This article is a report of a little excursion I embarked upon, but I’ll start it with a question: Have you ever vowed to do something, then conveniently found excuses not to do it? Life happens to the best (or worst) of us, and we constantly reorder our priorities to make ends meet and proceed to the next matter at hand.
In my case, I had been vowing for years to make a trip to the yearling sales and try to apply all my experience, knowledge, observations, research, and skills of questionable value – with the goal of finding a future racehorse at an exceptional value. On multiple occasions I’d get one quarter, one third, even half-way through the planning stages of such an event, including 2011 when I dropped in on the Fasig-Tipton Mid-Atlantic sale with a cashier’s check but …or in 2015 when I devoured four whole catalogs and earmarked 15 or 20 yearlings of interest, but had some life issues flare up two days out and cancelled the trip. It had been 15 years since I owned a thoroughbred – and I’m only in my 40s – so what was a few years more? Still, I had the feeling that the time was right and opportunities were developing (more on that later) … and I needed a ‘vacation’ and some mental stimulus.
Why not put a modest sum of money where my mouth was?
Equibase chart from my last race as an owner (with a program trainer – and now you know what the ‘db’ stands for). A $5,000 claim who went 5-0-3-1 under my care, Wildcat Gal (Forest Wildcat o/o Blacktie Bid) was retired and sold as a broodmare for $6500 (her sire was hot at the time). In February 2004, her 2yo half-brother Dubai Dreamer (Stephen Got Even) sold for $3.1 million to HRH Princess Haya. I felt very, very ill. Dubai Dreamer ran 18 times, winning 4 times, and earned $47,489. I felt a lot better.
The work, home, and family schedules triangulated beautifully for me to plan to attend the 2017 Keeneland September Yearlings sale. 4,138 entries sold over a two-week period (12 sessions). Scouring results from recent years, it seemed the prices tailed off significantly during the last 3 sessions, so that’s where I’d focus my attention.
I applied for credit at Keeneland and to my surprise, I was granted a marker of $10,000. A modest sum, but more than I’d ever paid for a horse and enough (I thought) to buy one that was overlooked by the conventional crowd.
But what was my strategy? I certainly didn’t have time to investigate every horse on every page – and I like to scour the pedigrees and past performances for ‘hidden’ gems. Surely only a handful of horses would sell for under 10k, and even fewer of those would be something I’d like. Here’s a snapshot of what I was thinking, and possibly a harbinger of what would transpire at the sale:
• I intend to buy a horse to race. Immediate resale value (pinhooking for 2yo sale or private sale) is of little consequence. This might disqualify me from foals by trendier stallions or fillies with black-type families and residual value, but open up possibilities of finding solid ‘runners’ with non-commercial pedigrees. I’m interested in seeing the finished product!
• I’m not looking for a Mega Millions lottery ticket. My observation and belief is that much of the market in the States consists of people looking for runners who can stretch their speed to Classic distances, with the Kentucky Derby as the ultimate goal. I want a horse that has the best chance of a positive Return On Investment, even if the proverbial ‘ceiling’ for this horse is lower. Not every foal makes it to a race, and not all that race ever win one. I’d like to maximize the probability that my horse is a runner and a winner, perhaps at the expense of speculation (first foals, new stallions, untried nicks, etc.)
• Because I’m doing my best to ignore “Derby Fever” (sorry, Mike) I’d gladly sacrifice precocity for longevity. If there’s no mad rush to get the horse to the races, I can look at pedigrees that take their time coming to fruition, and hopefully are less appealing to the market.
• I’d like to take advantage of the ‘horse shortage’ and race somewhere that makes it easier to turn a profit. 21,264 live foals were reported for 2017. The combined crops of the last three years are the lowest in North America since 1968. I’ll look into the tracks with decent purses and short fields, and see if there is a ‘type’ that works best (distance, surface, etc.)
• Turf-only meets and turf racing in general is gaining in popularity. The bettors like it, so the racing managers card increasingly more turf races. New stakes races are popping up (Penn Mile) or increasing their purses (Belmont Derby) but I’ve seen no evidence of an influx of better commercial turf breeding stock, or stallions who can produce them. Ken Ramsey has been whining about the weak sales results for Kitten’s Joy, while a popular West Coast syndicate offered me a 5% stake in an unplaced maiden Kodiac filly from Ireland for $11,000. Maybe I could find one with an equal chance of breaking its maiden in allowance company, and recouping the entire investment in one race?
With about a week to go before flying out for Session 10, I narrowed my parameters to roughly these talking points:
Stallions with a stud fee < $10,000 OR an average yearling price around $25,000 or less. Anything higher than that would mean I’m probably getting damaged goods (in my price range) instead of an overlooked bargain. I call this the Toyota Camry approach. You’d be suspicious if a Lamborghini sold for 7k, but my Camry for the same price was pretty good!
Emphasis on soundness / durability vs. precocity and black type potential.
Surface versatility – something that might like turf or synthetic, to increase the odds of +ROI.
Female families that have been proven to throw winners but not flashy enough to attract big spenders.
I wouldn’t call it a blueprint, but it was at least a way to help me narrow the field and focus on what I liked best – extensive research beyond what you can see on the pedigree page. I found around 50 candidates and went to work on the internet, looking for clues…