Racing: Sharp practice that tarnishes the sales ring

The tricks of the bloodstock trade leave a legacy of lasting damage to the whole of the racing industry.
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The Independent Online
THE DECEMBER Sales, the last hurrah of the domestic bloodstock auction season, gets under way in earnest this morning in Newmarket. Over the next four days more than 1,000 baby racehorses, aged between six and 11 months, will be offered in the Tattersalls arena. The foals will be followed under the hammer next week by as many broodmares, fillies and horses in training and turnover for the fortnight will be upwards of pounds 50m. This is big business indeed.

But it is a business under a shadow. The sport of racing, the bloodstock industry's shop window, had its own unwelcome moment in the public spotlight earlier this year when arrests were made among the ranks of the professionals in connection with race-fixing and doping allegations. Now the integrity of the backroom boys is under question following a High Court hearing which resulted in the high-profile National Hunt trainers Paul Webber and Oliver Sherwood being found to have colluded over bidding on a horse in order to inflate its price.

The case - which arose from a transaction four years ago at an auction run by Doncaster Bloodstock Sales, after Tattersalls, the country's second biggest equine house - is being taken seriously by all the trade bodies. A decision about whether to lodge an appeal against the judge's findings has yet to be taken by the Curragh Bloodstock Agency, for whom Webber worked at the time of the incident.

The bloodstock business, which supplies horses of all ages to owners who do not breed their own, depends on integrity to survive and the vast majority of transactions which take place, whether in an auction ring or not, are perfectly above board.

But there is no point in the industry pretending that it is absolutely above reproach either. Horse-dealing is traditionally an activity with a shady aura - some would say that it one of its attractions - and the auction system is open to being used, abused and manipulated by the unscrupulous. Sadly, since the business became an international one involving high stakes, high risks and high rollers some 20 years ago, such activities have increased, although the rogues no longer automatically wear red spotted neckerchiefs.

The concept of offering a horse at an auction is simple. An owner wishes to sell; a marketplace is where he or she can find buyers all together in one place at the same time. But these days the fall of the hammer can conceal a multitude of what are, if not actual sins, certainly not virtues.Where morality and honesty are concerned the line is ill-defined; one man's sound business practice is another's scam. And in an industry based on judgement it is often hard to point the finger.

But consider some scenarios. A horse can appear to be sold, but in fact the buyer was acting for the vendor. No one denies an owner's right not to sell his animal if he feels the price is not right, but the modern system of allowing a vendor to bid on his property rather than relying on a pre-stated reserve to protect his interests can give a false impression. Some vendors, too, feel that having the tag "not sold" attached to a horse reflects badly on them as businessmen and so will employ an agent to buy it in. And the higher the buy-in price, the greater the leverage to sell the horse privately later.

A horse can appear to be sold, but in fact the buyer and the vendor were undeclared partners in ownership and one has bought the other out.

A horse can be sold, but the vendor stated in the catalogue has already accepted an offer from a speculator who will take all or a proportion of any profit beyond the agreed pre-sale price (or indeed stand any loss).

A horse can be sold, but the buyer may find that his only opposition was the vendor - who took the risk of getting stuck - and thus he has paid over the odds.

A yearling can make a high price, but closer inspection can reveal that the vendor or buyer has an interest in the sire, and has employed someone - even a couple of people - to run it up to a high price in order to boost the stallion's averages.

Collusion before the piece to deceive a third party is perfectly possible. An agent, or a trainer, or whoever, with an order from a prospective buyer to go to a certain sum, can arrange with a chum to make sure that the horse makes just that. Some trainers or agents will buy only from a vendor whom they know will give them a backhander in addition to the commission they charge their client. The idea of "luck money" may be acceptable, but surely only if it is declared openly to a client, and certainly not if it is demanded with menaces.

There is the potential for further complication in the fact that the bloodstock business is populated by many-hatted folk. A man can act as an agent or advisor, manage a stud or a stallion, breed or train horses in any permutation. To keep all the balls in the air with scrupulous honesty might take considerable strength of character.

The equine auctioneering firms make their money from turnover. Tattersalls, for instance, take "the guinea", or 5 per cent, of the price up to 400,000 guineas and 2.5 per cent thereafter, whether a lot is sold or bought in. Since the British houses followed the American lead in allowing buy-ins, fewer horses are returned as 'not sold'.

One of the consequences of some of the practices around the auction ring is that the appearance of prosperity is to a certain extent an illusion. Those that benefit are largely the stallion masters, who can base their fees on false statistics; those that lose are, in the end, the owners that the sport professes to be so keen to encourage and, indeed, the industry itself, which professes to government to be impoverished.

An early 19th century scene at Tattersalls was described thus by a contemporary writer: "Peers and other movers in high life descend to be quite men of business, but a masquerade could scarcely exhibit more motley groups. In one place a person of rank taking advice of a horse-jockey or a dealer; in another, a flashy butcher, aping the gentleman in new boots and come in order to pick up a bargain; one corner displayed the anxious disappointed countenance of a seller; the opposite one discovered the elated, yet perhaps more completely gulled, buyer who was paying cent per cent for fashion or half as much again for a pedigreed horse as he was worth." As we go towards the 21st century perhaps it it a case of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

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