Firm foundations or falling flat? How the breeze-up season is shaping up so far
This time 12 months ago the first breeze-up sale was still over six weeks away as the schedule for selling two-year-olds felt the blunt force of the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic.
The key dates were ultimately salvaged, although with the entire season being staged so late in the year, with even the sales of early juveniles taking place after Royal Ascot, it rates an experience no-one would wish to repeat.
Following such a turbulent 2020, the hope was that this year's breeze-up sales would produce something more like business as usual.
With the early sales back in their regular pre-Royal Ascot positions and Covid-19 restrictions easing across Britain, the Tattersalls Craven and Guineas events and the Goffs UK auction in Doncaster have all been held under conditions about as close to normal as could be expected.
Trade has been solid, with all three sales posting figures that make for positive reading to varying degrees. However, straightforward year-on-year comparisons always seemed likely to be improved upon after such an anomalous round of sales in 2020, and as such traditional statistics perhaps do not reveal as much about the state of the current market as might typically be the case. Delving a little further back into the past therefore seems a wise move.
Although the traditional indices of aggregate, average and median prices can tell us plenty, there are more complex methods of sales analysis that reveal a more rounded picture.
It is not uncommon to hear buyers and sellers refer to different areas of the market, such as the top end, where trade has typically been strong of late, or the middle market, where selling has tended to prove more problematic.
Quartile analysis is a useful tool when it comes to understanding the state of trade at the different tiers of the market. This involves sorting sold lots by price and then dividing the resulting list into four equal sections, giving us the upper quartile, upper middle, lower middle and bottom quartile. An average price can then be calculated for each sector and compared in the same way whole-sale averages would be examined.
The majority of two-year-olds presented at the breeze-ups have already changed hands at public auction, predominantly at the unbroken yearling stage as thoroughbred speculators aim to turn base metals into pure pinhooking gold through a blend of careful preparation and market foresight.
Through careful analysis of results and previous sales data, we can also assess how many lots sold for a profit at the breeze-up sales. Examining pinhooking profit is not an exact science as the list of variables that can affect how much a consignor spends on getting each horse to the breeze-ups can vary markedly.
Among the factors that differ horse by horse are the amount of time between being pinhooked and being reoffered, cost of travel to and from the sales, staff wages, vets' bills and the amount spent on general husbandry such as feed and bedding.
However, for the purposes of this exercise a fixed cost of £9,000/€10,500 has been added to the yearling price of each two-year-old sold to determine whether they have proved a profitable pinhook or not.
There will, of course, be lots who cost less than this sum to produce at a breeze-up sale, and others who cost more, but after canvassing industry opinion it was determined that these figures represented something close to the average amount spent per horse. An additional $8,000 was added to lots imported from the US.
Aided by the methods detailed above, we will now take a deep dive into the results of the three major European breeze-up sales held so far this year.
Tattersalls Craven Sale
Despite having produced talents such as Sands Of Mali and Summer Sands, the Ascot Breeze-Up was shelved in 2021, meaning the Tattersalls Craven brought the curtain up on the European two-year-old sales circuit.
Tattersalls introduced the £250,000 Craven Royal Ascot/Group 1 Bonus this year and those hoping to scoop a piece of that prize contributed to a decidedly solid set of results. Some 121 two-year-olds sold at a clip of 88 per cent, a clear improvement on the clearance rates of 83 per cent and 78 per cent in 2020 and 2019 respectively.
The Craven market rebounded well from the Covid-hit renewal in 2020, with aggregate sales up 57 per cent to 10,408,500gns and the median up 11 per cent to 68,000gns, figures that set the high mark for this year's European breeze-ups. The upper middle, lower middle and bottom market quartile averages all showed year-on-year gains too, up by 22 per cent to 91,840gns, 14 per cent to 54,435gns and five per cent to 24,790gns respectively.
Although the 360,000gns top lot is the most expensive breezer sold in Europe so far this year, the top end of the Craven market was not so buoyant as is usually the case, including in 2020 when the top lot fetched 575,000gns. This meant that the upper quartile average dropped by 23 per cent year-on-year to 177,930gns.
Moreover, the Craven Sale still has work to do to reach the admittedly giddy heights it has hit in the past.
All four market quartiles were down against the results generated in 2019, with the top tier down 37 per cent against an average of 282,855gns, the upper and lower middles down 24 per cent from 120,600gns and 13 per cent from 62,680gns respectively, and the bottom down 11 per cent from 27,820gns.
Nonetheless, the majority of those who sold at this year's renewal will have left with a spring in their step as the pinhooking results suggest plenty enjoyed a fruitful sale. Of the 121 lots sold, 72 had changed hands at the yearling sales.
The Tattersalls Craven Sale top lot breezes up the Rowley Mile Laura Green
Of those 72, 57 (79 per cent) returned a profit on their yearling price, while 11 (42 per cent) of the 26 who sold as a foal but did not sell as a yearling also showed a profit too.
