Rarely have thoroughbred breeders faced such a challenging time. The damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to the wider world, in particular the economy, casts a bleak outlook for the sales season that lies ahead, a period that for many breeders is vital to fuel their operation.
The impact of the last downturn in 2008/9 on breeders was finely illustrated in the contraction of the British and Irish foal crops, which combined fell from 18,502 in 2007 to 11,192 in 2012. In the years since then, the figure has crept back up to around 14,500 but it would be folly to think that another contraction – most likely a significant one – won’t now be again forthcoming.
Given that the majority of stallion nomination contracts for 2020 would have been signed prior to the outbreak, it will be several years until we gain a full understanding of its impact on the British breeding landscape.
However, breeders by their very nature are an optimistic group and there remains hope in some quarters that racing’s allure will soften any upcoming troughs in the market.
We speak to four breeders to find out how they are facing up to a challenging year in the bloodstock world.
LAUNDRY COTTAGE STUD
Last year’s Tattersalls December Sale seems a world away now amid an environment beset by social distancing and economic uncertainty but for those at Laundry Cottage Stud in Hertfordshire it will continue to live fondly in the memory as the scene of one of its strongest commercial performances.
Colin and Melba Bryce’s stud sold a pair of colt foals by Bated Breath and Farhh through Jamie Railton for 185,000gns and 110,000gns as well as a Caravaggio colt for 80,000gns. Neither Bated Breath or Farhh stood for more than £10,000 at the time of conception while the Caravaggio colt was the result of an inexpensive mare purchase made the previous summer.
It was an excellent collection of results for a stud that houses less than ten mares, and in that Colin Bryce is keen to deflect some of the praise to stud members Dempsey Powell and Jane Reed.
However, 16 years of experience at the helm of Laundry Cottage has also made the Bryces acutely aware of the challenges facing small breeders in producing a commercially viable product, not least the presence of luck.
“The stars aligned,” says Colin Bryce, who remains a senior advisor with Morgan Stanley following a 27-year spell at the investment bank. “We had a very nice crop of foals including three nice colts by the ‘right’ stallions. We were really lucky; it doesn’t happen very often.”
Working in Laundry Cottage’s favour is their reputation as a source of successful racehorses, notably Wootton Bassett, the 2010 Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere winner and now a leading sire in France. Stakes performers Zaman, Lady Heidi, Bonnie Charlie and Mullein are among its other graduates.
The Bryces are hands-on breeders, foaling down their own mares and walking them in for covering when they can. Their broodmare band had already been trimmed down prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, and now sits at eight. Following their successful foal sale, they also only have a handful of yearlings to sell, therefore lessening their exposure to what is likely to be a depressed autumn market.
“It is obviously going to be tough,” says Bryce. “I am a great believer in cycles and I suspect we are entering a trough. The real danger is how the pandemic will affect the people with wealth, those buyers who pay the money for the one in ten horse that the small breeder relies upon.
“For small breeders, there is often that one horse who pays for the others and if the buyers of those horses are affected, such as from the suppression of the oil industries, then that has to be a threat.
“But I think the market will come back – I don’t think that after 300 years of interest in horse racing in the country along with the tradition of animal husbandry and breeding stock, that it will be going away.
“Who knows for 2022 as there are lots of conditional probabilities to work through, but the allure of owning and racing horses is strong enough to overwhelm any issues and that strong allure is not going to evaporate.”
A wide range of British, Irish and French stallions were patronised by Laundry Cottage this year, among them Bated Breath, Havana Gold, Showcasing and Due Diligence. Wootton Bassett, who is enjoying such a fine season in France with his three-year-olds, also remains supported and is represented within this year’s crop of foals.
For many small breeders, bloodstock is a passion and in that Laundry Cottage is no different. As such, any storm that happens to come the way of the market will be weathered, and perhaps with the prospect of capitalising on opportunity.
“The days of us paying large sums for broodmares have gone but that’s for all sorts of reasons, mainly due to experience!” says Bryce.
“But we could do with another mare and there has to be a chance that something we like will come on to the market.”
