks.
Amid the paralysis and uncertainty of the coronavirus lockdown, though, there will be no Breeze-Up sales in their natural slot at the outset of a fresh campaign, and perhaps 1,000 two-year-olds that have been carefully prepared for a move to a racing stable could end up as a lost generation. For anyone who has already invested significant amounts of expertise, capital and time steering these horses to the brink of a racecourse career, it is a potentially disastrous possibility.
Many of the hundreds of juveniles that are sold at Breeze-Up sales in April and May each year, at Newmarket, Doncaster, Ascot and Deauville, are “pinhooks”, bought as foals or yearlings and then carefully prepared to be sold as race-ready juveniles in the spring of their two-year-old season.
When a pinhooker gets it right, the profit on their initial investment can be eye-watering. Tally-Ho Stud in Ireland, for instance, bought a daughter of Kingman for 92,000gns (£96,600) at Tattersalls’ December yearling sale in 2018 and then sold her to Godolphin on the same spot just four months later – for 850,000gns (£892,500). But second-guessing the bloodstock market can be an expensive business too, and if a horse is unsold, much or all of their investment can be lost. What no one would ever expect, though, is for there to be no market at all.
“There’s about 1,000 horses out there waiting to be sold, and I’d think about 85% of them are here in Ireland,” Willie Browne, whose Mocklershill Stud operation has been pinhooking for more than 40 years, said this week.
“So everybody’s a bit down, but we’re living on the hope that we can maybe get them sold. I’ve got 75 horses here and it’s a huge drain on finances.
“It’s scary, because nobody has a crystal ball, we don’t know when the sales will be. The thing about our business is, you can maybe do racing in lockdown but we need people on the ground, unless you’re going to online bidding, which would be very new in Europe. Somebody has to see these horses in the flesh.”
Australia’s prestigious Easter Yearling Sale took place online earlier this month, but at present, the 2020 Breeze-Up sales have simply been postponed. The Craven Breeze-Up is now scheduled for 27 to 29 May, with around 150 lots catalogued, while the Doncaster sale has switched to the eve of Royal Ascot in mid-June, should the meeting take place.
“A partial resumption of racing in Britain and hopefully Ireland and France as well is the key,” Jimmy George, Tattersalls’ chief executive, says. “Sales without racing are a very difficult prospect and it’s hard to envisage a realistic market while racing throughout Europe is suspended. It’s unsettling, and I don’t think we should underestimate the impact this will have on the overall market, and on the consignors who have a lot of capital tied up in these Breeze-Up two-year-olds.”
If an online auction is the only option, the sellers will have little choice but to take it, despite their misgivings. “I don’t know how it would work as I’ve never bought a horse online,” Roger O’Callaghan, of Tally-Ho Stud, said this week. “But I know that sometimes when you see a horse walking around the ring, even though you might go in to give X, you go in and give X plus 50. You need to get a feel for it.”
For the 2020 crop of race-ready juveniles, time is running out. “The two-year-old market is unique, in that some of those horses are precocious types and their shelf life mightn’t be that long,” Browne says. “Those types, you’d have to be worried about. If you go into July and still haven’t sold, the yearlings for the next year will start selling in August. So we need to be selling in June at the very latest.
“I’m at it since 1977, and I’ve never come across anything like this. But listen, not getting the damn thing is most important when you’re as old as I am.”