Breeders adapting to changing market due to COVID-19

Ontario breeders are hoping the strength of the OSS program and the steadiness of the province’s racing scene will help mitigate the uncertainty that comes with capacity limits and border restrictions.

by Sandra Snyder

On Monday, Oct. 5, the first Ontario eligible yearling will make its way into the auction ring at the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale, launching a very unique yearling sales season.

Like many business owners who have navigated changing market conditions through the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario breeders are adapting on the fly and hoping that the strength of the Ontario Sires Stakes (OSS) program and the steadiness of the Ontario racing scene helps mitigate the uncertainty that comes with capacity limits and border restrictions.

“We wish we had that crystal ball to know how it’s going to unfold, but it’s going to be play it by ear and just wing it, go with whatever happens; as this year has been,” said Tammy McNiven of Twinbrook Farms in Embro, ON. “There is definitely learning for everybody involved, buyers and sellers, and there’s no wrong or right answer.”

The majority of Ontario Sired yearlings will sell in four sales. The Lexington Selected Yearling Sale kicks things off in Lexington, KY, offering in-person, telephone and online bidding options (through from Monday, Oct. 5 to Friday, Oct. 9. Up next is the Ontario Select Yearling Sale on Saturday, Oct. 17 at Winbak Farm of Ontario in Inglewood, ON, which is offering in-person and online (through bidding options. The London Virtual Yearling Sale also gets underway on Saturday, Oct. 17, but closing time for the first yearling on offer through the platform will occur no earlier than noon on Monday, Oct. 19 and the last auction closes no earlier than 6:20 pm on Wednesday, Oct. 21. The Black Book Yearling Sale will bring things to a close in Timonium, MD from Tuesday, Nov. 3 to Saturday, Nov. 7 with in-person, telephone and online bidding options.

Seelster Farms in Lucan, ON will sell the majority of its yearlings through the London Virtual Yearling Sale and assistant manager Walter Parkinson said there will be tutorials posted in the coming weeks to help acquaint buyers with the platform and the sale procedures.

“I think still being almost six weeks out from the sale gives people lots of time to really come to the farm, talk to us, see the horses, check out OnGait, and watch the tutorials and information as they come out leading up to the sale,” said Parkinson. “I think time is on everyone’s side to do it, so it’s just taking that time and making good use of it, so that when the auction does open they are well versed in how it’s going to work. There will be information all over, whether it’s in the trade publications, or online with Standardbred Canada or Ontario Racing, there’s going to be lots of information in these coming weeks to help people out.”

McNiven also encourages people to do their homework, whether they intend to travel to a sale or take advantage of the online options. Catalogues and sale websites have detailed information about all of the bidding options available, many of which require advance registration. The Standardbred Horse Sales Company online and telephone registration information emphasises the importance of early registration, noting that “Customers requesting new accounts once the sale begins will be disappointed!”

Winbak Farm of Ontario’s Pat Woods also noted that advance registration is required for the in-person aspect of the Ontario Select Yearling Sale.

“People have to be a registered bidder to get their name on the list to be here. We won’t be allowing visitors or spectators, just active bidders. We have to be that way just because of the numbers,” said Woods, noting that those working directly with the horses do not count against the total number of guests permitted on the property. “We would love everybody to be here, but in all reality we need the active bidders to be here. And you know, just make sure they check the website, because we’re going to have up-to-date details before the sale on all the rules and protocols.”

McNiven, Parkinson and Woods note that people have already started to do their homework with respect to the individual yearlings. Since Winbak’s yearlings arrived from the Maryland farm on Sept. 5, Woods has been fielding a stream of calls and visits to Twinbrook and Seelster Farms have been steady for the past two weeks.

“We are three weeks ahead of schedule. In a normal year the Tuesday following Labour Day is our standard day to move yearlings to the main farm. We really didn’t advertise them for the first week, we like to get them in and everything under way, but for the last two weeks there’s at least a group or multiple groups per day coming through,” said Parkinson. “A lot of people do like to wait for the catalogue and the videos, so print catalogues were out last week and videos will be on this week, then I’m sure we will start to become even busier with showings, but it’s been steady so far.”

In addition to the standard videos of each yearling trotting in a paddock, many farms have also added walking or showing videos and additional still photographs — head, conformation or action shots — to their media tool kits. Some are also putting social media to work in an effort to reduce the distance between yearlings and buyers.

