Big stride, nice eye, great walk, enough pedigree to make people notice . . . so where are all the potential buyers? If history is any indicator, they’re a few stalls down the shedrow or in the next barn looking at a horse who worked a fraction of a second faster at the breeze show.
“I know the difference between having a horse work in 10-and-2 and 10-and-1 is twice the traffic at the barn,” said consignor Cary Frommer, citing the 1-furlong times for sales workouts. The breezes are typically part of a longer work, 3 furlongs to a half-mile, but the fast part comes at the beginning and gets posted for all to see. As Frommer pointed out, the faster the better in terms of attention and buzz. She always knew that, but didn’t get a true sense until she finally had a horse work a furlong in less than 102⁄5 seconds.
“I got my first 10-and-1 and it was like, ‘Holy cow,’ ” she said. “A lot more people came to see that horse.”
Like many, on both sides of the sales industry these days, Frommer wonders how fast is too fast and how much weight the stopwatch or digital scoreboard timer should really carry when the other variables impact a horse’s potential as much if not more. When she started, 11 seconds was pretty standard. Now, some horses go under 10 – though that’s not necessarily a guarantee of racetrack success.
“I don’t think it’s that indicative of talent,” said Frommer. “I’m just as happy with 10-and-2. People don’t believe it, but it’s true. Times are all about education more than anything else. More and more people have learned that it’s a matter of educating them to break off fast and keep up their strides and hopefully finish with a decent time.”
While slowing down sounds counter-
intuitive and probably impossible, Frommer would like to see less emphasis on that workout time and more on conformation, pedigree, mindset, stride, wind, walk and so on. She’s not alone.
In March, consignor Niall Brennan spoke about the topic in the Thoroughbred Daily News and sparked plenty of debate. He raised the same issues last August at Saratoga.
Consignor Kip Elser produced five “gallop-only” 2-year-olds for a client at Gulfstream Park in March, and may be on to something. Three sold at the sale, one for $100,000 to notable agent Dennis O’Neill and another for $120,000 to Maryland’s Caves Farm.
Consignor Randy Miles made the same point as Frommer – speedy workouts attract buyers’ attention and therefore produce higher prices. More horses work fast, he said, but more of them do it within themselves too and most would be just as worthy of purchase at slower times.
Hidden Brook’s Mark Roberts preps 2-year-olds in Florida for sales and called the emphasis on fast times “a joke,” though he understands the conundrum. Buyers and agents can sell fast works to clients. Consignors can generate revenue with horses who work fast.
But what’s too fast? When does time stop mattering? How do horses handle it all and what’s the impact? No Thoroughbred will run a 10-second furlong in a race, everyone agrees on that tenet. Then why do they do it at the sales?
“What we ask them to do, they’ll never do another day in their life,” said Roberts. “If a jock worked his horse like that in the morning – in :21 flat for a quarter or :10 flat for an eighth – they’d fire the jock. I know good horses work fast, but there’s a lot of good horses who work in 10-and-2, 10-and-3.”
Roberts said that’s one good thing about Timonium, the dirt surface and the tight turns keep horses from going too fast. But he cautions any buyer from relying on numbers. Look at a horse he says, talk to the consignor, consider all the variables, not just one.
“So many people, if they don’t look at a breeze sheet can’t buy a horse, but time and time again, a lot of these really good guys –
the horses they buy aren’t the fastest works,” Roberts said. “Do they breeze well? Yeah, but they’re not the fastest. A lot of people look for reasons not to buy a horse rather than looking for a reason to buy a horse.”
As any good economics student learns, the market drives behavior and behavior drives the market (or something like that). If buyers look for fast times . . . consignors try to produce fast times . . . so the times get faster . . . and faster horses attract more buyers . . . so consignors try to produce fast times . . . wash, rinse, repeat.
“It’s not like consignors wake up every day and say, ‘I want to make this horse go as fast as he can today,’ ” said Roberts. “Consignors get heat for doing it, trust me they don’t want to. But if they don’t do it, agents and owners won’t buy the horse.”
Back in August, Brennan talked about Palace Malice, who brought $200,000 as a 2-year-old in April 2012 after being purchased for just $25,000 as a yearling. The “score” registered with Brennan, but real satisfaction came much later – with the 2013 Belmont Stakes-G1 win, the Jim Dandy-G2, the Met Mile-G1 as a 4-year-old, the budding stallion career. All the pride came later with Palace Malice, and (as Brennan puts it) that’s how the Thoroughbred business should work.
“The game is funny, there’s some crazy money out there for what appears to be really good, but at the end of the day, you sell one for a lot of money you feel pressure,” he said. “It’s great for your partnership, but it’s about results. It’s about developing good horses and having good horses. For me, that’s the most satisfying part about working with young horses – seeing them go on and do something. Selling one for a lot of money is one thing, but they don’t all sell for a lot of money because they aren’t all just super perfect at the right time no matter what sale they’re at.”
Brennan thinks buyers rely too much on workout times, but also knows it’s the way of the world. Stallions are advertised with speed figures. Trainers make like handicappers and consult numbers when making claims, or comparing horses in the same race.
