Would auctions speak louder in small herds?

by Trey Nosrac

Idling in the parking lot at the Dairy Whip, I looked up from my vanilla milkshake and said to my pal David in the passenger seat, “Things were touch and go, but breeders and buyers made it through a couple of yearling sales during COVID.”

He nodded. “A few years to remember.”

“A few years to forget. If another virus pops up, or even if it doesn’t, horse sales may look different in the future.”

He nodded again. “It’s a cliche, but a business that does not change is a business without a future.”

“I’m thinking about ideas to make auctions different.”

“Now, Trey, auctions are none of your…bidness.”

Wincing, I said, “Please leave puns to the professionals.”

“Agreed. So, what is your imaginary plan for ruining yearling sales? What madness is percolating?”

“Suppose I own a breeding farm. I decide next year to host a personal yearling sale, maybe a list of 50 or a 100 yearlings from my broodmares, and invite owners of mares that breed to the stallions I stand.”

“You think an individual farm could pull this off?”

I answered with a shrug.

He seemed intrigued, “A farm would need to have enough yearlings.”

“Of course.”

He seemed to get fired up, “By making it local, you might limit the marketplace.”

“Maybe. But getting the word out that you want to sell a herd of yearlings is not nuclear physics. The novelty aspect for this type of sale would draw attention.”

“But would it draw bidders?”

“Smart buyers will find a good yearling at an auction behind a McDonald’s parking lot in Podunk Falls. As a customer, if someone is selling the yearling you love, you will find it. What does it matter if the catalog has 20 or 2,000? True story, the best horse my partner and I ever bought was from a tiny, now extinct sale two states away where my partner made a surprise raid during an insurance business trip and was the last hand standing on a pacing filly. Anyway, livestream bidding would be available.”

“What else? How would a farm sale be different from the other auctions?”

“Right off the bat, buyers and sellers won’t need to ship far. Customers can make one-day trips.”

“What about the big buyers, the bidding fever, the social aspect of an enormous sale?

“What about them? Look, nobody forces anyone to show up, nobody is required to do anything, and nobody needs to buy a yearling. Everything in this game is voluntary.” I was getting a little wound up, “Yearling sales are great. The folks that run them do a terrific job, but not every sale needs to be the same year after year.”

“Easy to say when auctions are not your business.”

“No doubt, talk is cheap. Change is difficult. There are pluses and minuses, market forces, and plenty of things to consider. As I see the concept, a smaller sale could have a show day in the morning and a sale in the afternoon. The one-day event would be less grueling for the bidders and auctioneers.”

“A sale along those lines would require organization and advertising.”

“They are not reinventing a virus vaccine. Any farm considering this would need to do an analysis, perhaps outsource some parts to the professionals, but maybe they could offer lower commissions and personally highlight their yearlings.”

David thought for a few seconds, then said, “Not a bad idea.”

I gave myself a slight head slap and said, “This is the second time you have agreed with me this month.”

“You might be wearing me down.”

“Here’s something else intriguing. I was at a horse auction a few years ago, sitting in the audience, reading the catalog, and I noticed that the auction company had earmarked a slice of each sale for local charities. I found that cool, and it gave me a good vibe.”

David held up a hand to slow down my train of thoughts and said, “Breeders have been selling yearlings at large sales for a long time. Trying your concept would get resistance. Do you think it could work? Do you believe customers would accept smaller sales like this? Has this type of auction been attempted in the past?

“Probably, but this is a new world. You know the saying, ‘You never step into the same pond twice.’ If another horse elder grumbles, “we tried that in 1972, and it was a big flop,” I may slap him silly with his paper sales catalog. The world will be different in 2023.”

He asked, “Would you, as a customer, attend and purchase?

I shrugged and said, “Put me down a yes. I like new stuff in small venues.”

He gave me a thumbs up and rendered his decision, “If done correctly, this is like a home-grown fruit stand rather than a supermarket. The local angle could be a good recruitment tool for new racing folks, fresh air, and charity. A small yearling auction in a small town could be a social event, a novelty for locals to check out, but it would be risky.”

“Sure, but as your pal, Steve Jobs, once said, ‘It’s more fun to be a pirate than to row a boat.’”