Forty Years of Change for the Yearling Market

In this article, we look at how thoroughbred yearling preparation for sale has changed in the last forty years or so. We discuss how independent studs, basically owner breeder establishments have been superseded by professional yearling consignors at the sales. How the dynamics of breeding race horses for sale and therefore profits have changed, and how the preparation of yearlings has changed in the same time period.

Long gone are the days when a breeder has one or two yearlings for sale. They feed it up and walk it to get some muscle tone, try to teach it a few manners and give it a bath. Transport it to the sale ground, show it off to a few interested parties and hope that it will get enough bids in the sale room to make a profit. Traditionally, thoroughbreds have been brought and sold at auction for the last 250 years. While there are of course private sales within the industry, auction has proved to be an effective way to ‘change the address of a thoroughbred’ whereas this method of sale has never been very attractive to those who deal and breed sport horses. With very few exceptions, sport horses are sold by private treaty.

In this article, the first on the business of horse trading, we look at the differences of how the thoroughbred yearling preparation has changed. In later articles, we will examine how the various marketing techniques have changed, for better and worse.

When we were breeding horses, we sold mainly as foals, but on occasions for whatever reason, be it a foal was not well enough to go to the sales, or because an animal simply needed more time, the mechanics of preparation were very similar. About six weeks before the sale, the main thing was to crank up the quality and amount of hard food, to produce a well rounded individual which was pleasing to the eye. Secondly, as thoroughbreds are viewed by potential buyers by walking them for a short distance in both directions, it was important to have an animal who could stride out at the walk and show itself off to the best of its ability. Thirdly, it was important that the horses’ feet were correctly placed on the end of the leg. Toeing out or even worse toeing in on the front legs always meant severe compromise in the price that may be achieved. These three main principles are as relevant today as they have always been, but the management to achieving them has changed dramatically.

In the past, you simply entered the horse in your preferred sale with the auction house. We would aim that a foal would have its daily intake of hard food increased from maybe a couple of kilos a day to about 8 kilos a day. Each animal would be fed several times a day in small amounts so the feed would be fully utilised. The horse would always spend a few hours a day in the paddocks. Together with the feeding, the foal/yearling would be brushed to get a glistening healthy looking coat. It would also be walked for up to a mile a day in hand to teach it some manners and to make it stride out in a purposeful way. It was certainly time consuming, but with a breeder with only two or three yearlings or foals, not too onerous and enough time could be spent for each animal’s individual needs.

During the 1970s, yearling sales became more and more popular as some vendors were getting huge sums for their yearlings and there were plenty more wanting to jump on the band wagon. As a result, in the 1980s and 90s, things changed. The first thing to happen was the auctions houses became very oversubscribed with lots. It became the norm that they would visit the stud during the early spring to assess the yearling to decide which of their sales in the autumn an individual would qualify. First, they would look at the pedigree and then see whether the pedigree and individual married up. Did the yearling with a wonderful pedigree present itself naturally? How well does it walk and stand, and does the horse have any sort or presence? Bloodstock sales have always tended to be categorised by the quality of animals in each section. Tattersalls in

Tattersalls Sales Complex .Newmarket

Newmarket for example have consistently held three or four yearling sales a year, each defined by the standard of animals forward. There would be a ‘select sale’ for the cream going down to the later sales which were for the less fancy animals. The problem with was for the breeder, is that he/she knew that the lower down the scale of sale they were allotted, the less they could expect for their efforts. Therefore they tended to apply for positions in the select sale. The small breeder with one or two animals was going to be far less attractive to the auction company than someone who had a draft of ten or more animals to present. So then the next thing to happen was that ‘professional consignors’ came into being. The small breeder would be forced over time to have an arrangement with a large sales cosigner whereby the sales consignor would sell the horse on their behalf. As a result, small breeders, with the extra costs they had to pay, for someone else to do a job they were perfectly able to do themselves, decided to stop breeding. Now there are very few small breeders in comparison with 50 years ago. Many would agree that this is a sad indictment of progress as there are now 75% less small breeders now than there were.

