Amid the lick, spit and manicured polish of the sales ring it is easy to forget that young thoroughbreds thrive in a semi-feral state.
Roaming fields while their manes and tails knot like witches’ hair, their coats become thick and tufted with dirt and natural oil, and their horned feet chip at the edges, adolescent jumping horses, known as ‘stores’, can spend several years living rough.
Yet in just two months of sales preparation they are transformed from hairy bog warriors into bespoke models ready for auction. As that process beckons they receive a call from the sales inspector.
It is late on a Tuesday afternoon in April, betwixt Aintree and Punchestown, and Tom Rudd of Tattersalls Ireland is travelling from Dublin to Galway, stopping along the way to inspect horses entered for his company’s flagship Derby Sale, which takes place on June 27 and 28. This is a challenging mission in a country which has no postcodes and whose web of narrow lanes harbour horses of all shapes and persuasions.
The Derby Sale – hitherto restricted to unbroken stores aged three and four, but now offering a brief horses-in-training section – is one of three main auctions at which raw jumpers are traded. Goffs stages its June Land Rover Sale, while Doncaster’s Spring Sale in May is another source of a store, and there is every chance of finding unbroken youngsters at auctions run by Brightwells and Goresbridge. But the Derby Sale is the recognised number one.
In two months they are transformed from hairy bog warriors to bespoke models ready for auction
Top prices of €250,000, €340,000 and €325,000 in the past three years – created by familiar racing names such as Potts, Magnier and O’Leary – and averages of around €30,000, are good-enough reasons for vendors to seek places, but it is up to Inspector Rudd and half a dozen Tattersalls Ireland colleagues to give the green or red light. For well-made, good-sized horses with pedigree the decision is easy, while others just below the cut may get onto a pending list in the hope a brother or sister wins a race. For some vendors, of lesser mortals, rejection is like receiving news a child has failed to gain a place at a sought-after school.
Rudd is tactful, but stresses: “It is in no-one’s interest to take horses that don’t match the criteria, and a waste of time and money for vendors.”
For borderline horses he can offer a place at the company’s lower-tier August Sale (top prices of €52,000, €44,000 and €120,000 and an average of around €5,500 in the past three years).
The store market is an interesting barometer of racing and breeding’s wellbeing, for it has few if any sheikhs but numerous small players. Many cannot afford to buy a decent Flat-bred mare or pay the fees to visit suitable Flat sires, but the National Hunt game enables them to roll dice. Rudd says during the boom from early this century to the bust in 2008 the price of stores shot up by 40%, encouraging numerous new breeders but adding to over-production. He says: “At the peak we would inspect 1,500 to 1,600 horses hoping to fill 500 places at the Derby Sale. This year it will be just over 1,000 horses for just over 400 places.”
Vendors from all backgrounds
Brian and Shane Burke, respectively a teacher and carpenter, buy a couple of weanlings each year raise them on their parents’ Galway farm, then offer them for sale at three. Brian describes this process as “addictive”. His Westerner gelding passes inspection by Rudd and will be at this year’s Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale.
Martin Keane runs a garden centre while his wife keeps a flower shop in Athenry – their Gamut colt and Beneficial filly pass Rudd’s inspection and are booked for the Derby Sale. But at Shrule, to the west of Galway City, farmer Jim Hennelly accepts the inspector’s view that his Kalanisi filly needs more time and would be better suited to the August Sale. Hennelly looks back on a lifetime trying to find a Gold Cup winner, and says: “I bought two foals in the boom time and went home with them feeling very full of myself, but an old fella warned me, ‘Times like these are always followed by a fall’. I could hardly sleep that night and the next day said to the wife, ‘I’m reducing the stock’. I cut back from 33 horses to ten. The old fella did me a favour.”
John Joe O’Shaughnessy’s weather-beaten face has an easy smile and his enthusiasm is infectious, but his health is not at its best, so rather than trot up geldings by Westerner and Choisir for Rudd’s inspection he shoos them across the concrete cattle yard. The Westerner makes the cut for the Derby Sale.
