The international bloodstock community was united in its interest last month as the sales calendar ticked towards one of the flagship auction events of the southern hemisphere season, the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale.

No longer was the Sydney-based sale just a barometer of the health of the Australasian yearling market or an appreciation of elite southern hemisphere stock. With the world under the fearful grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, its move to a virtual auction with online bidding saw it suddenly become a forerunner of potential events to come, its performance an indication of how a luxury market could withstand the outside economic turmoil.

As the bidding closed on Lot 514, the last of 345 horses to go through the virtual ring during two marathon sessions of selling on April 7-8, Inglis officials could take satisfaction in an international renewal of the Easter Sale that for the most part exceeded expectations.

When all was done and dusted, a total of A$68,060,500 had been traded on 214 yearlings from buyers across Australasia in addition to those situated in Britain, Ireland, Japan, Macau and Hong Kong.

The aggregate made for painful reading when judged against last year’s gross of $123,375,500 as did a clearance rate of 62%, but both later rose as more private sales were conducted. However, the average of $318,040 represented a fall of just ten per cent while the median dropped by only $10,000 to $250,000.

A $1.8 million colt by champion sire Snitzel out of Group 1 winner First Seal led the way among seven million- dollar yearlings. He was bought by Tom Magnier of Coolmore, which threw its weight behind the sale, purchasing close to $7m worth of yearlings. Coolmore also reigned as leading vendor as the source of $7.53m worth of stock.

There was also a major result for Tweenhills Farm and Stud’s shuttler Zoustar, who featured as the sire of a $1.1 million brother to Group 1 winner Sunlight.

It is worth remembering that during the days leading up to the sale, buyers had the opportunity to visit stock on the farms based across the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. In addition, Inglis announced that it would offer vendors another bite of the cherry via a second round of the auction, scheduled to be held in the traditional live format at its Riverside complex on July 5.

All the while, Australian racing continues in some areas, albeit behind closed doors – Randwick was able to host its prestigious cards for The Championships on April 4 and 11.

Results from the Easter Sale were still highly encouraging, however, especially for an event that had lost its largest vendor, Arrowfield Stud, once it was confirmed as a virtual auction; in a measure of Arrowfield’s importance to the market, its 2019 draft grossed $21.47 million and was due to comprise 60 yearlings this time around.

The colt by Snitzel who topped the online edition of Inglis’ Yearling Sale at A$1.8 million – Photo: Inglis

“This has been the most remarkable sale on so many levels,’’ said Inglis Managing Director Mark Webster. “Not only has it been the first premium yearling sale anywhere in the world conducted in this format, it has been done during a global health and financial crisis with restrictive movements internationally and between states in Australia, making it hard and in many cases impossible for buyers to inspect stock in the lead-up to the sale.

“But with fantastic teamwork and solidarity between our vendors and Inglis, we have been able to make this work.”

Inglis officials noted that the company’s website had hosted almost 300,000 engagements during the sale from more than 100 countries.

Coolmore’s Tom Magnier was quick to pay tribute to Inglis while outlining the importance of support in return.

In addition to the sale-topping Snitzel colt, Magnier’s purchases also included the second most expensive yearling, a $1.4m son of I Am Invincible, and the most expensive filly, bought for $1.1 million and another by I Am Invincible.

“We’re extremely passionate, our family is passionate about Australian racing and we’ve got some wonderful people who invest with us working with the yearlings and the stallions,’’ he said.

“There have been some wonderful horses put through the sale this week.

“It’s a credit to all the farms, not just ours, that everyone stuck together. Everyone did a great job getting their horses right, everyone got behind Inglis, everyone believed in it and made it work and when you put those formulas together, you get success.”

The British-based Badgers Bloodstock was one of a handful of European buyers, with Tom Pritchard-Gordon burning the midnight oil in Newmarket to make two strikes, firstly going to $450,000 for an American Pharoah daughter of the Golden Slipper Stakes-placed Lake Geneva and then to $110,000 for a Pierro filly in conjunction with Milano Bloodstock.

“The market appeared extraordinarily resilient to the current world issues,” said Pritchard- Gordon. “Remarkably, the sale’s filly average was $294,000, down just four per cent on the filly average last year. This was testament to the hard work Inglis and all the vendors put into the sale.”

Tom Pritchard-Gordon: believed the market appeared extremely resilient despite the Inglis sale being held online – Photo: Tattersalls

Similarly, agent James Harron, who came away with a $670,000 Frankel filly, was another to highlight the market’s resilience.

“I thought it stood up remarkably well under the circumstances,” he said. “Obviously the clearance rate was much reduced from what we are used to seeing at an Australian yearling sale, which have been running in the 80% – 90% range for the past five years, but it is also worth pointing out how extraordinary the Australian market is to have maintained such levels for an extended period when compared to analogous markets around the world over the same period.

“Naturally the Covid-19 global pandemic created an atmosphere of panic and uncertainty.

“While we have become used to online sales down here for a different level of bloodstock, with a huge number of livelihoods on the line, the prospects of such a platform being used for a premier yearling sale was completely alien.

“This took a good deal of back and forth between vendors, buyers and the sales company to get right, but eventually Inglis were able to provide a good platform for people who wished to participate in an online, virtual version of the sale.”

Harron wasn’t the only one to praise Inglis’ online platform, although as Pritchard-Gordon pointed out, a large proportion of business in this instance was conducted over the phone.

“The version of digital platform used was only a halfway house to Inglis’ tried and tested online auctions,” says Pritchard-Gordon. “It appeared that the majority of bidding was done via telephone rather than computer.

“However, the online system worked incredibly well and the slight video lag of two to three seconds was not an issue when it came to bidding.”

