America's Horse in Europe - by Eric Mitchell

For years American consignors and breeders have talked about the retreating participation of European buyers, particularly at yearling sales. Mostly the observations have been anecdotal without any hard numbers defining the trends.

The staff at The Blood-Horse decided to compile those numbers in order to define more clearly not only what is happening among European buyers but how the yearling sales are being shaped by horsemen in other parts of the world (see related feature, page 18). We started by compiling the records of every yearling sold through a U.S. auction between 1980 and 2012. Because agents buy for clients worldwide, we defined a yearling as an overseas purchase based on where it made its first start. Recognizing some crossover between countries and racing stables among the major racing countries, we then assigned the yearlings to regions or to specific countries, if they were not part of an easily defined region.

The overall trends we saw in the numbers verified the observations and illustrated how much the shift has been taking out of the American market. The peak in gross expenditures by European buyers occurred in 1986 when more than $102.3 million was spent on yearlings that would eventually make their first starts in England, Ireland, France, Germany, or Italy. The peak in average European spending actually occurred two years earlier when an average of $547,481 was spent.

In 2012 gross expenditures among European buyers fell to nearly $16.7 million and the average spent was $126,264.

Currency is a little deceiving because of the declines wrought by the Great Recession and the influences of inflation or declining foal crops. So another way we looked at buying habits was by percentage of total yearlings sold.

Europeans bought their greatest share of American yearlings (looking only at those that would make at least one start) in 1986 when they snapped up nearly 14% of these “yearling-starters” sold. They bought at least 10% of this share of the market between 1985 and 1991. Interestingly, European buying spiked to this level one time since then, in 2007, but it wasn’t due to the usual suspects.

Sheikh Mohammed’s agent John Ferguson and Coolmore’s buyer Demi O’Byrne were particularly active during Keeneland September in 2007, with O’Byrne edging out Ferguson as the leading buyer with $17.92 million in purchases to Ferguson’s $17.78 million. Shadwell added another $9.54 million to the European buyers’ column. Most of O’Byrne’s purchases that year, however, made their first starts in the U.S. Only four made their first starts in Europe compared with seven the year before. Ferguson bought a total of 23 yearlings in 2007, but only eight of those purchases made their first starts in Europe compared with 17 the year before.

What appeared to drive European buying was simply greater participation by a number of already active buyers. Blandford Bloodstock bought 17 in 2007 versus seven in 2006; agent Con Marnane bought 18 versus seven; James Delahooke bought 16 versus seven; and American agent Tom Gentry bought 12 in 2007 mostly for owner/trainer James Bolger, when he had not bought any in 2006 that raced in Europe.

The percentage of American yearling-starters that went to Europe rose from 6.2% in 2005 to 9.6% in 2006 and again to 10.5% in 2007. Total spending, however, didn’t keep pace with the increase in yearlings purchased. European purchases passed the $100 million mark for only the third time in 33 years in 2006 ($100,756,300). Ferguson was responsible for a bulk of the spending that year, when he bought 28 yearling-starters for $45,390,000—45% of the total spent on American yearlings that would start in Europe. The total spent in 2007 on Europe-bound yearlings would fall to around $73.2 million then continue to fall dramatically in subsequent years in total dollars spent and by percentage of yearlings sold. Only 4.7% of American auction yearling-starters sold in 2012 would make their first starts in a major European racing country—equal to 2010 and the lowest percentage since 1982.

Clearly American horses have talent and demand has been increasing among buyers in other countries, but those buyers are not making up for the decreases in European spending. Japan spent the most of any other region or country in 2012 on yearling-starters at $8.5 million followed by South America at $1.4 million. No other country or region outside North America spent more than $1 million that year.

The shift in stallion talent to Europe is undeniable, but in the midst of this market shift, we also continue clinging to our right to medicate on race day, providing one more reason for overseas buyers to approach with caution. Changing the perception of the American horse from a sire power perspective will take years, but medication use is something Americans can address now.


