Opportunities abound in Lexington, even during a pandemic

Preferred’s David Reid, Winbak’s Joe Thomson, Diamond Creek’s Adam Bowden and Hunterton’s Steve Stewart assess the market heading into tonight’s opening session of the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale.

by Dave Briggs

In a year dominated by dark clouds, it’s always good to get a dose of optimism from Winbak Farms’ Joe Thomson. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Thomson did not disappoint when asked to assess the state of the harness racing industry heading into tonight’s opening session of the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale.

“The optimistic part is that the purses are still there, the racetracks are still open enough to accommodate the horses, so if you’re in this business you can pretty well be assured that’s going to be going on next year,” Thomson said. “And we’re hoping that they’ll open up the casinos and they’ll be able to supplement some of the purses and so forth. That money could dry up, but right now, I think some of the racetracks are being conservative because they don’t have the casinos, but, as time goes by, we’ll be able to deal with treating the virus and hopefully the vaccines will come within the next three or four months.

“All of those things are optimistic and, when you’re buying yearlings, you’re not buying them to race next month, you’re not buying them to race in January, you’re buying them to race in the summer of next year so I would think if you have a perspective that’s probably a better opportunity right now. If you have a good racehorse right now, it’s kind of hard to get them in unless they are in some stakes, so from the buyers’ perspective, I think the yearling is a pretty good play because you’re nine or 10 months away from doing anything. I think that’s an optimistic way to look at it. I don’t see us going away. Of all bad things, there are good things that come out of it. I think one of the things is that we’ll perfect these online sales and phone sales.”

David Reid, who manages the Lexington sale with Randy Manges, said he’s reluctant to give a prediction how this year’s sale will fare, especially coming off the record-breaking sale of 2019 (full story here).

“Everyone wants to be a predictor and I’ve never been in the predicting business, per se,” Reid said. “The marketplace will take care of itself. I do believe that we have a quality group of yearlings to sell again this year. Every jurisdiction has gone through a bit of an adjustment period this year, whether it be racetracks closed temporarily, stakes races cancelled, Sires Stakes amended… wherever you race, you’ve had to deal with some adversity and, coming into the sales season, I’m sure there’s going to be some adversity that the breeders are going to have to deal with as a result, but I can’t really pinpoint where that’s going to happen.

“It seems like the interest has been good. It will be interesting to see the depth of the market.”

Steve Stewart of Hunterton Farms said this year’s sale will provide some opportunities for buyers.

“I think it’s an opportunity for people because we have to assume that the prices aren’t going to be as high as they have been for the last couple of years and the money is still there to race for… it’s a great opportunity for people,” Stewart said.

“I’m very sympathetic to the buyers in terms of what these yearlings cost because I think some breeders forget about training bills and stake payments and they are, like, ‘Well, we’ve paid this much and this much…so we should get this much.’ That’s not exactly the way it works. I think that the yearling prices are going to be more reasonable, because some of the prices… I don’t think they were so high (previous years) that you couldn’t make money with them, but it was more difficult. It will be easier to buy this year than last year and I don’t like the word ‘down’ because then it sounds like it’s a big negative. In my opinion, I would use the word ‘reasonable.’”

Adam Bowden of Diamond Creek said he is, “probably more bullish than most. We went up to the Ohio sale pretty confident that we were going to get paid well for the horses that we brought there and that sale was up 18 or 17 per cent. The Goshen sale was off by, what, a few hundred dollars? I doubt we’re going to see million-dollar yearlings (at Lexington), but I would expect the middle, the six-figure mark in the $100,000 to $300,000 will continue to be strong.

“I don’t think it will be as bad as we maybe thought a month or two ago. I was thinking (down) 25 or 30 per cent a month ago and I’m probably more like 10 per cent now.

“(Last year) we had four or more of $700,000 or more. I don’t think we’ll see that, but still think there’s plenty of quality, pedigree and physical, from what we’ve seen so far. The good horses should bring good money. Racing has come back pretty well and people are starting to make money with the racehorses in the last couple of months, hopefully they’ll put it right back into yearlings.”

But getting to this point hasn’t been easy for breeders or sale organizers.

“Obviously, the spring was challenging as far as our inspections were concerned, but Randy, myself and our sales team they hung tough and we were able to do our process,” Reid said.