KIRTLINGTON PARK STUD
Further investment could also be on the cards at the Budgett family’s Kirtlington Park Stud in Oxfordshire.
Kirtlington Park has hosted a polo club since 1926 and today remains one of the most significant of its kind in Britain with over 150 ponies on its books. More recently, the thoroughbred arm has come alive on the 700-acre estate under the management of Charlie Budgett, who has spent the past six years striving to develop the stud into a respected boarding and consigning operation
There is a precedent to that in the nearby Kirtlington Stud, which is etched in history as the birthplace of Arthur Budgett’s Derby winners Blakeney and Morston.
Now under the ownership of Charlie’s uncle Chris Budgett, Kirtlington can boast a recent roll of honour that includes Harbinger and Sir Percy.
“We’re giving it a really good kick,” says Charlie Budgett. “We’ve got 18 mares here and we have had a really good season, everything is in foal. It’s great that we’ve still been able to cover mares – the TBA have done a fantastic job in that respect. Shifting the paperwork for covering online has also worked really well and I’m sure that has gone down well with the stallion men.”
He adds: “We have sold several mares privately since the crisis broke but with the idea of replacing them with better stock, and that’s something we try to do every year. We’ve spent more on covering fees as well. So I feel we’re on an upward curve, and with a bit of time lag, we might be closer to some kind of normal by the time we come to sell.
“We don’t want to have too many mares on the place but there will be opportunities to buy. We have a few people who have said that they would be interested in buying shares with us – enough anyway to think that we could end up buying a couple of really nice mares this year.”
In the meantime, life goes on at Kirtlington Park Stud. With two key members of staff living on the farm, the team have been able to continue working while isolating on the farm. One of the only differences, Budgett says, is that responsibility for some of the more time consuming jobs, such as paddock maintenance, has fallen to the stud team following the furloughing of several ground staff.
For all his enthusiasm in enhancing the Kirtlington Park broodmare band, however, Budgett also remains grounded in his assessment of what lies ahead at the sales this autumn.
“One of the biggest worries is what could happen at the horses-in-training sales,” he says. “Polo is working on a very limited season as is three-day eventing, so that’s two sectors that are not going to be in a position to soak up many horses.
“But the yearling market is going to be where we’ll really get hit. The breeze-up boys, one of the bravest buying groups out there, will get hit as well. They buy a lot of yearlings but it’s not just that, it’s the number they also bid on.”
Consequently, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that work is in place at the stud to put some of its yearlings in training next year.
“We’re putting together syndicates to race some of the yearlings with an eye towards the resale market,” Budgett says. “It’s a punt but I think we’re better off doing that, sending them to a trainer we like and trying to protect the mare’s value while hopefully coming up with one that we can resell for a bit of money.”
THE GLANVILLES STUD
Doug and Lucy Procter’s The Glanvilles Stud in Dorset headed into 2020 on the crest of a wave. There was Kenny Alexander’s wonderful mare Honeysuckle, who was bred by Dr Geoffrey Guy at the stud and would go on to stretch her unbeaten record in the Irish Champion Hurdle and Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, and fellow graduate Sam Spinner, the 2017 Long Walk Hurdle winner for whom a bright start over fences had culminated last December in a near 40-length victory in a Grade 2 novices’ chase at Doncaster.
Additionally on the Flat, there was the satisfaction of Separate, produced by one of their remaining Flat mares, Miss Moses, who had progressed through a busy juvenile campaign to run third in the Oh So Sharp Stakes at Newmarket. Since then, the stud has also been represented by Beaute Pour Toi, a taking debut winner for Nicolas Clement at Saint-Cloud during the early days of France’s return to racing.
“It started as a hobby, breeding from point-to-point mares and we built it up from there,” says Doug Procter. “What is so exciting about Honeysuckle is that here you have a horse that when you ask the question, she just does it. It’s very exciting, and now we have her full- brother, Last Royal, in training, and a half-sister, Roc Royal.”
The Sherborne-based stud consists of two properties; The Glanvilles Stud houses the broodmares while the nearby Pitts Farm Stud acts as a base for youngstock.
