It's a question our readers ask every time the leaders list is published following a 2-year-olds in training under tack show. It's also a question some in the bloodstock world have been asking themselves in the past couple of decades, as furlong times get faster and faster. The obvious answer is that speed (like sex in the advertising world) sells, but it hasn't always been this way.
Rollin Baugh remembers a time when the stopwatches stayed, for the most part, in buyers' pockets.
Baugh said the 2-year-old sales started as a marketing gimmick. In 1957, Ocala Stud's Joe O'Farrell helped launch the first one as a way to sell horses with less fashionable pedigrees, the theory being buyers might see the horses' training as “value added” and take a chance on something that was ready to go to the races. O'Farrell told Sports Illustrated in 1967 that at the time it cost about $2,500 more to train a horse into a sale as a 2-year-old than it did to prep him for a yearling auction. In those early years, the Ocala Stud sales were held at Hialeah Park and required O'Farrell to put up his own money to keep them going.
“There I was in the open Hialeah paddock,” O'Farrell told SI, “with 26 2-year-olds bred like billy goats. And just as our sale started it began to rain. I had put every cent I had into that sale, and if a hard rain chased away the buyers I figured I would be bankrupt before I even got going.”
The rain fizzled out and the prices were good, posting an average of around $5,200.
O'Farrell wasn't the first to try the tactic: Bill Leach sold 2-year-olds out of Dickey Stables (before it became Ocala Stud), Carl G. Rose had tried it, and Doug Davis Jr. had as well. O'Farrell's model was more successful, despite questions in the 1960s about the long-term impact on training horses so early.
In those early days, Baugh remembers, horses galloped in pairs and sometimes went by the stands twice, hacking the first time and moving more strongly the second time.
“It didn't take a wizard but generally you'd put the lesser-moving horse on the inside … you didn't hide much of anything but that's how people did it – but they galloped,” Baugh remembered. “The gallop got to be a little stronger, but pairs were still the predominant way of doing it.”
Gradually, people began realizing the horse who “lost” the match-up would be at a disadvantage under the hammer, so horses began working alone. For some time, a quarter mile was the standard distance and horses might work twice – once the week before the sale and once the day before, with one or the other usually stronger than the other. Then, Kirkwood Stables owner Kip Elser and Baugh remember someone (their memories diverge on who) suggested shortening the distance to a furlong.
“Why should we be breezing horses at a quarter when the last eighth of the workout tends to fall apart, both the action of the horse and the time?” recalled Baugh. “Let's breeze an eighth, because it left more horses in a bunch and they didn't separate themselves as much. You didn't want them to separate too much because the bottom half was the one that was punished.”
As one horse started getting faster, consignors felt pressure to keep up. Suddenly, Elser remembers, a possible 2-year-old sale entry was prepared for the breeze show, not for the racetrack.
“It was buyer-driven and technology-driven when the video technology kept improving,” said Elser. “Everybody always says [it's getting too fast] but they keep buying the ones that go faster.”
Now, Elser says, many horses who complete the breeze shows are finishing in such similar times that buyers are timing the gallop-out, increasing the distance consignors have to worry about.
From where Elser sits, the focus on time is also a reflection of the modern buyer's use of technology. Buyers want extensive data, which some of the biometrics companies and video analysis offer.
Baugh recalls pinhooking developing along the same timeline as 2-year-old prices as owners saw a commercial opportunity, beginning in the 1980s. With time, however, the market has become more polarized and it can often be a “chicken or feathers” situation for sellers.
Baugh sold horses at his last 2-year-old auction in the 1990s after becoming distressed at what he calls “the attrition rate” of juveniles who suffer a stress injury during preparation and can't complete the process. Elser and Baugh agree they've heard the same concerns from colleagues for years now: the works are too fast for many horses, they don't showcase many at their best, and there's a significant risk of financial loss.
After decades of creating a business model based on speed, Elser and Baugh say they're not sure how – or if – the business can reverse course. Elser offered a handful of horses for an undisclosed investor at the Fasig-Tipton Gulfstream Sale with the condition they would gallop and not breeze. He revealed the investor will purchase yearlings with the same intention again this year. Both are hopeful small efforts like this could help the breeze show once again resemble on-track workouts.
“They'll never go ten flat again in their lives and if they do they won't win the race,” said Baugh. “You are buying a survivor. A survivor is good on the one hand that it survived, but what things have already been done to the horse that you'd prefer not to have done?”
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