“Participation in the Inglis Easter Sale was a ray of light in an otherwise turbulent time”

He adds: “The full-blown online auction will surely be rolled out across the world in the near future. It is much cheaper and easier for the vendors to be involved with no travel, accommodation and staff costs. Therefore it complements lower-end bloodstock sales particularly well.

“However, if this medium is to advance into the more expensive lots, then the information provided will obviously need to be extensive.

“While Inglis did an outstanding job in such a short timeframe, videos and photos of all horses have to show every angle that would normally be studied on the ground.

“Furthermore, because size and substance are harder to assess, additional information such as weight and height must be provided. We were lucky to obtain all this information as we had colleagues on the ground inspecting the horses on our behalf.

“The only element that will be missing is temperament – viewers won’t see the horse that refuses to go back into his stall or parades angrily.”

In years to come, the industry may come to regard the Inglis Easter Yearling Sale as the curtain raiser to an era where online bidding became widely accepted.

But for now it is the auction that struck a positive note for a market currently facing one of its most challenging periods of all time.

“Participation in the Inglis Easter Sale was a ray of light in an otherwise turbulent time,” says Pritchard- Gordon. “It was uplifting to be part of a scenario where vendors, agents and sales companies were all working in collaboration to get the best possible outcome for all involved.”

Henry Beeby – Photo: George Selwyn

Online trading in Europe brought into sharper focus

As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on the European breeze-up season, and with the likelihood of further upheaval to come, the Inglis Easter Sale was understandably keenly watched by sales houses in this part of the world as they look to salvage a tumultuous start to the sales year.

“The Easter Sale gave the whole international bloodstock community a lift,” says Henry Beeby, Group Chief Executive of Goffs and UK Chairman of Goffs UK. “First and foremost I take my hat off to Inglis. They had to adapt very quickly, and under the circumstances the sale was a great success and certainly exceeded expectations. Inglis deserves immense credit.”

There has not been a live sale staged in either Britain or Ireland since March 12 when Tattersalls Cheltenham held their Cheltenham Festival Sale. The chief sufferers have naturally been the breeze- up sector, who in a normal April would have moved on stock at three different breeze-up sales.

Hopes, however, remain high among the sales companies and vendors that those sales will still take place.

As it currently stands, the first breeze- ups slated to take place this year in Britain and Ireland will be the Tattersalls Ascot and Craven Breeze-Up Sales, both of which have been delayed until June 23.

Meanwhile, Goffs UK and Arqana have joined forces to combine their breeze-up catalogues for a sale at Goffs’ Kildare base in late June.

All the while, the prospect of online trading in Europe is being brought into sharper focus.

Buyers will get a taste of sales participation via an online platform as soon as next month at the combined Goffs UK and Arqana breeze-up.

According to company officials, an ‘online platform will support the live auction with potential purchasers being offered the facility to bid as normal, over the telephone or remotely via the Arqana and Goffs websites’.

“Last autumn, Goffs UK and Goffs were working in the background to develop an online platform – Nick Nugent and Michael Orton led that charge – and in the past few weeks we have accelerated that development,” says Beeby.

“I can see online bidding becoming an important element, though there are some practicalities to consider. In Australia, the buyers go from farm to farm viewing the stock. That doesn’t really happen here.

“There is also a lot of instinct involved in buying a horse, and for that I don’t think you’ll ever take away having the horse in front of you. But with the way the world now is, people may not travel as much as before. I can see agents doing more home inspections.”

“I can see online bidding becoming an important element”

Tattersalls, which owns a 25% stake in Inglis, is also in the process of developing such a platform.

“I don’t think anyone would dispute that the conventional bloodstock sales model is very much the preferred one, particularly for yearlings of the quality to be found at the Inglis Easter Sale,” says Tattersalls Marketing Director Jimmy George. “But the virtual sale they conducted has clearly demonstrated that bloodstock sales can adapt and be conducted successfully under very different and challenging circumstances.

“Tattersalls has a very close relationship with Inglis and we are delighted not only that the Easter Yearling Sale went as well as it did, but also that it has given out such a positive message as regards the possible options available to the industry when facing unprecedented challenges.

“We have been looking at various digital platforms for a while now and it makes sense to prioritise these projects under the current circumstances and to explore as many sensible options as possible to facilitate the sales process.”

Then there is the question of yearling inspections ahead of the autumn yearling sales season. The bulk of Goffs’ inspections take place in May and June, says Beeby, and once restrictions start to ease, the group will have “a number of protocols in place” so they can be carried out.

“You’re out in the open looking at these horses,” says Beeby. “We can hand sanitise before and after each visit. I don’t need to touch the horse so I don’t need to be near its handler. It’s not too hard to distance.”

“It makes sense to prioritise these projects under the current circumstances”

George also envisages “little disruption” to the Tattersalls inspection schedule besides a later start.

“Our bloodstock sales team has been looking at various options for yearling inspections based on a variety of different scenarios,” he says. “First and foremost we will proceed in full accordance with any government guidelines, whilst also at all times respecting the wishes of our clients.

“At this stage our inspectors will not be out and about quite as early as usual, but based on predictions surrounding the lifting of the current restrictions, we would hope that there will be relatively little disruption to yearling inspections and also to our yearling sales calendar.”

After all, October is still five months away and so there remains a real hope that those yearling sales slated for that autumnal slot, namely the Goffs Orby and Tattersalls October Sales, won’t have to undergo significant revision.

“While life will almost certainly take some time to return to full normality,” says George, “our October Yearling Sales are nearly six months away and while realism is essential, it is equally important for us all to remain optimistic.

“We are all part of an industry based on optimism and famous for its resilience, two characteristics which will serve us well in these uncertain and unsettling times.”