Now run with an emphasis towards jumps breeding, the stud typically sells all the colts as foals and the fillies as stores. However, that thinking may have to be altered this year, as Procter explains.
“All our foals have been fillies this year,” he says. “They are a very nice crop of foals but we’ll have to see what kind of season the pinhookers have at the store sales before we decide if we send any to the foal sales.
“Sadly, it won’t be a normal store market this year. As I see it, most people will be scaling back. The point-to-point buyers will reinvest at some point but they haven’t been able to run many of their young horses and the likelihood is that they won’t reinvest until they have sold those. And we haven’t had the end of season sales for people to clear out stuff, so they might now be persevering with horses and not reinvesting. So I expect the store market below the very top to be very tough.
“It’s also frustrating because I really thought that this would be the year that people would be looking more closely at fillies. They had such a good Cheltenham and then the programme is so good for them now. I thought if we can’t sell fillies at auction this year, then we never will.”
However, although realistic in his approach, Procter can see some glimmers of light.
“The difference between this and other recessions is the fact we don’t know how long or deep it will be because we’re still in the early stages,” he says. “As in all businesses there will be people who don’t make it. But I also think that if you can come out of the other side and with some nice stock, then you will be in a position to do well.”
To that end, the stud’s breeding season has remained uninterrupted, albeit with several late changes with an eye to the future.
“Very early on in the pandemic, I decided that we would press on,” says Procter. “The only changes I made was switching two of the mares that were due to be covered in France – they both stayed in Britain instead – and that was down to cost.”
He adds: “Once we know the extent and depth of the recession and how to stay on top of the disease, then I believe everything will start to come back. And
I think within the jumps market, some of those people looking to buy the better horses will still have the resources. Obviously some of them will have been hit though I still think there will be people left.
“We have just got to work through it. But racing is after all a spectator sport and I think it is in a very good position to put on a good product.”
CULWORTH GROUNDS STUD
Sophie Buckley of Culworth Grounds Stud approaches her fifth year of consigning off the back of a memorable sales season in 2019, one that was highlighted by a Cable Bay colt who blossomed from a €4,000 pinhook into a 160,000gns yearling.
The sale of a Showcasing colt on behalf of Shutford Stud for 120,000gns also contributed to a fine autumn while on the track there is the promise of Lingfield scorer Kipps, an earlier pinhook by the Banbury-based stud who is well regarded by Hughie Morrison.
Culworth Grounds is on an upward swing, and with a new collection of pinhooks complementing the stud’s homebreds for 2020, the foundations had been laid for another potentially productive autumn – in a normal year, that is.
“I try to sell all my homebreds as yearlings so my cycle is that bit longer,” says Buckley. “But the problem for breeders is that expenses are going up.
“It’s a little bit early to say what could happen in the autumn, too early even to say whether there will be yearling sales in October. By now the sale companies would have been booked in to see the yearlings and obviously so far they are behind on that.
“You wonder whether there is the scope in the calendar to put back some of those sales. I did have it in the back of my mind to send a couple of well-bred fillies to the December Yearling Sale – I think that is a realistic and possible option. I’m also very lucky here in that we have the facilities and capabilities to break them in and get them going if we have to.
“I think everyone when they come to sell will just have to be realistic.”
The shutdown has at least allowed consignors some time into putting some thought and preparation into whatever the market may throw at them this year. One only needs to looks at the way in which parts of the breeze-up sector have embraced the idea of digital marketing to promote their stock this spring, and similarly Buckley is preparing to take greater advantage of the digital world when the time comes.
“We have had plenty of time to think,” she says. “What can we do better? How can we make the system that we have better? We already have a website and we have prepared pages to go live. All the yearlings will have videos, photos, and pedigrees – plenty for people to see when we come to sell them.”
Until then, life remains busy at Culworth Grounds, and Buckley is quick to praise her staff in light of the difficulties caused by the pandemic.
“It has been very difficult for the staff here,” she says. “They haven’t been able to go home. With the foaling season going on, it’s been very busy and we couldn’t afford for anyone to get sick, so everyone has been strictly following the protocols. I really have appreciated their hard work.
“On the other hand, it’s been great for team bonding. Everyone has really pulled together.”