“Our catalogue is increased by a number of head this year, probably largely due to the Ohio sires. Our Friday night session, I think is a dynamite session. With Downbytheseasides, Fear The Dragons and What The Hills and others, I’m really looking forward to closing out on a big night on the Friday night for the yearling sale and then we’re going to have our Mixed Sale here on Saturday.”

New this year will be augmented bidding options, including via the Internet. Though, Reid said the key is also doing a live auction.

“I think it’s very important from the sales company point of view to have a live, in-person sale,” Reid said. “We, obviously, are going to offer online bidding this year, which is going to be provided by a third-party vendor, so I’m excited to see how that works. Obviously, there will also be phone bidding because we do know that unfortunately, geographically, some international travellers are not able to get here… some Canadian buyers may opt not to come… To think that we’re going to have the same population here this year as we had in the past, that’s probably not realistic.”

Thomson said the horse industry can learn a lot from those that sell cattle online.

“They sell a lot more cattle than they do horses in this country and I think we’re catching on from them in the Internet sales. It’s starting to be a big item and if you’re into large equipment sale, they do it all the time. Ritchie Bros. has been doing it for a long time, they auction tonnes of equipment and if you’ve ever been to their sales, they’ll have an auction ring going and walking along auctioning things off, but at the same time they have people on the phones and people doing Internet and it’s been going on for a long time,” Thomson said. “For us, I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as some of the other industries in making an allowance for Internet sales.”

Thomson said the bottom line is that, “people that want to buy horses are going to figure out how to get it done.”
As for other changes for 2020, Reid said there’s some physical differences at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion and yearling videos now show much more than they ever did.

“The sales grounds at Fasig-Tipton, we’re lucky enough to follow a thoroughbred sale here they had in early September. We watched what they did – they run a first-class facility here. They have a couple of extra tents around here for gathering for people, so social distancing won’t be a problem,” Reid said. “There will be a slightly limited crowd in the sales arena, but there’s going to be alternate places to bid from. From that point of view, I think the customer is going to feel very comfortable coming to the Lexington sale this year.

“The other thing is, early on, we reached out to companies that do the videos and we encouraged them, when we started to toss the ball around, about doing these walking videos in addition to the paddock videos. I’ve heard very good things on that. Depending on your skill set and what you’re used to, some people are very happy with them. Some people still prefer to have them in the paddock, some live or some rely on the paddock video, but the buyer has got more information in 2020 than they’ve had in any years past. I would say that the walking video is a feature that’s going to be around with us at future sales and it’s a nice added tool,” Reid said.

Walner and other first-crop sires

Also new this year will be a number of first-crop sires such as Walner, Huntsville, Downbytheseaide, Fear The Dragon and What The Hill.

Apart from his duties as the co-manager of the sale, Reid also operates Preferred Equine, the sport’s largest bloodstock agency.

“Speaking as the syndicate manager of Walner, we’re excited about the first crop of Walner,” Reid said. “I’ve heard great things from other consignors and I know we have a very strong group of Walners ourselves (selling through Preferred). It’s unfortunate that we’re selling a first crop of a champion like Walner in a pandemic year, but we can’t change the calendar and I think the buyers will be happy with what they see. I just hope they sell and go into great hands and he can go out and prove himself next year, but, in the sales ring, I think he’s going to hold up very well from his individuals.

“Chapter Seven has just continued to do great things and Walner being the first son of Chapter Seven just adds a lot of excitement. It was a very good syndicate and the breeders were very supportive and there’s a lot of them in the sale… a lot of the syndicate members do breed and sell in Kentucky.”

Reid said he’s very pleased with yearlings he’s selling by other first-crop sires.

“I’m very happy with my own first-crop sires, Downbytheseaside, Huntsvilles … I’m very happy with them,” he said. “And the What The Hills. We sold What The Hill as a yearling, so it’s always interesting to sell his offspring, the same as Captaintreacherous. We sold Captaintreacherous as a yearling and to sell offerings by him is really enjoyable. We also sold Walner.”

Stewart said he’s high on the Huntsvilles, so far.

“We don’t have very many to sell and we probably have a couple more at Harrisburg, but they are probably as nice of a first-crop sires as you’ll see. I think they are extremely nice,” he said.

