Competition for the sale topper at last week's Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale of select yearlings was fierce. Although Whisper Hill Farm owner Mandy Pope emerged the victor, signing a ticket for $1.45 million for a filly by Medaglia d'Oro, the sister to multiple graded stakes horse Overheard was clearly at the top of the list for a lot of people, including Spendthrift Farm's B. Wayne Hughes, but only one buyer walked away with her.
Such is the drama of horse auctions, and odds are good those underbidders walked away with victories of their own. For me, the competition at the top level only emphasizes the difficulty of taking a catalogue of 250+ horses (or, in the case of the upcoming Keeneland September Yearling Sale, over 4,400) and whittling it down to a few favorites in the right price range. It's easy to find a good horse in the crowd (although you do have to look through the whole crowd to find them), but how do you find a good horse you can afford?
I wrote a little about the short listing and purchase process during the OBS Spring Sale earlier this year, but in a yearling auction, the project is a little riskier. The horses are younger, and of course buyers don't yet know how they'll move at a gallop and certainly have no idea how fast they'll be.
Pinhooker Cary Frommer said the process is a little like hunting for a really good deal on the clearance rack at Bergdorf's. Frommer, along with business partner Barry Berkelhammer, usually reserves her August shopping for the New York-breds sale, where prices are more moderate. This year was her first voyage to the select sale, thanks in part to two seven-figure Uncle Mo pinhooks from earlier this year — her first two horses ever to reach $1 million. That extra cash flow has enabled her to do a few different things with her business, including keeping a few horses to race when they didn't bring the prices she wanted at 2-year-old auctions.
“It's exciting to not have to worry about everything you do quite the same way, and develop to a higher level, recognizing that that's what's required now in the business, and we actually have the money to do it. It'll either be a really good year or we'll be out of business next year,” she joked.
Frommer and Berkelhammer spent the weekend before the sale looking at each and every horse on the grounds, and allowed me to shadow them as they narrowed their short list from 60 horses to a handful they'd turn over to their veterinarian for examination. Here's what I picked up:
- Even for buyers working with Monopoly money, there is no “perfect horse.” As Gary Contessa told me at the 2-year-old auction, it's a matter of deciding what imperfections you can live with, and this applies with sale yearlings, too. That might be a minor finding on a veterinarian's report, or a slight conformational defect. Many horses run soundly and successfully in spite of these things.
- At the same time, there are conformation faults that Frommer isn't willing to forgive, and they're the ones she finds her buyers won't forgive, either. Being “back at the knee,” a fault in which the horse's joint appears to lean backwards of being perpendicular to the ground, is one of the cardinal sins. Interestingly, she finds European buyers are more forgiving of that and other faults than Americans.
- Frommer doesn't look too hard at the catalogue before taking her first trip through the barns, preferring to short list horses on physical type first. Sometimes, she said, she'd rather not know what a horse's pedigree is because it might bias her against a horse or make her pass one over, assuming it will be too expensive. “A lot of my horses didn't have particularly good bottom sides [on their pedigrees],” she told me, citing multiple graded stakes winner Bradester as an example. “We would rather make pedigrees instead.”
- A little window shopping, even of a horse Frommer suspects will be priced too high for her, isn't a waste of time. As a seller herself, Frommer has learned a good horse can sometimes bring a disappointing price if it comes up late in the sale, when interested buyers have already spent their budgets and there's suddenly less competition for it. If she suspects a horse could drop the hammer close to her budget, it's worth it to her to watch the sale in case circumstances create a bargain for her.
- Similarly, Frommer makes a lot of good deals on private sales after horses RNA. Sometimes, she pays the last bid price, and sometimes she can work a deal. She's even willing to take a second look at horses who didn't make her final cut if she finds out they've RNA'd. “The good thing is you look at the horse with a price in mind,” she said. “Sometimes that's a game-changer.”
- Hoof quality is important to Frommer, since she will need a horse to stay sound enough to train up to a spring sale. She'll sometimes pick up feet to look at the frog or bars on the bottom of the foot, and takes particular note of ridges or divots in the hoof walls that could indicate damage or changes in growth.
- As someone who has groomed horses at sales before, I knew too well how different a horse can look at the end of a long day of shows from the way he looks at the beginning in terms of behavior and energy. One thing I hadn't realized was a distracted horse doesn't make for a good show, either. Frommer doesn't put too much stock in a horse's attitude on the grounds (it's such a foreign environment you don't get a real sense of them, she says), but one who's rubbernecking at the filly next door will appear to walk crookedly for each step he's turning his head. This is why she often requests a number of walks from each horse she inspects.
- A lot of sale veterinarians have talked to me about new ethics rules at sales, which come down heavier on sellers and vets for failing to disclose issues on x-rays. Vets now feel they have to be overcautious in filling out veterinary reports for consignors, and consignors worry that buyers and their agents get anxious when they see too much text on the page. Frommer has noticed this trend, but has familiarized herself with the language enough to know what she's willing to accept and what she won't. She also hires her own vet to take a look at the horse and read x-rays for himself.
- Unsurprisingly, buying horses is really a relationship game. Frommer asks a few consignors what they think a yearling will go for, and makes inquiries about vet reports. Some sellers, she said, will give it to her straight, and she can use that information with confidence. Rarely, she's encountered consignors who are less trustworthy. “This is a business of relationships,” she said. “Now I know better who to believe [than when I started].”
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