Tom and Kathleen Kelly entered the store market after BSE took their dairy herd in 2003. “The place was so quiet without animals that we bought a couple of foals,” says Tom Kelly, “and then we bought a mare and began breeding, too.” The couple have an Oscar filly to show Rudd, who recommends she be sent to the August Sale.
The Kellys bought their first foals from Martin Cullinane, a name synonymous with the rearing and racing of young horses. Kingscliff and Go Native are two of the best to have passed through his hands, and a regular stream of customers make their way to his Mount Brown Farm in Galway, where horses of varying shapes and sizes materialise from every nook and cranny of its stone-faced barns. Rudd takes position in the centre of the yard as 13 horses are led up, wander up, canter past or gallop through.
When Cullinane remembers he has four additional three-year-olds for inspection they are simply chased into a sand ring where they race around for a few minutes, then stop and roll, giving Rudd the chance for closer surveillance.
Cullinane produces stores on a large scale, selling some 25 each year at the Derby and Land Rover sales. Summarising their sales prep, he says: “They walk for the first month and then lunge for three weeks.”
Inside the house in which he was born, he reflects: “I’d be a sucker for a nice foal, regardless of its pedigree. They have to catch my eye and if they do I’ll forgive a foot turning out or them being a little bit off at the knee. If you keep doing what you think is half right it’ll pay off occasionally.”
He adds: “You need a big eyeful of a horse for the Derby Sale.”
At Ballyclerihan breeder John O’Dwyer has the confidence of a man who bred a Champion Hurdle winner. Rock On Ruby left the farm when selling as a foal at Tattersalls Ireland, but O’Dwyer still has his dam, Stony View.
His Oscar gelding out of a full-sister to Rock On Ruby, and a Robin Des Champs filly from the family of Rathconrath and Kesslin, are both Derby Sale-bound.
So too is Mark Molloy’s Arcadio gelding, whose full-brother The Game Changer made €190,000 at Goffs’ Punchestown sale. Molloy’s home at Crossogue Farm in County Tipperary is an elegant country house, where Rudd’s early-morning inspection is completed in the drawing room with scones, jam and coffee. It is not a bribe to the inspector (and the tag-along journalist from Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder) but an example of Irish hospitality.
Telling it straight
“It would be foolish to accept a horse just because the vendor is a regular client of ours,” says Rudd. “If I say, ‘Look, you’re going to struggle to sell this one, he’s not a Derby Sale horse’, they have been doing the job long enough to know where I’m coming from.
“If you bring a horse to the Derby Sale that’s not 16 hands you’re not going to get paid. They need to be a good 16 hands, athletic and with a good page. You can forgive niggly things such as toeing out, a slight curb or a pair of off-set knees. One off-set knee means you probably won’t sell.
“Wind is a big issue but two weeks prior to the sale they have to be vetted at home. They arrive on our premises with a vet’s certificate, and three days before the sale we vet them against that certificate. We have 30 vets on the panel but a Meath vet cannot assess a horse from Meath, to ensure there is no bias. We put them through a five-part vetting that includes lungeing in a pen, a flexion test and checks on their eyes, wind and heart.”
He continues: “In a normal year fillies would make up about 10% of the Derby Sale catalogue. It has been hard to sell them since the boom ended around 2008, but a number of new schemes have been introduced to get them selling and racing again.”
In England, the TBA was involved with the OLBG Mare of the Month scheme throughout the recently concluded season, which rewarded the trainer and stable of a National Hunt mare who had performed well with the aim of encouraging trainers and owners to consider fillies at the sales.
The TBA has also worked with the BHA to improve the jumping programme for mares in training, while in Ireland there is the National Hunt Fillies’ Bonus Scheme, funded by vendors, purchasers and owners of non-sale fillies, providing €5,000 bonuses to winners of fillies’ maiden races.
Rudd adds: “Very few people are happy to buy a store and wait years to see it run – at four and a half to five they want them fit and ready for war. The days of the big monsters coming to the sale, too heavy and overweight with nothing done to them, are over. Nowadays horses are very well prepped.