Bowden said he has high hopes for Downbytheseaside.

“Downbytheseaside is a horse that we owned while he was racing and stood in Ohio with Sugar Valley. He was always a horse that we loved and was hoping he’d produce the kind of quality that we’ve seen so far,” Bowden said. “We took the first group to Ohio a couple of weeks ago and we were blown away with the response that we got from the public and I expect the same to be true down here. We have three exceptionally nice horses.

“We barely advertised him for the first three years and he’s got full books and there’s a lot to be happy with. The horses all look the same, which I always think is a good thing. They look like Beaches, which we’re never going to complain if we have a group of horses that look like Somebeachsomewhere. I think you saw that with the Ohio people, they bought them in full force up there and I expect the same to be true here.

“The only unfortunate part with the Downbytheseasides is that the Lexington sale is sort of treating them like second-class citizens in putting them only on Day 5.

“They’ve treated Ohio and Indiana as second-class citizens for a number of years, where New York, to me, is just as regional. And for a horse like Huntsville to be spread out throughout the book, Downbytheseaside was as good as Huntsville and I think it’s a little unfair that you have to wait until Day 5 to see the quality that he puts forth.”

Somebeachsomewhere – end of an era

On the other side of the spectrum from first-crop sires is the fact this year marks the last group of Somebeachsomewhere yearlings to sell.

“We’re lucky to have a few of them, actually,” Reid said. “That’s definitely the end of an era. The foals we have now were obviously conceived by frozen semen and there was a limited amount of that, so I’m happy to have a couple to represent.

“He had a great impact. You see it in his stallions right now, you’re going to have Papi Rob Hanover going to Hanover Shoe Farms and Stay Hungry is already there, so there’s definitely an impact, there’s no doubt about that.”

Preferred’s consignment

In 2019, Preferred Equine led all Lexington consignors in gross sales with $9,731,000 earned, the most the company has ever grossed at the sale.

Two years ago, Preferred sold both Ramona Hill and Ready For Moni, the pair that finished first and second, respectively, in this year’s Hambletonian.

“Preferred is in a very good spot, year after year, because we’re able to represent many of the sport’s breeders, large and small. That’s the beauty about Preferred. We have a cross-section of representation jurisdictionally — breeding farms, sizes, sire power, the maternal lines — that really puts us in a good position and the results speak for themselves,” Reid said.

“We look forward coming into our sale and we really think about the density that comes out of our consignment, that’s really a credit to our breeders and we’re just fortunate enough to represent them, to market them and try to get them sold as best as possible. That’s what we continue to strive to do every year and we look forward to the sale this year despite it being a year that’s full of confusion.”

Reid said he is proud to represent a number of quality, smaller breeders such as Talbot Creek, Glengate and Warrawee in Ontario and Deo Volente in New Jersey.

“A farm like Talbot Creek, they reinvest… they are not a large breeder, per se, but they’re a quality breeder and for a few years they increased the quality of their mares. They are selling a Muscle Mass filly from the immediate family of Gimpanzee. [Hip 249 – Danika].

“Then you have long-time breeders, Lindy Farms, that followed up International Moni with Ready For Moni. There’s a lot of yearlings from that maternal line and others that they have a very strong group.

“Southwind Farms, long-time client of Preferred Equine, we sold Southwind Gentry last year and he’s the real deal for the Burke Brigade, and Southwind Tyrion … so all these nurseries, they always produce.”

Last call for White Birch

This year also marks the last crop of yearlings to be sold by White Birch Farms, which has ceased operations after the deaths of members of the Parisi family. Reid said the fact it is the end of an era is sad for himself and the entire Preferred team.

“They are a storied breeder and it’s a great legacy and I’m sorry to see it come to an end. On the other hand, it’s been a time coming and we were honored to represent them for all these years. It’s just the final chapter of it and it’s a little sad,” Reid said.

First call for Fair Winds

Starting a fresh chapter with Preferred is Fair Winds Farm of New Jersey. This year will mark the first time Fair Winds will sell some of its yearlings in Lexington.

