There have been numerous examples of transatlantic talent searches yielding game-changing results through the annals of turf history.
The cross-Atlantic raids with the most profound impact were almost certainly those conducted by Vincent O’Brien, Robert Sangster and John Magnier, whose search for ‘baby stallions’ led them to procure the lion’s share of youngstock by Northern Dancer.
More recent times have seen a notable change in the direction of travel, with US-based buyers plundering the sales rings of Europe before recording some significant racetrack results once their bounty is back on home soil.
Of course, the impact of US buyers’ European missions is not yet in the same stratosphere as the exploits of Magnier, O’Brien and Sangster, but the rich seam of high-ranking winners they are currently mining is noteworthy nonetheless. Indeed, the trend has not only been one of the most significant stories of recent European sales seasons, but also shows no signs of slowing.
Matters reached a new intensity during this year’s Saratoga meeting, as Technical Analysis followed up her victory in the Grade 3 Lake George Stakes with a wide-margin win in the Grade 2 Lake Placid Stakes, Public Sector claimed the Grade 2 Hall of Fame Stakes and Grade 3 Saranac Stakes, while Star Devine, Rastafara, Serve The King and Sifting Sands all struck in black-type company.
One name who has quickly become synonymous with American raids on European shores has his fingerprints all over the purchase of these stakes winners: Mike Ryan. The agent knows better than most how significant a trip across the Atlantic can be, as he was born and raised in County Meath before finding work at Windfields Farm while the Canadian operation was still home to Northern Dancer himself.
Ryan is now the chief sales ring ally to leading US trainer Chad Brown, a protege of Bobby Frankel and widely regarded as the finest turf trainer in America. Aided by Brown and owners such as Seth Klarman of Klaravich Stables and Peter Brant of White Birch Farm, Ryan has compiled an enviable roll of honour from a relatively select number of purchases at Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale.
Ryan says that the idea of a Book 1 buying mission was first raised during discussions with Brown, Brant and Klarman in 2017, and came as prices in the form horse market began to spiral.
“It was getting increasingly difficult to buy proven horses from Europe,” says Ryan. “There aren’t very many of them available, and when they are available they’re usually very high value horses. That was the catalyst, the idea that we should be looking at the raw product by buying yearlings and developing these horses ourselves by putting them into Chad’s programme in New York. It was a new expedition for us but one we were excited about.”
The excitement felt before hitting the Tattersalls sales ground for the first time in 2017 will doubtless have paled in comparison to the exhilaration that has followed. Ryan and his clients returned with 12 yearlings from that initial foray, among which were the Grade 1 winners Newspaperofrecord, heroine of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, and the Grade 1 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic scorer Digital Age.
“We needed to educate ourselves about the sire lines that we weren’t so familiar with – there was a lot to learn”
That crop also contained Graded stakes performers Good Governance, Serve The King and Value Proposition. Another member of the cohort, Demarchelier, won the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes and became the first son of Dubawi to stand in Kentucky when taking up residence at Claiborne Farm in 2019.
Ryan’s strike-rate with the yearlings purchased that first year was underpinned by much more than beginner’s luck, as he explains no stone was left unturned during long days spent inspecting the lots on offer at Park Paddocks.
“We looked at somewhere between 350 and 375 out of the 550 that were in the book, so we went through it very thoroughly,” he says.
“We needed to educate ourselves about the sire lines that we weren’t so familiar with, and there was a lot to learn and a lot to catch up on. There are a lot of horses everybody knows, the likes of Galileo, Dubawi, Frankel and now Kingman, of course, but there were a lot of sires with stock there that we weren’t very familiar with that are capable of siring good horses.
“We wanted to get as much exposure to the European horses as we could because, if it worked out, our plan was to come back and keep doing it. We worked it very hard, but not in our wildest dreams could we have foreseen how much success we’d have.”
It is curious to think back to a period when Ryan and his associates were unsure whether a trip to Tattersalls would yield the kind of result they desired, as the fullness of time has revealed that the exercise has been a resounding triumph.
The second visit led to the purchase of leading turf performer and triple Grade 1 winner Domestic Spending and Grade 3 scorer Counterparty Risk, while a third visit in 2019 led to the acquisition of talents such as Grade 2 winners Public Sector and Technical Analysis, the progressive Listed scorer Sifting Sands and the multiple Grade 1-placed Higher Truth. In 2020 Ryan was the third leading spender at Book 1, with 17 lots sourced at an outlay of 4,490,000gns.
