It’s hard to imagine that there’s ever been a larger pool of stallions retiring to stud than the list of new boys for 2017. With more than 40 new sires spread around Europe for the forthcoming season, breeders will be spoiled for choice. As important a choice as which stallion to use, however, is whether or not to cover your mare in the first place.

Forget about the BHA’s call for 1,000 more horses in training – that is simply untenable in the current climate. One didn’t have to read too closely between the lines at a range of sales in 2016 to understand the underlying message: plainly, the demand at the lower end of the market has fallen worryingly short of the current supply chain. Even more concerning were the weaker days of the mares’ sales, at which a number of in-foal mares returned prices lower than the covering fee of the stallion they’d visited last year.

It’s not uncommon for vendor frustration to be taken out on sales company representatives, with one being asked at a recent foal sale what his company was doing to help breeders. The fact is that all the major sales companies do sterling work in attracting potential buyers from the world over – Henry Beeby even goes as far as ringing individual trainers and agents personally to ensure that they will be attending sales at Goffs.

If a horse fails to sell at a level deemed suitable to the vendor then a long, hard look should be taken at that individual and decisions made as to whether his or her dam should remain in the breeding pool.

The tragedy is that, so often, it’s not even about the individual foal or yearling but about fashion. Who can tell if a currently popular stallion will still be in vogue in two or three years’ time when the offspring of this year’s coverings are brought to the market?

It’s not feasible for everyone, but rewards can be great farther down the line once horses have been put into training and given a chance to prove themselves on the track. Dunaden may not have a pedigree to appeal to commercial breeders, and indeed he fetched just €1,500 when offered by Haras de Maulepaire as a foal at Arqana in 2006. Seven years later, he’d earned more than £5 million in prize-money, grafting his way to a deserved place at Overbury Stud.

Within an hour on Tattersalls’ big night last month – the Tuesday of the December Mares’ Sale – a trio of fillies who could have been bought collectively as yearlings for less than £40,000 each attracted lofty price tags. Irish Rookie sold to Andreas Putsch for 935,000gns, Jack Naylor was James Wigan’s selection at 800,000gns and Euro Charline is off to Japan after being bought by Katsumi Yoshida for 750,000gns.

As yearlings, the three subsequent top-class racemares cost €16,000, €10,500 and 13,000gns respectively (with Euro Charline also having sold in the February of her yearling year for just 800gns). The one consolation for breeders in cases like this is the extra value added to the family by such success.

Form horses coveted
On a more positive note, if the yearling and breeding stock sales were hard for many breeders, the horses-in-training sales were hard for buyers. The autumn sale at Tattersalls in particular saw a frenzy of activity hitherto unseen at Park Paddocks.

The competition between American, Australian, Hong Kong and Arab buyers, all of whom have the luxury of knowing horses they export can race for prize-money we can only dream about on these shores, has long been a feature of this sale but it appeared to reach a new level in 2016, leading to record turnover and a hugely encouraging clearance rate of 92%.

Of course there are two ways to view these results. On one hand, it’s sad to lose so many of our good horses overseas when one of Flat racing’s hardest battles is capturing the public imagination through horses who race for such a relatively short space of time. Equally, however, the fact that so many people will fly halfway across the world in a bid to select horses from a catalogue made up primarily of British- and Irish-breds should be a source of national pride to both countries.

Our breeding industry remains one of the most respected in the world and flagship race meetings like Royal Ascot will always prosper. How sad, though, that the important grassroots-level races which keep the sport afloat, providing employment and betting opportunities, have been eroded to such a degree that for many people it’s now more fun to have a touch in the sales ring than to follow their horse into the winner’s enclosure.