Racing Commentary: Turf sells itself short to owners

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HEY are going to try to sell horses this week in Newmarket, a stiff uphill exercise made more arduous by racing's inability to sell itself. It is the biggest auction of young stock in Europe, but who will want to buy when the image that is peddled is of a sport on the skids.

Over 900 yearlings are due to come under the hammer at Tattersalls October Sales which start a five-day stint at noon today to a soundtrack of howls and lamentations from those who have purchased before and who have found that the odds are stacked against owners; that iniquitous VAT regulations make it foolish to contemplate buying in Britain and that, unsurprisingly, the government and the bookmakers, and even the racecourses do not care a pfennig for those who feed the raw product.

There are incentives to buy and they whinny rather than wail. Just 12,500gns secured Lyric Fantasy last autumn and, having scorched to five remarkable wins this season, she is likely to command in the region of pounds 1m when she passes through the same ring this December.

And on Saturday there were two advertisements during the afternoon's racing to illustrate that it is not necessary to break the Bundesbank to win big races. More importantly, the owners involved seemed not to have heard about the rule of racing that demands that victory and defeat are greeted with the same stoic stance.

The most prolonged celebrations came at Ascot, where the appropriately named Up And At'Em, a 6,400gns purchase sent from Ireland by the former jump jockey Jimmy Coogan, trounced horses from the empires of the Maktoum family, Fahd Salman and Robert Sangster in the pounds 30,000 Cornwallis Stakes. It landed a few decent bets as well.

Admittedly Densben, who won the pounds 15,000 Coral Sprint Trophy at York, is not a product of the sales ring but was bred by his owner, Dennis Pike. His career statistics, however, provide dangerous encouragement to go out and buy a horse. The eight-year-old has won 15 races in 102 starts, including five this year from 15 outings, and has total earnings in excess of pounds 80,000. He is also the only horse Pike owns.

Those who like to bring an accountant's eye to these matters would no doubt deduct all the training, travel and entry costs incurred in Densben's career and use the net figure as proof of the difficulties which owners face even when they find they have a decent horse on their hands. That is a disappointingly businesslike attitude to take to a sport which offers such outstanding opportunities to be dissolute.

But if a boring old accountant's balance sheet is brought out before making a bid at Tattersalls today, then it is likely to have the following items in the debit and credit columns.

Debit: VAT, 17 1/2 per cent on purchases here compared with 5.5 per cent in France and 2.7 per cent in Ireland; and the devalued pound means that there will be increased competition from foreign purchasers whose money will stretch that bit further.

Credit: unlikely that the Maktoum family will be present to push up prices, although it must be said that they have never been big buyers at the October Sales, which deals in middle-of-the-range types that are unlikely to attract them; and falling prices have put some smart pedigrees back within the price-range of the moderately, but still disgustingly, wealthy.

A fortnight ago at the Houghton Sales, Tattersalls' premier auction, the average fell from 74,095gns in 1991 to 42,578gns and the median from 50,000gns to 27,000gns. These figures are distorted by the larger number that were catalogued this year, and a better guide to October Sales prices came last week at Goffs in Kildare where the average for the main section of the sale fell from IR19,233gns to IR18,527gns. However, those numbers were attained with the support of the Maktoums and the Irish government, which has fixed a low VAT rate to support one of its key industries.

Once a purchase is made, just what are the benefits of ownership? The opportunity a racehorse affords to advertise just how wealthy its owner is should not be underestimated, but there should be other, more practical advantages. Frequent contact from the chosen trainer detailing how the beloved beast is getting on, maybe even a tip for another in his care, is a requirement that is often overlooked by busy handlers. It brings its own rewards too. Richard Hannon is very good with horses but absolutely magnificent with owners and his position in the trainers' table reflects this.

On the racecourse, ownership brings astonishingly few privileges. Cheltenham recently offered the inducement of a free lunch, extra entrance passes and a room for the exclusive use of those who supplied the seedcorn where they could watch repeated playbacks of their horses taking part. The track was rewarded with a higher turnout of runners but their initiative should not be a rarity. Too often bewildered owners are left standing in the winner's enclosure with no one to fete them once the horses have been led away.

The sales still look attractive though. But remember, a nod's as good as a bid.

(Photograph omitted)