There sure have been a lot of hurdles to 2020. Some have been man-made—presidential politics—and most have been natural—a global, once-in-a-century pandemic tops the list. It’s human nature to attempt to keep things normal, but this year the more we try, the stranger it just all seems. Holding the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga.—a “tradition unlike any other”—in standard time in mid-November instead of late daylight savings time in April fits about as well as the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) on Labor Day weekend.
Over the past weekend, as the number of COVID-19 cases surges throughout the country, more than half of the SEC football slate was delayed or canceled. Schools are re-closing. There’s a reason Thoroughbred breeders know that Mother
Nature is always even money or less.
As Thanksgiving approaches, let’s be thankful the Breeders’ Cup World Championships went off on its regularly scheduled weekend, Nov. 6-7, albeit without a full complement of patrons. We’re also thankful Thoroughbred commerce continues at Central Kentucky auction houses. Economic issues weigh heavier on the market this fall, but there’s always a market for a good horse.
Bloodstock agent Davant Latham was lucky enough to attend the first day of the Breeders’ Cup and have the clientele to keep him busy buying and selling horses the following week.
“We enjoyed the day, but it was odd not to have people screaming,” Latham recalled on a blustery Book 4 day at Keeneland. “One of the great things about horse racing…I would compare it to a rock show when those horses come down the stretch and everybody is jumping and screaming. I remember the first time I saw the Rolling Stones. When they came out on the stage, it was like you were getting lifted off your feet. To me, that is what a great horse race does, coming down the stretch. And that didn’t happen.”
There is the thrill of the hunt in the auction ring; however, it’s less of a collective experience than racing. Latham’s clients offer him the ability to seek, as well as sell. His take on business has a common theme.
“I remember when I was here in the 1980s as a groom and whatnot, you had people come in from Omaha who were carpenters and plumbers, and they’d buy five yearlings to race together at Ak-Sar-Ben. That’s gone,” he said. “It’s gone because the cost of keeping a horse in training has doubled. I don’t know how we replace that. Racing clubs and partnerships can sure help. We need to get more people exposed to our sport. I always try to bring people, not just to the races in the afternoon, but I love bringing them in the morning to watch horses train. I think if people watch a thousand horses gallop around the track in three hours in the morning, it just blows their mind. It’s a big hook.”
Latham isn’t alone in his assessment of this year’s selection of top-end weanlings.
“There were a fair number of breeders who held their good weanlings back because they didn’t want to sell in this COVID market,” he said. “It holds out hope for the yearling market next year. We had a fair number of end users in on the weanlings this year. That was difficult for those of us who pinhook; we can’t compete with those guys buying weanlings because the number they have in their mind is the figure they would pay for them as yearlings, so they see that as a discount.
“Buying weanlings was extremely difficult because there wasn’t the supply of quality weanlings. I’ve heard mixed things—that people were holding their better weanlings to sell as yearlings when the COVID market is over; I’ve heard that some people didn’t enter because Aug. 1 was the deadline; they got hammered in September and now have reentered for January.”
Playing at all levels, Latham follows a familiar path that is sunny side up on the early books and like most others, beats a hasty retreat on the lower end of the marketplace.
“The mare market was strong until you got back here (Nov. 15). Right now people can’t sell mares for the stud fee. I read this morning that the RNA rate was down to 16% yesterday…that means people just don’t want to pay the bills anymore. The number of $1,000 and $2,000 mares yesterday…there is your evidence.”
At present, Latham is advising his clients to be in the upper end of the business.
“Cull,” he said bluntly. “If you can’t get money for a mare at the sale; it’s not worth breeding her because you’ll just lose money on that effort. Reduce numbers and increase quality, and that would be my short version that could be advised to every client: Increase your quality.”