In the midst of talk of a double-dip recession and yet more trouble at the bank, it’s too early to be thinking that our financial woes are behind us, but returns from the early yearling sales in Europe and America have given way to cautious optimism.
Small improvements in England and France and some significant increases in median and turnover during the first two books at Keeneland emphasise the fact that many breeders have responded sensibly during crisis. Whether through setting realistic reserves, or by opting not to have non-commercial mares covered, clearance rates are rising and catalogues are gradually being pared down to more select offerings.
Racing has long been boosted by the allure which a steady flow of wealthy owners find impossible to resist. Many of them are hooked for good and some naturally drift away to be replaced by others, but for the top tier of yearlings on offer each year, there always appears to be a band of willing buyers.
What has been missing for several years has been a strong middle market but that too seems slowly to be improving. Almost 50% of horses sold at Arqana in August changed hands for between €50,000 and €100,000, while 25% of horses sold at the DBS Premier Yearling Sale made a respectable £30,000 to £60,000.
These results will no doubt boost hopes at Goffs’ Orby Sale, which took place shortly after we went to press, and at Tattersalls’ October Sale, which boasts an extremely strong catalogue even by its own high standards.
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, however, to suggest that owners who have enjoyed even Group 1 success in this country are no longer prepared to keep investing in yearlings to race here, leaving trainers with fewer orders and reluctant to buy on spec.
The enhanced owners’ and breeders’ premiums on offer across the Channel are a very real threat to the crucial middle sector of ownership and, inevitably, to breeders in Britain and Ireland.
Frankel’s unbearable brilliance
Most Flat racing fans view Longchamp’s Arc meeting as Europe’s unofficial end-of-season championship, while the team behind the Breeders’ Cup is bold enough to have coined the label of World Thoroughbred Championships. How Britain’s new Champions’ Day will be received remains to be seen but there can be no doubting that the organisers could not have hoped for a better male lead than Frankel.
Indeed, the great horse is already doing his bit to aid Racing For Change’s desire to attract the young to racing. My eight-year-old stepson, hitherto relatively indifferent to the delights of the sport, much to his father’s disappointment, has a new hero. On a recent trip to the races, our stable’s winner was all but overlooked in his excitement at meeting Tom Queally, who, he assured us, “rides the best horse in the world”.
The perverse pleasure of a horse as good as Frankel is that fear of defeat makes it almost unbearable to watch him run
The early starts incurred by living in a small stable in Newmarket have been greatly enhanced by the possibility of seeing Frankel in action on the Heath most mornings. If we time our run right with first lot we pull up at the top of Long Hill just as Frankel, never far from his big brother, is making his way out of the back of Warren Place.
The later-dawning autumn mornings mean that Sir Henry Cecil’s string is currently backlit as it descends Long Hill en route to Warren Hill. It’s as if the sun can’t be persuaded to climb above the trees at the top of the hill until Newmarket’s star turn makes an appearance. Lights, camera, action.
If Frankel’s rider Shane Fetherstonhaugh gets fed up with the gawpers he doesn’t let it show and, interviewed this month as part of our feature on the work riders of the season’s top horses, Shane is clearly as much in awe of his mount as the rest of us are.
“It’s quite nerve-wracking when he goes to the races and I’m not alone, the whole yard feels it,” says Shane. But it’s gone beyond the whole yard feeling nervous when he races: every racing fan in the country does. The perverse pleasure of a horse as good as Frankel is that we end up loving him so much that fear of defeat makes it almost unbearable to watch him run.
Frankel’s full-brother Noble Mission holds some fancy entries for this month’s top juvenile races but, as we’ve yet to see him on a racecourse, it seems reasonable to expect him to appear first in one of the well-subscribed maidens that make this time of the year so exciting. His dam Kind has had only two runners to date – Frankel and Lingfield Derby Trial winner Bullet Train – which is a near-perfect start for a broodmare who is still only ten years old.
She has a long way to go to emulate the record of Urban Sea, whose final foal Born To Sea became the ninth of her offspring to collect black type when winning on debut in Listed company at the Curragh. Surely it’s too much to hope that Noble Mission and Born To Sea will meet in next year’s 2,000 Guineas, each of them bidding to follow in the footsteps of an illustrious older brother? Maybe. But it’s enough to help dream the winter away.