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Sales horses outnumber homebreds among Eclipse winners
By Joe Nevills
As the outcome of the 2012 Eclipse Awards proved, a champion can come from anywhere in a sales catalog.
While the idea that you should spend millions at public auction to secure a future Eclipse Award winner did pan out in the case of Royal Delta, the list of champions was just as strongly represented by horses who could have been had for a far more modest price.
A total of seven Eclipse Awards were won in 2012 by horses who sold either privately or at public auction before their final start of the year. Five awards were won by homebreds, with Horse of the Year Wise Dan accounting for three of them.
The most expensive champion among this year’s Eclipse Award winners was Royal Delta, who was purchased by Ben Leon’s Besilu Stables for $8.5 million at the 2011 Keeneland November breeding stock sale in the days following her first victory in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. An Empire Maker mare, she was the centerpiece of the dispersal of the late Prince Saud bin Khaled’s Palides Investments N.V.
The story of I’ll Have Another’s ascension from an $11,000 pinhooking prospect in the second-to-last book of the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale is well documented, but the dual classic winner is actually not the lowest-priced horse to take home a trophy in 2012.
That distinction belongs to champion sprinter Trinniberg, who was purchased by M&H Training and Sales for $1,500 at the 2010 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky fall yearling sale. It was the lowest price paid for a future Eclipse Award winner at public auction in the past decade. A Teuflesberg colt, Trinniberg was then purchased by current owner Shivananda Parbhoo for $21,000 at the 2011 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. spring 2-year-olds in training sale.
Beau Lane, who consigned Trinniberg as a yearling, said the colt had a badly conformed foot.
“The right front was turned out,” Lane said. “We started bringing him out of the stall, and they’d look at that front leg and say, ‘Thank you,’ and we’d put him back.”
Both Trinniberg and I’ll Have Another sold as yearlings in 2010 at the deepest point of the recent market recession, which perhaps drove their prices even lower than what normally would have been expected at sales.
“I thought the bottom, even at the very worst, we’d get $5,000” for Trinniberg, Lane said. “But I didn’t realize how severely they were going to discount him because of that leg. Nobody had any money. They were picking so hard and looking for the perfect horse.”
Those two horses also were the only champions of 2012 to be successfully pinhooked from yearlings to the 2-year-old sales. Both sold at the 2011 Ocala Breeders’ spring 2-year-olds in training sale in April.
Keeneland led all sales companies in 2012 by champions consigned, with four. Three of those went through the ring during the September yearling sale, including both champion 2-year-olds, Beholder and Shanghai Bobby, who each sold in Book 2 in 2011.
“The potential in the Keeneland September sale to buy a champion can be at any price level, and that is very encouraging for us to go out to find new owners and tell them that they don’t have to come to September expecting to buy at a top price,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales. “You can buy champions at a fair price.”
Sold horses dominate the decade
This year’s awards marked the seventh time over the past decade that horses purchased at auction or through private transactions have outnumbered homebreds by Eclipse Awards won.
A total of 116 equine Eclipse Awards have been given out since 2003, excluding special awards, and 59 percent of them have gone to non-homebreds. Wise Dan was the first homebred to be named Horse of the Year since Stronach Stables’s Ghostzapper in 2004.
While Russell said that the success of sale horses is gratifying from a marketing standpoint, it shows that an important segment of the industry might be withering.
“I think it reflects the fact that over the last 10 years, the industry has become more sales-oriented,” Russell said. “We have lost in the last 10 to 20 years the ‘owner-breeder.’ While I think the sales companies enjoy the fact that we sell champions, we’d also like to see more owner-breeders be developed in our game.”
The notion that champion horses don’t come cheap largely remained true over the past decade, but recent history has shown that the upper-middle market has been more abundant with Eclipse Award winners than the headline-grabbing sale toppers.
The average sale price paid for an eventual Eclipse Award winner at public auction since 2003 is $347,310. The average sale price for a Horse of the Year in the same timeframe is $156,750, though that figure does not include the private purchases of champions Invasor and Rachel Alexandra.
Removing Royal Delta’s near-record price from the equation, this year’s class of champions was particularly economical, with the next-highest-priced horse being Beholder at $180,000.
Only three champions over the past decade have been purchased at public auction for $1 million or more before Eclipse-winning campaigns: 2012 champion older female Royal Delta (who sold for $8.5 million in the year in which she was named champion 3-year-old filly); 2007 champion 3-year-old filly Rags to Riches ($1.9 million, 2005 Keeneland September); and 2004 champion sprinter Speightstown ($2 million, 1999 Keeneland July yearling).
“It just tells me that everybody has a chance at this game,” Lane said. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful game. You’ve got to take chances sometimes. If you don’t shoot, you can’t score.”
Maybe it's just too expensive these days to keep horses from birth to racing retirement. Breeders need an earlier return on their investment to make a living, so they sell them at auction. Racing stables avoid the expense of maintaining farms and breeding stock by buying them at auction. If everyone is happy, what's the problem?
God Bless Mr Fink. His work with his homebreds paints a picture of Racing itself.