Kip Elser knew at the yearling sale in Karaka, New Zealand, in late January when a Chinese friend wasn’t going back to China, if she could help it. Cary Frommer knew at the OBS Sale in mid-March when South Korean friends warned her about the importance of testing and retesting. Boyd Browning knew when moving 200 horses and all the people to go with them for the Florida 2-year-old sale, scheduled for April 1, had become an impossibility.
At various rates, Elser, Frommer and Browning, three cogs in the Mid-Atlantic 2-year-old sales market, knew that the coronavirus was going to be a disturbance, an interruption, perhaps, a bump in the road. By mid-April, that bump had become a roadblock as the pandemic shook the world and shut down the country, decimating the economy, rocketing the unemployment rate, crushing the stock market and freezing Thoroughbred racing and sales.
“What was shocking was the rapid transformation from, ‘Yeah, maybe I should be a little concerned’ to a national crisis erupting in a matter of days,” said Browning, president and CEO of Fasig-Tipton Sales Company. “Some days, you feel like you’re doing pretty good and then other days you feel like you’re going to scream and go insane. My list of accomplishments since this hit is 0 for 36 days, you feel like you can’t get anything done.”
Sales and races were postponed at best, canceled at worst. Racing was shuttered, except for a couple of outliers, including Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn Park and Tampa Bay Downs, which ran with only essential people present. In all Mid-Atlantic states, racing screeched to a halt and was still on hold through the middle of April. Fasig-Tipton canceled its Gulfstream Sale, “the first domino to fall” and scrapped its 2-year-old sale at Santa Anita June 3. The multi-faceted sales company began to play Jenga with the Midlantic 2-year-old sale at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. With the Preakness Stakes postponed, Fasig-Tipton originally adjusted its flagship Mid-Atlantic sale from May 18-19 to May 26-27 and added a second 2-year-old sale at Timonium June 22-23. As the pandemic evolved, Fasig-Tipton continued to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and changed that plan, rescheduling the May 2-year-old sale to June 29-30.
Originally, that schedule seemed feasible, safe, but that has changed as the breadth of the coronavirus has become more apparent. The number of cases worldwide had grown to two million with at least 126,000 deaths. In the United States, the numbers passed 600,000 cases and more than 26,000 deaths. And those numbers will have increased before you finish this article, this sentence. Browning was hopeful that the postponement of the May sale would allow the social distancing restrictions to flatten the curve of the virus and the world could get back to normal. He was also realistic that this might not happen.
“Most people try to make logical decisions in life and not emotional decisions, but the information and circumstances are changing so rapidly that what you said or thought on Saturday is no longer applicable the next day,” Browning said. “Hopefully it will be able to take place, that’s our intention right now, we’ll see, there will be some likely modifications slash restrictions, in place. It will look and feel a little different.”
To that end, Fasig-Tipton announced April 16 the addition of online bidding on all future live auctions. The platform will be available at Timonium in June.
“The addition of online bidding to our live auctions is a service we are pleased to offer,” said Browning via press release. “At no other time has this service been more crucial or needed. As we all work to conduct business in the current COVID-19 environment of adjusted social norms, online bidding ensures the best possible marketplace for our buyers and sellers in 2020. Looking beyond 2020, we envision this service being an integral component of all future auctions.”
The company will also further expand its long-established phone bidding program for the remainder of 2020. The service allows prospective buyers – who are not on site at an auction – to bid on horses through a member of Fasig-Tipton’s staff.
In addition, Fasig-Tipton planned the launch of a timed, online only auction platform at a future date, when appropriate. The platform will complement the company’s live auction lineup, offering buyers and sellers additional transaction opportunities that fall outside of the traditional live auction calendar.
“In the world that we live in, companies need to be flexible and willing to adapt,” continued Browning. “Fasig-Tipton will always seek to be innovative and ready to adjust our sales models to best serve the marketplace.”
The moves reinforced the message Browning delivered in a late-March video message Fasig-Tipton sent to customers by email and posted on its website. There, Browning said the company was with buyers and sellers “every step of the way.” Posted on YouTube, transmitted via email and available on the company website, the video lasted 2 minutes, 12 seconds and had been seen more than 2,500 times by mid-April.
Browning expects a modest increase in the number of horses in the Midlantic catalogue (there were 600 last year), offering an option for horses derailed by the cancellation of the Florida sale and also horses who became available when Keeneland canceled its April 2-year-old sale.
The Timonium facility is limited in how many horses it can accommodate, especially for a 2-year-old sale where horses must be able to train.
“First and foremost, you have to think about the health and welfare of the people involved and also the health and welfare of the animals involved,” Browning said. “What’s made this even trickier is that the primary type of product being sold right now is 2-year-olds in training. You have to have an under-tack show, you’ve got to able to let people see these horses in person or on video on the racetrack. We have to have under-tack shows to effectively market the majority of 2-year-olds. The men and women selling them have a program designed to allow them to perform at a very high level on a pre-determined date, that’s been one of the challenges for the consignors, the performance time has kept moving.”
Fasig-Tipton has needed to keep moving the performance to offset the threat of coronavirus which has strengthened and lengthened.
All the while, the sales company has to provide for the natural sequence of Thoroughbred sales on the calendar. Two-year-olds need to sell before yearlings, and yes, that calendar is getting more and more condensed.