“They sold maybe a few (in Lexington) that they had in partnerships with other partners, but this will be the first time selling the Fair Winds brand,” Reid said. “They contacted me in the early springtime and started to put some feelers out. They wanted to diversify a little bit and we’re fortunate enough to represent them. Again, they are a top breeder, they are a proven breeder with proven success and we’re honored to represent them and we hope to have satisfying results for them.”

Diamond Creek depth

Over at Diamond Creek, Bowden said he excited about his consignment’s depth.

“This is one of the best years, the best group overall from top to bottom, as I’m sure everybody says,” Bowden said. “Last year we kind of struggled having a bunch of quality and this year we have a little bit of everything. It’s nice.

“Obviously, the Day 1 horses we liked from the beginning, but there’s even horses on Day 3 that we think are as good or better as the horses on Day 1, especially athlete-wise.

“Hip 364 [Totality] may be the best horse that we’ve ever had in the paddock, as an athlete. She’s done everything right from day one. She’s not perfect and, yes, pedigree might say that she belongs on Day 3, but pound for pound she goes as well as anything we’ve ever had. She’s a highlight later on in the sale, for sure.”

Hunterton selling Mission Brief’s filly

Stewart said he is predicting big prices for a couple of trotting fillies Hunterton is selling.

“Obviously, Mission Brief’s filly is a special filly [Kadena, Hip 89]. People are saying, ‘What’s she going to sell for?’ and I know both of those fillies are probably top of the market, but what is that price, I don’t know,” Stewart said. “I might have been a little closer last year, but Jolene’s filly last year was about $600,000, which was a record for a trotting filly of all time.”

Stewart said he is also excited about Hip 7, Venerable, a Walner filly out of Jolene Jolene.

“Oh yeah, that’s a special filly,” he said. “What the top of the market is this year remains to be seen.”

Stewart also highlighted a couple of trotting colts he’s selling, “Hip 17 [Strategic Command] and Hip 69 [Flying Formation]… one is a Muscle Hill out of Satin Pillows and the other is a Walner colt out of Batoutahill.

“I would say, on the pacing colt side, Hip 10 [American Frontier], we’ve got a lot of early numbers. That’s a brother to Sportswriter and to the dam of Tall Dark Stranger.

“On the pacing filly side, there’s several nice ones, but probably the nicest one is number 57 [Kissinyougoodbye], another first cropper, Huntsville out of Yagonnakissmeornot.

“Those would be the stars of the show, but there’s a lot of other bright ones also, that’s for sure.”

Stewart said it helps to enter the sale coming off one of his best racing nights in the business.

“I would say for a breeder, I don’t think anybody had a better breeding day than we did last Saturday winning the million-dollar race (the inaugural Mohawk Million with Venerate) and the Metro (with Exploit), all in the same night,” Stewart said. “I don’t think too many breeders have been able to do that. A breeder might have won the Hambletonian and the Hambletonian Oaks, but the Oaks does not go for what the Metro went for. I’ll let someone else look up the statistic, but I’ll say that Hunterton probably did as well as you could possibly do in one night.

“Then, to toot our horn, they had eight Sires Stakes championships for Kentucky breds on the Sunday before and we won five of them. So, we’re having a very good year. We didn’t win the Hambletonian like we did last year, but we’ve won a whole lot of other ones. We sold Tall Dark Stranger and he’s just about won everything and we raised Party Girl Hill, she was never sold because Tom Hill kept her. So, we raised her. There’s a whole lot of top, top horses that come from us, let’s put it that way.”

Those are just the kind of stories leaving consignors optimistic about this year’s sale.

“It’s an exciting week,” Reid said. “There’s going to be a lot of horses change hands, with a lot of people coming in and coming out. We look forward to a long week, but hopefully a successful week and a good week.

“We just hope that we have a week that’s satisfying enough to please everybody, keep commerce going in the industry… There’s going to be champions sold out of this sale, there is every year. We hope the buyers find a way to find them in the safest way possible, the most comfortable way possible and, more importantly, whatever they feel is the best way to achieve that based on their individual needs.”

Thomson started with an optimistic view and that’s where we’ll end, too.

“Winbak is selling more in Lexington than we’ve ever sold. In fact, we’re selling about as many in any yearling select sale that we’ve ever sold. If I’m not optimistic… I don’t know what I should be doing,” he said, laughing.