So, with the management of sales horses changed so dramatically, how have the changes affected the way a yearling is prepared? The principles mentioned earlier are still the same. You still need to have a yearling with presence, a good walk and pleasing to the eye. The way this has been achieved is very different though.

Sale consignors like to have the individual with them at least eight weeks before sale, and they do not really like any input or pre preparation from the breeder. Due to the numbers that some of them have, fifty or more yearlings for preparation, they have to treat all their charges the same, thus removing the individual attention previously given. The preparation is more like a young horse factory, each starts on the conveyor belt from the time they arrive to the time they are the other side of the auction room. Practically, there is no other way to do it.

Most consignors, but not all, keep the yearling stabled for its entire prep period. They rigorously control its feed intake, and with the scientific knowledge and improvement of the effect of minerals and feeds now days, feeding can be much better targeted. Most consignors will regularly weigh the horse to ensure that its target is being reached, rather like a beef farmer wanting a daily weight gain from his cattle. Is this a good thing? Not necessarily. All the growth and natural maturity of the animal is compromised.

Exercise is now far more rigorously controlled. In the main, due to the very high manpower required for yearlings to be walked and exercised in hand, horse walkers are used, and each yearling is required to walk aimlessly around in a circle for a given period of time. One person can effectively walk eight or ten yearlings at a time. While the necessity of obtaining a sensible balance of staff to look after so many horses and getting the horse fit and ready for the buyer’s deliberations, this is a young adolescent supposedly full of the ‘joi de vive’ now finds itself as part of a conveyor belt product. Forty or so years ago, it was rare that a yearling would be rugged. Now days however, all yearlings and even foals are rugged well before their appointment with the auctioneer.

Nothing has changed in the last fifty years in that buyers want correct individuals without any deformities, and with veterinary science now so advanced, this has become easier. Advanced farriership allows for yearlings who toe in or toe out to be corrected most of the time. Most consignors have a major health checks done on each yearling before it gets to the sales venue. Something unheard of fifty years ago except for wind testing. (This is when a horse is lunged briefly both ways, and if it is heard to make a noise in its breathing, it was assumed that it had a problem with its lungs.) Now days, most yearlings are scoped giving the buyer pictures and a full report on its lung function together with knee and leg scans etc etc. In fact, the modern yearling arrives at the sale venue with a file full of certificates, all to help give confidence to the buyers they are not buying a ‘pig in a poke’. Forty years ago, this was virtually unheard of.

Yearling being walked for prospective purchaser

For the buyers however, this is progress. They get a product which has more or less been broken in and has been managed in a uniform way, never mind where it has come from and they have a plethora of certificates to view. It makes their lives much easier as they have a given bench mark to start from taking the yearling to the next level of being able to ride it away.

The sad part of the forty or so years progress is that the small breeder has been all but excluded from participation in something that have done for centuries out of love for the horse and having the dream of breeding a noteworthy horse on the race track. The extra costs have simply made it unviable. It used to be said that £5000 would cover all costs for each individual yearling from the time it was an embryo to the other side of the yearling sale ring. Now that cost has risen to more like £15,000. To the small breeder, that is a hell of a handicap in terms of cost, and that’s before any stud fees or cost of the mare is taken into consideration.

Goffs UK sales arena Doncaster.UK

Producing a yearling with a good pedigree is now a very expensive and risky past time. Get a good looking well bred yearling and this can be a license to print money as yearlings of this calibre can make hundreds of thousands of pounds. However, a fault in conformation or not such good breeding could very easily find you making a substantial loss on your investment. So this industry is not for the faint hearted! With the money involved at all levels of bloodstock, it is not surprising that every modern method of minimising risk is taken, which some would argue is not necessarily the best for the natural growing up of a horse.

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