Allied to a determination to work the sales grounds hard, Ryan explains that there is a clear brief for the kind of horses they want to take home, albeit he says an open mind remains essential in sourcing as fast a horse as possible.
“We focus more on the horses who want to run a mile to a mile and a quarter, not so much the five- and six-furlong horses as there aren’t enough opportunities for them in America, and not so much the mile-and-a-half plus horses as there just aren’t races for those either,” he says. “So we know what kind of horses we want to buy.
“I’ve learned through the years that athletes come in all shapes and sizes though, and I put a lot of emphasis on mentality as well. So it’s a matter of personal preference too and not everyone likes the same horse.”
While Ryan may be the most active US-based buyer to hit the European sales scene in recent years, he is far from alone. Nor are the Americans simply after ‘two-turn’ horses. In 2019, Bradley Weisbord and Liz Crow unearthed Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf heroine Aunt Pearl, and around 70 lots earlier agent Ben McElroy signed for Campanelle on behalf of Stonestreet Stables.
The daughter of Kodiac was sent from Tattersalls to the Wesley Ward barn and has since returned to Europe to prove herself one of the finest sprinting fillies around. Campanelle was back in Britain the year after her purchase to claim the Queen Mary Stakes before a trip to France saw her land the Prix Morny. Some 12 months on from her first Royal Ascot success, Campanelle returned to annex a dramatic renewal of the Commonwealth Cup.
“Horseracing is a global endeavour and I enjoy competing worldwide,” says Stonestreet Stables’ owner Barbara Banke. “Campanelle is very courageous, very fast and loves Royal Ascot. She matched Lady Aurelia’s back-to-back victories and we will be aiming for the trifecta next year. I love Royal Ascot too; it’s such a fun race meeting. Winning there is very special, and we hope to be back next year competing with a combination of homebreds and purchases.”
Campanelle is not the only significant buy that Stonestreet Stables have made in Europe, as, aided by McElroy, the operation has also found the likes of Prix de la Vallee d’Auge scorer Twilight Gleaming, and other winners such as Captivance and Ruthin. With Stonestreet having interests in a number of American stallions, including leading light Curlin at Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms, the acquisition of European-bred fillies also has an importance beyond the racetrack.
“The sales in Britain and Ireland offer a great opportunity for us to access different bloodlines,” says Banke. “We procure fillies that we think will ultimately be a good outcross for our US-based sires.”
Although the outcross appeal possessed by yearlings bred and sold in Europe is clear, Banke says she would not rule out using British, Irish or French stallions with her purchases should the right mating present itself.
“The first mating will be to a US-based stallion to give us a better idea about the type of producer they might be,” she says on future plans for the likes of Campanelle. “We are open to visiting foreign sires with any member of our broodmare band though as we aim to make global pedigrees and horses that can compete on the world stage.”
While the fresh blood US buyers can find in the sales rings of Europe is one major draw, both Banke and Ryan stress that is not merely down to the most proven members of the continent’s stallion ranks. While Stonestreet’s familiar yellow and maroon colours have been carried by the progeny of Invincible Spirit, Kodiac and Sea The Stars, the operation has also thrown its support behind first-crop names such as Churchill, National Defense and Ribchester.
“We are open to well-established sires like Kodiac as well as first-season stallions,” says Banke. “In fact, a filly of ours named Ruthin became Ribchester’s first winner when she ran at Keeneland this spring.”
“We’ve been very successful with Kingman and he fits in very well in America because he throws horses with a great turn of foot”
Ryan echoed Banke’s sentiments about needing broad horizons when buying overseas, although understandably has a particularly high opinion of Kingman having purchased Domestic Spending, Public Sector and Technical Analysis, all of whom are by the Banstead Manor Stud sire.
“We’ve been very successful with Kingman and he fits in very well in America because he throws horses with a great turn of foot and a high cruising speed,” he says. “We’re very open-minded though because you never know where you’ll find a good horse.
“There are a lot of very good sires in Britain, Ireland and France and the depth of sire power at Book 1 is very, very strong, as are the female pedigrees. The physicals are our priority though; the pedigree just dictates how much the horse is going to cost.”
