The result of the collective folly that is racing's factory floor was here for all to see yesterday. It was the first session of the five-day auction of thoroughbred foals in the Tattersalls arena in Newmarket. The median price for the 124 sold was 5,000 guineas. It costs a breeder a ball-park figure of £10,000 to get one of these baby racehorses to the stage of going under the hammer, excluding the stallion fee paid to get the mare pregnant. As James Donald said with such feeling at the end of Bridge On The River Kwai: "Madness. Madness."
The bloodstock industry is rare, if not unique, among businesses in that those that produce the product often operate at a loss. "If Ikea made tables on the same basis," said Michael Swinburn yesterday, "they'd close their doors pretty quickly."
It should be emphasised that the Swinburn family's Genesis Green Stud, near Newmarket, which breeds horses to sell as foals and yearlings, is a prosperous, profit-making commercial operation. But Swinburn is not blind to the fact that the industry's finances are out of kilter, in part because, for many, horses are a way of life, a vocation.
"People do it for love, and so keep doing it," he said. "But the whole thing could be sorted if the Government would help properly. Keep it simple; what the industry needs is more prize-money. The bookies want more horses to run in more races, but don't want to pay for them. They should be made to pay more into the industry that they leach; they would still make profits, but merely very large profits rather than obscene. There are other ways, too, with tax breaks. If the Government copped on, they could have a very, very healthy industry on their hands."
The opening-day foal trade is traditionally the week's worst; the quality increases as the days go by - more than 1,000 are catalogued - and by the time the hammer falls for the last time on Saturday evening turnover will be getting on for £30m. There will be ringside fireworks, too; those scheduled for sale include a Sadler's Wells half-brother to Landseer (from Genesis Green), a Refuse To Bend half-brother to Grey Swallow and a Kyllachy half- sister to star juvenile Dutch Art.
End-users do buy foals but these auctions are overwhelmingly the province of pinhookers, the middle men and women who, each year seemingly ever more daringly, speculate to accumulate. The trick is to judge not only the foal market, but the yearling market a year hence. Deciding who will be hot and who not then is some bold call. Tales of mighty pinhooking coups are legion; the current best was by Irish dealer Gerry Burke, who last year paid 75,000gns for a filly from the first crop of Dalakhani and last month traded her back for 600,000gns.
Yesterday, the levels were low, but business was brisk and competition keen for anything remotely likely to be turned into profit. One of those by the ringside, eyes glinting, was Irishman Bobby O'Ryan, who operates for himself and for clients at his Kirriemuir Stud in Co Kildare. "Trade was hot in Ireland last week, and it's going to be hot again here this week," he said.
The word on the street is that Kheleyf, a son of Green Desert who won the Jersey Stakes and now stands at Sheikh Mohammed's Irish base, may be the first-crop commercial sire to latch on to. "His foals look racy," added O'Ryan. "I'll know if I was right this time next year, after the yearling sales. But they said I was crazy when I bought an Invincible Spirit filly last year, and look what happened."
Indeed. Invincible Spirit turned out to be this year's first-season, two-year-old sire sensation and O'Ryan turned his 48,600gns outlay into a 275,000gns sale 10 months later.
The foals sold this week are part of a record crop of more than 17,000 born in Britain and (mostly) Ireland this year. That is an increase of more than a third in 10 years. There were numerous sad specimens, poorly bred and physically inadequate, yesterday who did not reach even the minimum selling price of 1,000gns.
"There's no point in people like me buying the bad ones," said O'Ryan, a realist, "because I wouldn't get them into a sale next year. But someone's taking a chance. And they'll win races, because most horses are, after all, rated below 70."
Even though there is only one George Washington for every thousand Wolverhampton banded runners, breeders will keep trying, however hopeless the odds. This is, after all, an industry built on dreams.
Nap: Brave Villa
NB: Wee Anthony
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