Not so simple as merely a numbers game

The issue of foal-crop numbers has been a topic of discussion at both the TBA AGM and the seminar. While the decline has been more pronounced in Ireland, it seems to have halted in that country while in Britain the … more »

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bloodstock Editor

The issue of foal-crop numbers has been a topic of discussion at both the TBA AGM and the seminar. While the decline has been more pronounced in Ireland, it seems to have halted in that country while in Britain the expected end to the falling numbers has not materialised. Not yet, anyway.

Naturally, fewer foals mean fewer mares, fewer breeders and, ultimately, fewer horses in training ­– though the latter is equally affected by owners reducing their numbers. While the British foal crop has fallen by just over 26% since 2008, the number of horses in training is down by only 10%. In Ireland, foals are down by 39% and horses in training by almost 30%.

The corresponding period has seen some big new overseas names become involved in British racing and breeding, not least the increasingly influential Al Thani family of Qatar, but the fact remains that there is a dearth of domestic owners, who in the past would have been responsible for filling the middle and lower tiers of prices given for horses at the sales. Ask almost any smaller trainer without Dubaian or Qatari patronage how many orders they have going into this season’s yearling sales and the answer is likely to be very few.

The tightening of catalogues has produced better returns and clearance rates, which in turn has helped to boost market confidence

With the gaps in the domestic market having become more pronounced, it’s understandable that breeders have done the only sensible thing they could do, and that is to cut their numbers accordingly. The cyclical nature of the business we’re in means that the tightening of catalogues has produced better returns and clearance rates, which in turn has helped to boost market confidence. However, it’s still too soon to be over-confident, and breeders operating with a commercial aim must continue to be realistic with regard to the youngsters being produced for a still-select group of buyers. As Paul Thorman said in his presentation at the TBA seminar, “We don’t need the not-solds and the no-bids”, of which there were plenty before the booming production rates left some breeders well and truly bust.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, and a fascinating seminar talk by bloodstock agent Alastair Donald, a specialist in the Hong Kong and Australian horses-in-training markets, predicted that owners from both these areas are likely to move more towards buying yearlings in Britain and Ireland in the coming years, rather than paying the very high prices commanded by those horses with decent form.

One thing’s certain, however appalling the prize-money situation remains in this country, the appeal of British and Irish thoroughbreds has never been stronger to overseas buyers (and in case you’re wondering where our potentially top-class older stayers have disappeared to, you’ll find Masked Marvel, Sea Moon, Seville and Thought Worthy in one Australian stable alone – Robert Hickmott’s – alongside last year’s Melbourne Cup winner Green Moon).

Breeders’ contribution recognised
Paul Bittar, who spoke at the TBA AGM in early July, paid tribute to the resilience of British breeders, acknowledging the hard times of adjustment they have faced in recent years, but what must be remembered is that breeders are seldom just that. Almost every breeder in operation is also an owner, either by design or necessity, particularly in Britain. Many of the ‘not-solds’ and the ‘no-bids’, which haven’t disappeared from the sales ring completely, end up being put into training by their breeders.

This fact Paul Greeves believes has helped stop the number of horses in training in Britain fall by any more than it has. Referring to this at the seminar, he said: “There is a continuing and significant dependence on owner/breeders to sustain the level of horses in training.”

As we know, through the BHA’s determination not to reduce the fixture list despite calls from almost every quarter to do so, a reasonable-sized horse population is required, though the idea that there aren’t enough horses to go round is perhaps overstated. The reality is that there aren’t enough owners for the existing number of racehorses available.

The answer to declining field sizes is clearly not so simple as running each horse just one more time per season – no owner or trainer keeps a fit horse standing in the stable just for the fun of it. Finding suitable races – and increasingly for smaller owners and trainers this means running as close to home as possible to keep transport costs down – and not risking horses on ground which has been over-raced owing to the packed fixture list are just two factors to be taken into consideration.

There are positives to be drawn from the current situation. Greeves’ research showed that members of the reduced foal crops are generally the offspring of better mares than was previously the case, with a portion of the lesser mares having been removed from the breeding pool.

BOBIS has been widely welcomed by owner/breeders and the bonuses from the initial BOBIS races for two-year-olds, with three-year-old races being incorporated from 2014, are being snapped up frequently.
The one fly in the ointment on the BOBIS front is the BHA’s seeming desire to remove the extra incentive for TBA membership – once provided by the Breeders’ Prizes Scheme, which on the Flat has been subsumed by the new scheme – of better returns through BOBIS for TBA members (and also ROA members). However, this has not yet been confirmed, so let’s hope that the BHA Board and new Chairman, Steve Harman, another to make a welcome appearance at the AGM and awards night, will appreciate the work done by the TBA in the conception and launch of BOBIS and ensure that its members remain properly rewarded.

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About Emma Berry

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