Racing: Profits and pitfalls in playing the foal: A dealer strikes it rich as the trade in yearlings reaches a climax. Sue Montgomery reports

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The Independent Online
GAMBLES in racing are not always on the track. There are fortunes to be made - and lost - behind the scenes too. And last week, in a Newmarket sales ring, a small Irish dealer brought off a major coup.

Autumn is the season when horse-trading begins in earnest. Yearlings, the raw material of the sport, go under the hammer in their thousands at auction houses in England, Ireland, France, America. And for one group of specialist players in this thoroughbred stock market, it is crunch time.

The name of their game is pinhooking. They buy foals, then re-offer them the following year. The secret of success is being, and buying, in the right place at the right time.

Last December, one Ciaran 'Flash' Conroy, of the little Glenvale Stud in Tipperary, picked up a filly foal for just IR1,900gns. Six days ago he resold her at Tattersalls' premier auction, the Houghton Sale, for 190,000gns.

Behind his selection there was judgement and experience, backed up by a large slice of luck.

Conroy was determined to have that particular foal, for he knew some of her relatives well. In particular, he had prepared her year- older sister for the 1992 sales on behalf of her breeders, and seen her fetch 41,000gns at Newmarket. He was able to buy the young one so cheaply a couple of months later for an assortment of reasons, not the least being that the bloodstock market had collapsed.

'She was a nice little thing, but the market was dead, her sire, Fairy King, had gone cold, she was a filly, not a colt, and it was a dirty cold winter afternoon at the end of the season. At that price I thought I'd be safe,' Conroy recalls.

Indeed he was. In the New Year the government rescued the British bloodstock industry by protecting it from the full force of VAT, and the market began to revive. More particularly, the stock of Fairy King regained caste during the summer through the displays of talented runners like Turtle Island.

And the final punchline for Conroy was delivered six days before the sale, when that 41,000gns yearling - since named Fairy Heights - maintained her unbeaten record by winning the Group One Fillies' Mile at Ascot.

Her baby sister will do her running next year for one of racing's top owners, Maktoum Al Maktoum. Conroy said: 'It's the sort of thing you think will happen only to other people, not yourself. It was just a dream.'

Pinhooking is carried out on scales large and small. Conroy, 31, who has been trading from 52-acre Glenvale since 1990, has up to 20 youngsters through his hands each year, preparing them for the marketplace, for himself and for clients.

But his investments have been peanuts beside some of those of the major players. The acknowledged king of the ring is Timmy Hyde, master of the extensive and palatial Camas Park, across the county from Glenvale. But even Hyde has needed luck on his way, as well as judgement. The consensus of opinion was that he was mad when paying a then-record foal price of IR325,000gns in 1983, notwithstanding that the youngster was the only auctioned son of Shergar, kidnapped earlier that year.

But Hyde was right. By the following autumn Shergar's disappearance was recognised as final, the Arabs had started spending, and the colt's price advanced to IR3.1million guineas, still a European record.

In the boom days pinhooking seemed a licence to print money, even allowing for the pounds 5,000 average cost of preparing a yearling for the ring. But fingers were burned when the market plunged last year.

Newmarket's sale next week is a division down from the Houghton. The jackpot kitty will be smaller, but Conroy will be in there playing with a couple of horses (a Glenstal and another Fairy King) and hope springing eternal in his pinhooker's breast. He said: 'I know it can't happen again, that was once in a lifetime last week. But that Glenstal, now, he's a nice colt. And his full-sister Glen Kate, she's won some good races since I bought him. You just never know.'

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