“More and more French-breds are coming to the Derby Sale. Willie Mullins has done particularly well with them and one of the top prices at last year’s auction was for a son of [French sire] Network. Most that come to our sale are owned by Irish or British clients. The French race their three-year-olds, rather than sell them as stores.”
Among the many ways of pinhooking a thoroughbred, the transition of stores into once-raced pointers or bumper winners has achieved some notable recent profits.
At fledgling sales run by Brightwells at Cheltenham, DBS at Newbury and Goffs at Punchestown – in addition to long-standing auctions – there has been a wealth of six-figure transactions centring on horses that were sold as unbroken three-year-olds, trained to win a point-to-point, bumper or maiden hurdle, and then resold. Tattersalls Ireland will tap into this when selling a ‘select’ number of these proven horses at the Derby Sale.
Recent examples of this store-to-war and back-for-more trading policy include once-raced Irish pointer Padge, who at DBS’s Newbury Sale in March rose from a store price of £16,000 to £160,000 in ten months.
On Blueberry Hill changed hands for €55,000 at last year’s Derby Sale, and ten months later, with a bumper win to his name, topped Brightwells’ Cheltenham April Sale at £250,000. A contemporary at the same Derby Sale, The Game Changer, made €35,000 then but €190,000 when sold by Goffs at Punchestown following a bumper victory.
These three examples indicate store sales are a good source of raw material for pinhookers, but they can also offer value for money for racehorse owners.
Bloodstock agent Aiden Murphy says: “Because of the prices people are having to pay at these boutique horses-in-training sales some will see the value in going back to the old-fashioned method of buying a store and producing it themselves.”
Scores on the stores
Murphy says there is a shortage of top-quality stores, due to a downturn in production and the cherry-picking of foals and yearlings who never make it to public auction. Does he envisage more store owners electing to keep their horses and put them into training with a view to selling after a victory?
“Once you put a saddle on a horse it becomes high risk,” says Murphy. “If you have a store worth £50,000 then you’re a braver man than me to risk backing it and racing it. It could rise in value but, equally, it could end up worth £500.”
Northern Ireland-based bloodstock agent Kevin Ross agrees, saying: “At a late April point-to-point in the North there were 40 four-year-olds entered – that’s how tough competition is.”
He adds: “Good trade at the horses-in-training sales helped last year’s store sales and I think it will be the same this year.
“I’m expecting trade for quality stores to be strong because there are fewer horses in the country. You take a chance on what you are buying with a store horse, but for many people it is a chance to get in at a realistic level.”
Hoping for a lovely time the day we go to Bangor
British jump breeders will boost interest in their corner of the industry by taking a lead from French counterparts at a show and social get-together this summer.
Backed by the TBA, the event takes place at Bangor racecourse on Tuesday, July 23, and is being coordinated by stud owners Richard Aston (Goldford), David Futter (Yorton Farm) and Peter Hockenhull (Shade Oak). The trio are based within a short distance of Bangor but are keen to encourage participation by all involved in producing jumping stock in the UK.
At the heart of the event will be a show for jumping mares and their foals owned by British-based breeders, but regardless of the mares’ countries of origin or the foals’ sires. A similar concept is firmly established among AQPS breeders in France – Sprinter Sacre’s first public appearance was at one such show when he was two. French shows are used to promoting the breed while also giving mare owners the chance to sell their stock on the day. British organisers say selling foals is not the objective of their event, but if deals take place that is a bonus.
Aston said: “We think the idea is well worth trying and we have to start somewhere. Bangor was happy to accommodate us and stages evening racing that day.
“Dave [Futter] came up with the idea having visited France many times. He has good contacts down there and stands [the former French-based stallion] Malinas. The idea is to put on an informal opportunity for everyone in National Hunt breeding to come together to share ideas and thoughts away from the usual meet-ups at race meetings and regional stud visits.”
AQPS shows involve mares and foals, plus two-year-olds, but the British event will involve classes for mares and colt foals and mares and filly foals.
Taking place during the school holidays, Aston stressed families and the general public will be welcomed – entry is free – and said plans for side events and other points of interest are being formulated. Channel 4 Racing and RUK presenter Nick Luck will be compere for the day.