“There’s a lot of technology out there and people giving out lists and videos and gallop-out things, but we’re getting so far ahead of ourselves,” Brennan said. “At the end of the day a horse is a horse. What people don’t factor in is, how are they developed? How did they get to that point? And where are they going? To make them go as fast as they can possibly go on their heads, for a furlong, has got nothing to do with what they’re going to be like as racehorses.”
Of course, a Brennan-prepped filly worked a furlong in 10 seconds flat at Gulfstream in March and was the co-sales-topper at $1.2 million – though the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro and the stakes-placed Mi Vida would have attracted interest even if she walked a furlong.
“It’s a genie we can’t put back in the bottle because it’s buyer-driven,” Frommer said of the attraction to fast workouts. “You can blame the consignors, but it’s 100 percent buyer-driven. Even the people who say the times are crazy line up on the fast times.”
If there’s a way out of this room, nobody can really find the door just yet. Some suggested that sales companies could stop publishing breeze times, but that’s not going to stop others from clocking works. English and Irish breeze-up sales don’t post official times, but there are plenty of clockers and more than enough opinions.
While with Adena Springs, Roberts was involved with some 2-year-olds who (like the Elser group) just galloped at a sale. The experiment was designed to show buyers that the horses were progressing and that they could be picked up and trained from that point. They hadn’t been set down in workouts yet, but they were getting there. They had value, they had potential. They galloped two or three abreast, a little stronger down the lane, but horses being horses some galloped faster than others.
“We actually had guys clocking them, and coming up and asking us about horses and why their times were different,” said Roberts. “We were like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
Elser’s experiment with his Kirkwood Stables consignment at Gulfstream wouldn’t work at a later sale like Timonium, as 2-year-olds should be breezing by May and if they’re not something is amiss. But it’s one available avenue. Elser took it because a client asked about it and committed to the concept.
“I love the idea,” Elser said. “Hopefully, we can keep the conversation going. My horses sold adequately, not spectacularly. No regrets. I had no thoughts that if I had breezed them or something, they would have sold better. We said this was what we were going to do ahead of time, and that’s what we did.”
Elser and his client plan on pursuing the concept again next year, perhaps by investing more on yearlings at the front end but all ideas start somewhere.
“There’s a lot of ‘Wouldn’t it be great ifs,’ and ‘We shoulds,’ out there,” he said. “I got positive response out of it and we plan on doing it again. You might make buyers start to look at it differently, but you’ve got to be careful too. You don’t want to stamp them as they tried to breeze and it didn’t work. We declared it very early [horses were purchased under the name Gulfstream Gallop as yearlings in 2017] and I think that’s important.”
Long term, people say trust the marketplace. There’s bound to be a correction. It will take some theoretically slower sale horses turning into productive racehorses, and some trust between buyers and sellers. And time – only in years, not seconds.
“The only way it really changes is if owners start realizing they can buy a nice horse who works 10-and-3 or 10-and-4,” said Roberts. “When a guy can sell a horse like that, then maybe we can start getting somewhere. A lot of good horses don’t have the fastest breezes, people just need to remember that.”
Miles would love to have his horses work slower, but maintain their sales value. He doesn’t necessarily hang the success or failure of his sale on a workout, but it matters to his bottom line.
“I’d love to be able to [breeze slower or gallop] and still sell them for the kind of money we’re selling them for,” he said. “We’ve had plenty of discussions, the buyers are clocking us going out three-eighths now, it’s becoming more what you can gallop out the three-eighths in than it is what you go that eighth in. We prep them to do that.”
Finally, today’s fast furlongs might not be as problematic as you might think. Two-year-olds are trained differently than they were and the sales breeze isn’t necessarily the only time potential buyers have seen the horses train. Many buyers utilize the 3-furlong gallop-out time (typically 34-35 seconds) as a better indicator than that first, flashy furlong. Plenty of work has been done – by buyer and seller – long before the sale.
“We’ll never go back to a gallop or a no-clock system but the nice thing is the horsemen nowadays are so good at what they do that nothing is missed,” said Miles. “These horses are taken care of because of the investments that people make. The horsemanship that goes into these horses is second to none. When people say we’re tearing them up, we’re not. I used to say the same thing. Horses are well taken care of and if they’re not up to the task they get taken out of the sale, moved to a later sale, or sold privately later in the year.”
Fasig-Tipton’s Boyd Browning Jr. hears the chatter, but also knows to trust the people who buy and sell at the company’s sales.
“The marketplace ultimately determines those factors,” he said of the importance of fast workouts versus other variables. “An awful lot of good horses have been sold and some worked very, very fast and some didn’t but they looked beautiful doing it. I don’t think there’s any one formula for success, but I don’t think there is any substitute for good horsemanship.
“At the end of the day, good horsemanship prevails and folks who have a lot of success are evaluating more than the time. I feel pretty certain that an eighth-of-a-mile breeze is not a proven predictor of long-term success. There are a lot of other factors that go into it.”
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