Maybe we saw the future at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s December mixed sale, where established racehorses were on sale and in demand.
A stakes-winning 2-year-old colt from the first crop of a Maryland stallion sold for $450,000. Another juvenile colt by the same stallion brought $210,000. A 2-year-old filly went to $175,000. A 5-year-old turf stakes horse brought $135,000.
And it wasn’t just high-end sales and 2-year-olds. Six-time winner Papa Zulu, who scored for claiming prices of $8,000 in October and $16,000 in November, sold for $25,000. Three-year-old gelding W W Springtime, an allowance winner at Monmouth Park in September, went for $38,000. Matt Groff bought The Great Casby, an eight-time winner he used to own, for $30,000 five days after he won for a $16,000 claiming tag at Penn National.
Racehorses, real racehorses, were for sale – and sold – at Timonium. The sale got a big push from owner Joe Besecker’s dispersal, but there was more to it than that. People wanted racehorses, and paid for them. Owners, trainers, agents, steeplechase people and more filled the sales pavilion and bought proven racehorses. For decent money.
Let them be a lesson.
When it comes to racing prospects, the American Thoroughbred sales market focuses its energy on yearlings and 2-year-olds. Older horses have for years changed hands through the claim box with a few pockets of auction action, usually sandwiched in around broodmares, weanlings, short yearlings and so on. As in, “Oh yeah, here’s a racehorse. What will ya give?”
Fasig-Tipton Midlantic stacked its horses of racing age in a separate catalog (after broodmares, weanlings and yearlings) and was rewarded. Bids came in from the seats, the back ring, the top rail, the telephone desk, even the mobile phone of company president Boyd Browning Jr.
“There are a bunch of useful horses coming through here and that’s good to see,” said agent Beale Payne, who signed a $100,000 ticket for Ron Paolucci on stakes-winning turf sprinter Fielder. “They’re bringing what they’re worth, certainly, and a little bit more. It’s a good mix of horses for someone like me.”
New York trainer Gary Contessa, who will get the sales-topper Laddie Liam to train for DJ Stable, liked the opportunity to bid on proven commodities. “You can fill some spots with horses like this, but man you had to pay a premium to get them,” he said. “Horses who ran last week for $10,000 went for $20,000. It’s the way it goes I guess.”
The prices came with some benefits, at least when compared to the claiming game. Potential buyers could inspect the horses, consult veterinarians and make educated decisions. Buying a horse will always be a a gamble, but an auction removes a bit of the guessing and risk. Sellers have to stand behind their products. Buyers don’t have to sweat out a shake with other potential owners – they just have to bid one more time than the other guy.
In today’s world of animal-rights protesters at the gates of racetracks and questions about horse welfare, horses of racing age sales make a better case than the claiming system. Try explaining this to someone: Five-year-old mare No Picnic had been claimed six times in her 30 starts, meaning she’d been trained by Mike Trombetta, Marcos Zulueta, Joseph Taylor, Zulueta again, Kate DeMasi, Marya Montoya and Claudio Gonzalez between April 2018 and November 2019. She did her best for all of them, winning six times and pushing her career earnings to $258,066. At the sale she brought $20,000 on a bid by Bowman and Higgins Stable. If she’s going to continue racing, and delay a broodmare career, her new owners will have to weigh the risks of putting her in a claiming race.
And that’s a shame. Auctions ought to be the rule, not the exception. North American racing should follow the leads of most racing countries and find another way to write condition books, decrease the emphasis on claiming races, expand sales opportunities and in turn better answer horse welfare questions. You care about your horses? Then why do you drop them down and lose them for a claiming price? Couldn’t you enter them in a sale, allow potential buyers to inspect them, let the market determine their value, get paid fairly and re-invest your sales proceeds in another horse while allowing some other owner or trainer a chance to do the same?
I’ve got nothing against horses who run in claiming races. Some of my best friends are/were claimers – search Equibase for Magic Sam (the 1973 version), Battle Courage and Dandy Danny for starters – but a racing system that rewards keeping a horse sounds far superior to one that rewards losing a horse to someone else.
The concept works in other countries, over and over. Horses compete for their breeders or initial buyers, find their levels in the stakes or handicap (not claiming) ranks, finish a season and – if the owner so chooses – get offered in a horses in training sale or some other spot. The pattern gets repeated year after year by major Thoroughbred operations and smaller outfits too. Besecker’s dispersal was an anomaly, as a major American owner selling nearly all of his racing stock, but it wasn’t that different from what Juddmonte, Godolphin, The Aga Khan and others do in Europe every year.
It works, and could work here too.