The way things are in the wider economic world, it may be that investment in something as fickle as a racehorse is not as daft an idea as it might seem. Or more precisely, investment in a two-year-old trained by Richard Hannon. The Wiltshire-based trainer has sent out the winners of 84 juvenile races so far this season, which in itself is a remarkable figure.
But it is the young horses' earnings – more than £3m – which jump off the ledger. It should be explained that a large proportion of that comes from the inflated prizes for contests restricted to graduates of given yearling sales; the auction houses offer the prospect of a bumper payday as a carrot.
But it cannot be denied th at Hannon's record in such lotteries – there were nearly 3,500 yearlings sold in the major British and Irish rings last autumn – is exemplary. This year, inmates at East Eversleigh have picked up four of the eight jackpots on offer. Soul City, Minor Vamp, Elnawin and Penny's Gift have turned the total of £129,000 they cost to buy into a dividend of £1,841,745.
To that list you can add two 9,000-guinea purchases, Infamous Angel and Souter's Sister, who have, like Penny's Gift, not only more than paid for themselves but increased their trade-in value hugely by winning Group races.
Of course, there is a certain amount of simplism when presenting such figures. But the bottom line is that, in a horsetrading world often viewed from outside as the province solely of the super-rich, Hannon knows about value as well as cost.
The opportunity to secure next year's tickets is in progress – today 283 young colts and fillies are catalogued at Tattersalls in Newmarket – but the groundwork has been going on for some time. At the sales complexes in Britain and Ireland, Hannon is invariably accompanied by his longtime advisor and talentspotter Peter Doyle. But five pairs of eyes are better than two; Doyle's wife, Anna, and the next generation in Hannon's son Richard jnr and Doyle's son Ross are part of the team.
"We start thinking about it all in the spring," said Co Wicklow-based Doyle. "We'd start going round the farms, having a look at what was likely to be coming up, any time from May onwards, through into June and July.
"And then, when the sales start, we see every horse in the catalogue. We are buying from the bottom up, so we don't – we can't – eliminate horses because of a poor pedigree. In our price range we're not buying the paper, we're going for the individual. And one of the reasons we can buy cheaply is because he or she is perhaps by an unfashionable stallion. But although we do make allowances and compromise, we never buy a horse just because it is cheap. We have to like them as a horse.
"And I know the sort of horse, athletic and trainable, that Richard likes. I should do; we've been working together 18 years. That's longer than most marriages these days."
Looking at horses takes time and a toll on footwear. "The sales season brings long days and we walk a lot of miles," said Doyle. "We'll be at the sales from first daylight to well into the dark, seeing hundreds and hundreds at the bigger auctions. We look at them in their boxes, we see them walk. And then we see them again when they are away from the stable area, among others before they go into the ring. You want to see a horse's attitude in a stressful situation, and how it reacts."
Doyle, 62, learned the bloodstock business with his late father, Jack, a legend among agents. The first good horse he bought rather set the tone. "He was nothing special on paper," recalled the Irishman, "I got him for Liam Browne for the minimum bid of 5,000 guineas. He [Dara Monarch] went on to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James's Palace Stakes in 1982."
When the haul of yearlings is complete, Hannon and his owners decide who will get what, dividing up the spoils according to budget and taste. And, as the Aga Khan has wisely pointed out, with racehorses, dealing in large numbers turns possibility into probability.
But lightning can strike individually, too. Take Soul City, who not only won the hugely valuable Goffs' Million at the Curragh, but also a Group Three in France, and holds an entry in Saturday's Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket. He was the result of a single order from his owner, Irish businessman Pat Fahey.
"I've known Pat for years," said Doyle, "but his main interest has been jumping. He's got Flat horses with Sir Michael Stoute, but last year he said to buy him one to have with Richard, the sort of fun horse who could run at Windsor on a Monday night. Which he did, on his debut, and was fourth."
Soul City cost the equivalent of £60,000 at auction, and has earned £788,000. "He was a gorgeous horse," said Doyle, "but his sire, Elusive City, was unproven. And his dam was only a winner in Germany, which didn't read great in the catalogue. But I knew her; I'd bought her as a yearling."
Last week, at the elite Tattersalls auction, Doyle was operating in a different financial bracket for another long-time friend, Abba's Benny Andersson, who bought the week's joint top lot, a 650,000-guinea blue-blooded Montjeu colt. But – as this season's results off the Hannon conveyor belt have shown – money, money, money is not necessarily the name of the game.