Fasig-Tipton scheduled its yearling sale in Kentucky for July 13-14 and its premier sale, The Saratoga Sale, comes quickly after that Aug. 10-11. If you’re keeping score, that’s three sales in 43 days, knowing the first one might need to be postponed or, worse, abandoned. What happens then? Well, that’s on everybody’s mind but not necessarily on everybody’s lips.
“You look at every possibility, or you think you’ve looked at every possibility, and then someone suggests something you would have a thought was outlandish three months ago and you say, ‘Maybe.’ We’ve got to get the money back in the market and we have to get racing to resume. I do believe we’ll get racing back,” Browning said. “Given the opportunity, we can certainly institute a lot of the protocols and procedures that we’ve seen successful at the racetrack. We’re monitoring it daily and we’ll make whatever adjustments and changes to allow the conduct of activities that will enable us to conduct horse sales.”
As for the consignors, they’ll be ready.
With 10 weeks still to go, Elser’s Kirkwood Stables had 22 horses targeted for the rescheduled Midlantic sale. Some of those were destined for Florida, some were penciled in for Keeneland and others were always going to Timonium. Now they converge onto the same wait-and-see-and-hope program. Along with them at Elser’s base at Springdale Training Center in Camden, S.C., older horses who would normally be shipping to trainers at racetracks stay put.
In a micro sense, that’s good for Elser, Frommer and others as they continue to collect day rates, but bad on a macro level because it means racing is not taking place and potential buyers have become hamstrung owners of horses without earning potential.
“We’ve got quite a bit of unsold inventory, but we’re lucky to have jobs and we’re lucky to have a great facility. I wake up thankful for where we are, we’re being careful, we’re ticking over, taking care of the animals and doing the best we can,” Elser said. “As far as the economics of it all, that’s up in the air. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out, right now, we’re trying to keep horses and people healthy and keep working.”
Elser travels around the world and has taken a page from the playbooks of his friends in Australia and New Zealand, giving horses time off while keeping them in training.
“They ‘spell’ horses all the time, so I’m feeling my way through spelling horses a little bit without stopping with them completely,” Elser said. “They’re still going, time in the paddock, time walking, going back and forth. The main thing is they were starting to get fit and we’re trying to keep them amused.”
About 85 miles southwest from Elser, Frommer walks the same balance with racehorses meant to be going to trainers and sales horses meant to be going through the ring. Both are on hold while Frommer tries to keep everything on target, a moving target.
“We’re just in a state of suspended animation. We’re trying to keep some conditioning so when we see any light at the end of the tunnel, we can pick up and go. I’m just trying to keep some bottom on them,” Frommer said. “Some of my horses were in the Miami sale, they had done their last work to ship and then it was canceled. It’s like bringing sticks of dynamite home, trying to let them down a little, you’ve headed them for the process and the process goes away. But it’s what everybody is dealing with in everybody’s own way.”
Frommer has 27 horses scheduled for Timonium. That’s more than usual for her. Like everybody, the playbook for a May sale looks different than the playbook for a late June sale. An eighth of a mile in May is acceptable, it won’t be in June. Horses should be going farther. Horses should be closer to the races, if and when the races resume.
“I really don’t like working quarters because as fast as we have to work them and then they have to gallop out so huge, you call yourself working an eighth of a mile but you’re galloping out three eighths in :33,” Frommer said. “I realize I have to work quarters because that’s what people expect at that time of year but then you’re galloping out a half in :45 or :44. I’m really not a fan of that, but the gallop outs have become more important than the breezes so I guess I’m going to have to do it.”
Elser toys with his playbook as well, factoring in the shorter distance of Timonium’s 5-furlong track.
“Theoretically they should be doing more and be closer to the races. I’m debating that myself, because of the limitations to the Timonium configuration,” Elser said. “It’s always been a caring surface for the horses, but I’m not sure I can breeze a bunch of these three-eighths, I’m trying to work that out in my mind.”
Further complicating Elser’s process is his group of “Gallop Only” 2-year-olds pointed for the Gulfstream sale. A recent approach, these horses are not pressured into timed workouts, buyers evaluate them on strong gallops. That works on April 1, but won’t fly two months later.
“That’s another internal question,” Elser said. “It’s too late in the year to just gallop. I’m debating with myself. Should we go a steady three-eighths with that group? But that makes it hard for the buyers.”
In the meantime, as the Jenga game plays out, Elser and Frommer stepped up photography and video presentations of their horses, and explored the private market. Their clients weren’t panicking.
“I’ve talked to everybody who has a horse or a piece of a horse here, it’s a wonderful group of people,” said Elser, who sold future Grade 1 winner Mucho Gusto for $625,000 at Timonium in 2018. “Each one said, ‘Hang in there, do the best you can. Take care of our horses and it’ll all work out in the end.’”
Frommer, perennially among the top consignors at Timonium (whose graduates include graded stakes winners Trappe Shot and Dance to Bristol), found the same sense of security and confidence.
“I’ll be able to weather the storm,” Frommer said. “I haven’t had to lay anybody off, I’ve got top-notch owners. I had an owner who could have taken his horses to the farm and turned them out, but he was more worried about my employees. We’ve got nice horses and nice horses always sell.”
When, where, how and for how much is another story.
“You just wait,” Frommer said. “Every plan has now fallen off the edge of the earth.”
“None of us alive have ever been through anything like this,” Browning said. “The devastation that’s being done to people is unfathomable.”
“If it’s happened before in my lifetime,” Elser said, “I’ve blocked it out.”