Long before the domestic recession and the global financial crisis, it was a challenge to sell a Thoroughbred and it's an even more daunting prospect today. In this blog post, I'd like to look at two of the problems a little closer.
The first is a change that has been dramatic since I came to Kentucky in the 1980s. When I first arrived, there was a bigger distinction between people who bred to race and people who bred for the commercial marketplace. In fact, it was considered a negative to try to do both. The reasoning was that if you raced your horses, people would think you were just culling (offering your bad ones) when you put them in a sale.
Now, it seems like, everybody wants to be a seller even if they have a large homebred racing program. A lot of people I have talked to recently who have gotten into the horse business with the idea of having a big breed-to-race operation, make selling a part of the plan, they say, to make the venture more of a business proposition.
Tom McGreevy, who buys horses for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farms, discussed the situation during this year's Keeneland September yearling sale.
Twenty years ago, this industry was driven by racing," he said. "Now sales drive this business, and I don't think that you can have any business survive that the end product is not what drives the business. People who were the end users and were racing, they saw how much people were making selling horses and gradually they just migrated over to that area.It just can't keep on, and it's getting to be too lopsided."
Is there a solution? Both Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton are working programs to attract new owners to the business. A steady influx of new owners is needed, and, with the economy struggling, the number of new participants has slowed down to barely a trickle. A national effort to market racing would be welcome, but so far there is only talk and no action. Past efforts - Remember Go Baby Go? -- haven't been sustained and didn't seem to improve the situation a lot in the long run. As they say on Facebook about some relationships, it's complicated. But no one can argue that racehorse ownership is stagnant or decreasing and that racing needs a much higher profile before there can be any dramatic change.
The second problem was one I also was reminded of during the September sale. I was standing with a bloodstock agent, who was looking at a horse. The agent said something like this: "I can't buy him because he's too small. When the trainer of my client sees him, he'll complain about the lack of size and blame me for picking him out if something goes wrong."
And that pretty much sums up an important reason why the definition of an acceptable horse to buyers keeps getting narrower. Agents, to avoid criticism, must try to find the most perfect horse possible possible. It doesn't mean that horse is going to run well; it just means there won't be an obvious fault to criticize if the horse doesn't succeed on the track.
Solution? The Consignors and Commercial Breeders Association has tried to address this issue with a series of booklets that explain various physical conditions or abnormalities and show that they don't necessarily mean the horse won't be a good runner. For anybody who buys horses, the more they can educate their client, the better. One way to get an idea about how horses with various conformation "defects" can still perform well is to go to the paddock, look at horses before stakes and allowance races, and see the variety of physical types. But unless the person who will race a horse is directly involved in the selection process, his or her representatives will always have to wrestle with what to do when they are presented with a less than perfect physical specimen that might still make a good runner. Do they pass or do they buy and risk their choice being scrutinized in a negative light? Many probably will continue to pass, overlooking a lot of potential athletes.