“One of the things we are going to try to do is every couple weeks have a Facebook Live where we bring in some yearlings, have some walking towards and walking away,” said Woods. “People can watch on Facebook, and if they see something they like they can ask for more pictures or ask for another conformation video or things like that, just to try to give our yearlings more exposure to the people that can’t quite make it to the farm.”

For buyers who cannot inspect yearlings in person, all of the farms are willing to field requests for additional photographs or videos of specific features of individual yearlings.

“We are definitely more than willing to work with all potential buyers. I think that sort of stuff is quite easy for us to do now, whether it’s on your iPhone or android phone, iPad, laptop. We can do it easily live, but we can also do it by email or other methods as well, text message,” said Parkinson. “If you’re not able to come to the farm yourself or have someone you trust come, we’re more than happy to help you out in any way possible. I think this is a unique year, but I think it hopefully poses positive and unique outcomes as well.”

For those that are making trips to the farms, Woods and McNiven said people should not be shy about making repeat visits and should also get out to the farms that have just one or two yearlings for sale.

“I encourage people to go out and look at horses, don’t be afraid to go look at the guy who just has two horses in the sale,” said Woods. “Talk to the farms, tell people what you’re interested in, get the word out. If I see something from one of our consignors that I know somebody might be interested in, as much as I want to push our Winbak horses, I still want bidders and buyers to get the things they want, and I’m not afraid to tell them, ‘Go see one of our competitors, they might have something you’re interested in.’”

“Let’s face it buying a yearling is like trying to find a spouse. You want to touch it, feel it, see how it acts, its personality; it’s all part of the buying process for yearlings,” said McNiven. “We try to let everybody know, if you want to come back, don’t feel bad that you’re going to come back a second time. That’s what we’re here for. And we’re lucky enough that we’re easy access off the 401 and to Mohawk too.”

In Port Perry, ON, Tara Hills Stud does not have the advantage of easy access, so David Heffering and his staff have planned a yearling preview day on Wednesday, Sept. 30 which will feature a food truck and an opportunity to see horses in-hand and in the paddock.

“In the past we may get six to eight people come through and look at horses, and that’s about it. So frankly that was really our big worry this year, if we would see any traffic or any more people come this year to look at our horses. That’s why we decided to do a yearling preview day on the 30thof September. We’ve got a food truck and we’ll feed people all day, the food truck will be there from basically I think 10 am until 4 pm,” said Heffering. “We would like to have people RSVP. We have two or three different areas that we can walk horses and show horses, and stand them up for clients, so there is enough space and everybody can be in different areas.”

All four of the farms are hoping the success Ontario Sired horses have enjoyed both locally and in open stake events south of the border will keep interest strong in spite of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 era.

“I know that the Ontario market is strong racing-wise, we have great programs in place with the Ontario Sires Stakes and Ontario horses are competing at the highest levels and winning,” said Woods. “I mean we’ve had some great horses this year. Tall Dark Stranger is one of the best there is, and he’s Ontario-bred.”

Farms are also grateful for the flexibility and acceptance shown by buyers in the face of the significant changes to the usual routines of inspecting and selling yearlings.

“We extend our thanks to everyone who has come to the farm. Everyone is very good about respecting social distancing and wearing masks. It’s going smooth so far,” said Parkinson. “We’re looking forward to the coming weeks. It will be different, but exciting times.”

Stakes action Sept. 11 to 17

Sept. 11
• Woodbine Mohawk Park – Simcoe Stakes (3ft and 3ct)

Sept. 12
• Hiawatha Horse Park – Prospect Series (2fp)
• Woodbine Mohawk Park – Peaceful Way and William Wellwood Memorial finals, Champlain Stakes (2fp & 2cp), Simcoe Stakes (3fp), Somebeachsomewhere Stakes

Sept. 13
• Leamington Raceway – Prospect Series (2ct)
• Flamboro Downs – Prospect Series (2ft and 3ct)

Sept. 14
• Woodbine Mohawk Park – OSS Grassroots (2ct)

• Flamboro Downs – Prospect Series (2cp)
• Woodbine Mohawk Park – OSS Grassroots (2fp)

Sept. 17
• Flamboro Downs – OSS Grassroots (2ft), Prospect Series (3ft)
• Woodbine Mohawk Park – OSS Grassroots (2cp)

Ontario handicapping picks

A deep selection of handicapping picks for Ontario racetracks — featuring the talents of Garnet Barnsdale, Michael Carter and Melissa Keith — is available on the Ontario Racing website.