US-based buyers have had an increasingly important role in underpinning the market, particularly at Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale, where American interests spent close to 8,000,000gns in 2020, almost ten per cent of the blue-chip auction’s turnover of 82,385,000gns.
Despite the growing volume of investment, US-based purchasers have maintained a strong trend towards value acquisitions. Aunt Pearl recouped an investment of 280,000gns with interest when landing a Grade 1 at the Breeders’ Cup, Stonestreet Stables’ heroine Campanelle was sourced at 190,000gns before winning two Group 1s and £398,064 in prize-money, while Twilight Gleaming was only the 85th most expensive lot at last year’s Goffs Orby Sale when signed for at just £75,000.
Ryan recently made seven purchases during Book 1 of the Keeneland September Sale at an average spend of $441,429, while the 48 dockets he has signed at Tattersalls’ equivalent in the last three years have an average value of 250,520gns.
Among his purchases are the likes of Newspaperofrecord, who fetched 200,000gns, Domestic Spending cost 300,000gns, while Digital Age was a slightly more punchy 325,000gns. Although this trio all generated six-figure sums in the sales ring, they have undoubtedly proved value buys having gone on to be seven-figure prize-money earners on the track.
However, Ryan explains that shopping at this level of the market started as a reaction to the competition they faced when going after the most blue-chip lots, as opposed to a carefully executed plan.
“We don’t necessarily buy at the highest end as it’s difficult to compete with the likes of the Maktoums, Coolmore, Sheikh Obaid and King Power Racing,” says Ryan. “Peter Brant was underbidder many times at 600,000gns, 700,000gns, even up to a million, but you’re constantly running second and we wanted to come back with some horses.
“Obviously we adjusted pretty quickly because we said there’s no point banging heads with those big buyers because you’re just not going to be able to buy those horses. We soon realised there were a lot of very nice yearlings just beneath the top end.”
However, last year Ryan broke with convention when going to 1,400,000gns for the Galileo half-sister to Group 1-winning sprinter Dream Of Dreams. He says of his priciest Book 1 purchase to date: “I normally don’t have that kind of money to spend on one given horse but she was the best filly I saw last year, either in Europe or America. She’s owned by Whisper Hill Farm [owned by Mandy Pope], that was the first time they’ve bought from Tattersalls, and she could be anything next year.”
The question now is how far can American investment in the European bloodstock market go? Tattersalls’ Marketing Director Jimmy George says the growing impact US buyers are having rates a copybook case of success breeding success.
“We can talk all we like when trying to coax and cajole buyers to come to Tattersalls, but ultimately the success these horses are having is the biggest driver of all,” says George. “For the October Yearling Sale to produce more Saratoga turf stakes winners than any other yearling sale, and by a fair margin, would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
“But that’s what people are really noticing as there’s now a compelling story to tell. Buyers like Mike Ryan and Chad Brown honed in on a sector of the market, in and around the middle market of Book 1, which is a very important sector, with one or two of the headline acts as well, and they’re buying the kind of horses owners want in significant numbers.
“Mike and Chad might have been the pathfinders but there are other buyers, people like Ben McElroy and Liz Crow, doing it very successfully too and American investment is very important to the market at the October Yearling Sale at the moment. It would be surprising if we didn’t see this momentum sustained.”
Given their respective successes, it is no surprise that Banke and Ryan are among those planning on being active at the major dates across Britain and Ireland later this year, a promising sign for those selling perhaps, but a rather ominous one for those domestic buyers hoping to source future stars of their own.
“Yes, we’ll be shopping,” was Banke’s response when asked about her activities at upcoming sales at Goffs and Tattersalls, while Ryan will be focussing on Book 1 as usual, saying: “I’ll be back this October as it’s a big part of our year now, and I’m sure there’ll be more people coming over in future.
“You have the best of Ireland and Britain, and even some French-breds in there, and from all the top breeders, so it’s pretty hard to beat that. I’d have to say it might be the best yearling sale in the world. The only thing we’d ask for is good weather as last year was unbelievable!”
There are, of course, no guarantees the British and Irish weather will remain fine for the upcoming yearling sales. But with a growing list of success stories to their name, there seems a distinct possibility that buyers venturing from the US will continue to run hot in Europe.