All that gallops is not gold in the sales game

Spotting a gift horse is a specialist gamble as the foal auctions start at Newmarket

Please don't pity the punter. On the track, before a race, he is presented with up to 20 or so beasts from which to select a winner. Reserve any sympathy for those who gamble in much bigger fields. This week in Newmarket some 1,000 thoroughbred foals will be sold at auction, the vast majority bought by the intrepid souls for whom horsetrading is a living. Nine out of 10 of these fluffy-tailed babies will not be much good. The trick is to identify the exceptions.

Please don't pity the punter. On the track, before a race, he is presented with up to 20 or so beasts from which to select a winner. Reserve any sympathy for those who gamble in much bigger fields. This week in Newmarket some 1,000 thoroughbred foals will be sold at auction, the vast majority bought by the intrepid souls for whom horsetrading is a living. Nine out of 10 of these fluffy-tailed babies will not be much good. The trick is to identify the exceptions.

Or at least, to spot those who might look the part nine months hence. Buying expressly to sell on - pinhooking - is part and parcel of the bloodstock equation and for one group of specialist players in this living stock market, it is crunch time. A shrewd investment now could bring bright reward in next autumn's yearling market.

Foal speculators are an accepted and, given the numbers produced nowadays (more than 13,000 putative racehorses were born in Britain and Ireland this year), necessary part of the food chain, bridging the gap between those breeders who want to sell early and owners and trainers looking for the end product, the yearling.

Something like £16m will be invested in weanling colts and fillies in the Tattersalls sales arena this week, from the sleek young aristocrats who will command six-figure price tags at the prime sessions tomorrow and Saturday to pathetic little no-hopers who barely scraped the minimum bid of 800 guineas in yesterday's opening exchanges.

Every pinhooker is working to turn a profit and dreaming of that lottery-style jackpot. They still talk in hushed tones of what happened to Timmy Hyde back in 1983. The consensus was that the Irishman was mad when he paid a then-record foal price of Ir325,000 guineas for a gangly colt, notwithstanding that the youngster was the only auctioned son of the brilliant Derby winner Shergar, kidnapped earlier that year. But Hyde's judgement was right and his luck was in. By the following autumn Shergar's disappearance was recognised as final, the Maktoum family had started spending and the colt's price advanced to Ir3.1m guineas. Seventeen years on, Hyde, based in Co Tipperary, is still at it; eight weeks ago at Tattersalls he sold a Nureyev yearling, who had cost him $550,000 last November, for 760,000 guineas.

The Irish are the acknowledged kings of the ring. "They are fearless," said Paul Thorman, one of the best among the home contingent. "They have made a lot of money over the past few years and are not afraid to go in again. They are great at networking and of course the bloodstock tax situation over there is very favourable."

Thorman and his wife, Sara, operate from Trickledown Stud in Hampshire and have built a reputation for fairness, professionalism and some considerable success, with 24 individual winners in the past two years. This week, the Trickledown team will look at 700 foals with the intention of bidding on perhaps 200. They will buy maybe 20, for themselves and for clients, at all levels bar the very bottom and very top.

Finding value is a balance between the individual and its pedigree. The risks are many: the sire may go out of fashion, or never come in; the older half-brother may not make hoped-for progress on the track; the foal itself may suffer injury. Hours of homework on the pedigree page is essential. "You don't necessarily buy horses you like," said Thorman. "You have to buy horses the market will like, which is why a good judge of a yearling is not always a good judge of a pinhook foal.

"With a foal, you have to buy correct conformation. The obvious nice foals are out of our reach, so we have to compromise. I won't on conformation, and I like to have a strong dam side, so it's usually on the sire. I would reckon to have more success with an outstanding individual by a middle-road sire than a poor specimen by a top stallion."

The market is fashion-conscious and fickle. "It can change so quickly. This time last year, buying a Grand Lodge foal would have been viable, but now, after Sinndar, they will be out of my reach. It can go the other way, too; three years ago we were fighting each other to buy Emperor Jones foals - lovely specimens, looked just like racehorses, except they weren't.

"This year I'll be having a look at horses the market isn't quite sure about. I wouldn't rule out an Alhaarth, or a Zamindar, or a Spectrum. And Magic Ring; he's off the boil, but his yearlings this year were from his best book of mares and he might just have half a renaissance. There might just be a mark in him."

The best performer Thorman has pinhooked was last year's smart juvenile filly Torgau; his most notable coup for himself was a Royal Applause colt bought for 36,000 guineas last year and moved on for 80,000 guineas last month; and, for a client, a son of Alzao who turned 37,000 guineas into 300,000 guineas four years ago. "Torgau was a financial failure, but a great shop-window," said Thorman. "The figures sound fine, but you have to factor in failures and losses, though buying in numbers does spread the risk. We've been on a rising market for four years and unless you were seriously unlucky or stupid you were bound to make good money. This year, though, we might be a little prudent; we have clients who work in the City and they say the outlook is more guarded."

That bargain is always the objective and the buzz. "There's always one that you think that you might just nick," said Thorman. "But then you go to look at it in its box and there's a throng of sharp Irish lads already there. And you wonder why you could have been so naive as to think you'd be the only one. Someone like Gay O'Callaghan can spot an ant at 100 yards."

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