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Amen Mr. Mitchell! I have seen the writing on the wall and apparently so have the Europeans. Why would I want to buy a horse when it can't race and win unless it's on Lasix or is not proven past it's 3 yr. old season. But in all fairness alot of their top breeding prospects have huge amounts of North American bloodlines. I just believe for multiple reasons we are not producing horses they want. I am firmly convinced you hit the nail on the head. Thank you.                

26 Aug 2014 11:30 AM

Interesting results.  And what about American spending in Europe?  I suspect it's low.  A graph of your findings would have been much appreciated and illustrative.  

26 Aug 2014 4:22 PM

Fourteen 3YOs left the gates in the 2014, 2000 Guineas. Twelve of the 14 were sired by stallion from the Northern Dancer line based in Europe. Interestingly the winner was sired by a stallion from the Mr. Prospector line also based in Europe.

The two horse sired by US based stallions (War Front/Tiznow) finished 9th & 11th.

Hard Spun, Kitten's Joy & War front are probably the best from the ND sire line standing in the US right now.

War Chant a son of Danzig out of a Roberto line mare should be producing horse that European buyer should just love. He bred 64,61,48 & 51 mares in the last 4yrs Those are hardly big enough books to make him successful.

I believe not enough Northern Dancer line horse are available at the sales?

26 Aug 2014 7:33 PM
Pedigree Ann

We have cheapened our product by failing to test our breeding stock in a way that the rest of the world trusts. Moreover, we have radically changed our racing program to emphasize sprinters and milers on dirt.  

Another aspect is the fashion for oversized horses, who look like 2-or-3-year-olds as yearlings. I am in the UK for the academic year and the commentators repeated point out how huge and heavily muscled the American-bred horses are, especially the 2yos, like Wesley Ward brings over. They even have a saying about them, when they fail to run well - "Looks like Tarzan, runs like Jane." Many of these huge horses are unable to cope with the undulating, up and down nature of British courses.

27 Aug 2014 7:54 AM

Thanks for the figures, but you should have left it at that. Your cause/effect is not terribly persuasive, comprehensive, or analytic. You offer our use of Lasix as one possible cause, but not in an authoritative manner-rightly so. This was hardly the cause at all, but in using this you pander to your readers who, for the most part, possess even less insight regarding this matter. For openers, why not take a closer look at our stallion population, then and now? Does the term "turf sire" ring any bells? Lasix use has been around a long time, and back then it was simply a case of the U.S. breeding the best racehorses in the world. Times have changed; many of our best breed-to-race operations are gone, and through the years the overseas markets have siphoned off much of our best breeding stock. None of this has anything to do with Lasix, so let's get real.

27 Aug 2014 1:38 PM
Barry Irwin

Good job Eric. I think the issue as to why this precipitous drop has occurred should be obvious to anybody. The reason it has been difficult to address and change is that the leaders that represent American-based horsemen don't give a hoot about what happens outside of their locality, let alone in Europe or the United Kingdom. Hard to believe that Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton don't take a stand against race day meds because they are losing business for them selves and their clients.

27 Aug 2014 9:56 PM

A brief glance at the two most recent editions of The Blood Horse reveals that of the European stakes results posted, the offspring of only five stallions based in North America finished in the top three placings and of those only one, a son of Singspiel, actually won.  The fact is that neither the Europeans nor the Japanese require North American yearlings in order to win the top races.  Apart from War Front, there is no longer a stallion standing in North America likely to have a major impact upon the top European races year after year.  Nor has a North American stud farm chosen to invest in top classic European runners as was the case when Nijinsky II, Herbager, Le Fabuleux, Lyphard, or Nureyev were brought to these shores by horsemen of vision.  Add to that the North American emphasis on two year-old speed rather than stamina, and the shortening of what once were true tests of endurance such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Coaching Club American Oaks, the fact is that the Europeans and Japanese simply no longer need the North American product.  They can and are breeding better themselves with bloodlines which originated in North America forty and fifty years ago.  

29 Aug 2014 11:10 PM

Thanks for all the comments.

Sceptre, I wholeheartedly agree that the shift in sire power is more significant than the medication issue. But saying that medication is not an issue is ignoring what several European buyers are saying. They are telling us it's an issue. I'm not sure how that qualifies as ignoring reality.

11 Sep 2014 9:06 AM

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