This means that, all told, 69 per cent of the previously sold lots generated a profit on their past purchase price. The 23 lots outstanding, representing 19 per cent of all sold lots, were changing hands for the first time at public auction.
The sale has already supplied one eyecatching winner in Go Bears Go, who went the way of Alex Elliott and Amo Racing at 150,000gns before making a successful debut at Ascot on Saturday.
Goffs UK Breeze-Up Sale
Trade reached record-breaking levels in Doncaster, with an 89 per cent clearance rate backed up by some punchy year-on-year gains that not only eclipsed 2020's results but also the previous bests achieved in 2019 too.
Turnover of £6,219,500 was up 56 per cent against 2020 and 22 per cent against 2019, the average was £48,590, up nine per cent and six per cent compared to the last two renewals, and the median rose to £34,000, up 21 per cent against 12 months ago and 31 per cent against the figure recorded 24 months back.
This success was mirrored in the quartile figures too, suggesting there was strength in depth to the market.
The top end average was up five per cent year-on-year to £111,595, the upper middle went up six per cent to £47,580, the lower middle recorded the biggest climb by rising 18 per cent to £25,190 and the bottom quartile was up ten per cent to £11,135. The gains were even more pronounced when this year's results were compared to 2019, with one notable exception.
The upper middle quartile was up 21 per cent, the lower middle up 28 per cent and the bottom up 38 per cent. However, as was also the case at the Craven, the top end was not quite so lively as has been the case in previous years, which led to a six per cent downturn compared to a quartile average of £118,405 in 2019, when the top lot fetched a record £450,000.
The high mark this time around was less than half that sum as a pair of colts who brought £210,000 apiece shared top lot honours. Nonetheless, despite the uppermost quartile average being clipped in against 2019's results, the overall total of 15 six-figure lots was still a sale record.
Lot 118: the Twilight Son colt sold to Michael O'Callaghan for £210,000 at the Goffs UK Breeze-Up Sale Sarah Farnsworth/Goffs UK
On the pinhooking front, 77 of the 128 sold lots had changed hands as a yearling, and 45 of those (60 per cent) duly returned a profit.
A further 21 lots had last been sold as a foal prior to changing hands in Doncaster, and eight (38 per cent) of those transactions yielded a profit for connections. This means that 53 (54 per cent) of the 98 previously sold lots provided a profitable return.
Some 30 of those 128 two-year-olds, 23 per cent of all lots sold, changed hands for the first time at public auction in Doncaster.
Tattersalls Guineas Sale
Vendors largely sang from the same hymn sheet when assessing the Craven and Goffs UK sales, with the consensus being that both produced perfectly lively trade.
Opinion has been much more divided over the Guineas Sale, however, with some consignors enjoying a fruitful time of it in Newmarket and others finding selling much more of a challenge.
The bare facts would appear to support those from the former camp, as turnover was up 68 per cent year-on-year and 29 per cent against 2019's results, with the final tally of 4,492,250gns bettered only twice in the sale's history.
The average was also up by five per cent year-on-year and four per cent against 2019 at 29,950gns, while the median price rose to 24,500gns - a 42 per cent increase on the figure generated last year and two per cent up on the corresponding result 24 months ago.
The clearance rate was 82 per cent, so not quite as robust as the 89 per cent and 88 per cent ratios from the Goffs UK and Craven sales, but still a perfectly respectable return considering the larger offering, with 150 of 184 presented lots finding a buyer.
Interestingly, despite anecdotal evidence suggesting some consignors endured a tricky time of it at the Guineas Sale, it was the only one of the three major European breeze-ups held so far this year that returned positive quartile results right across the board when compared to 2020 and 2019, albeit the positive changes were not quite so marked as at other sales.
The upper quartile average this year was 65,635gns, up one per cent on the 64,180gns returned 12 months back and eight per cent higher than the 60,935gns average from 2019. The upper middle average clocked in at 31,620gns, a two per cent rise on the comparable of 30,860gns from 2020 and up a single point on the 31,180gns from 2019.
Lot 113: the Guineas Sale top lot, a colt from the first crop of Postponed, sells to Blandford Bloodstock for 135,000gns Laura Green
This year's lower middle had the biggest hike, up 31 per cent year-on-year to 18,410gns, having been 14,070gns in 2020, and three per cent more than 2019's total of 17,805gns. The bottom tier average clocked in at 8,340gns, an eight per cent rise against 2020 and a 13 per cent climb on 2019.
The pinhooking results also make for intriguing reading, with 57 (63 per cent) of the 90 lots who sold as a yearling generating a profit, while five of the 15 (33 per cent) of those who changed hands as a foal brought a price in excess of their previous purchase cost. This means that 62 (59 per cent) out of 105 previously sold lots brought a profit.
There may have been a shortage of sensational prices so far this year, a point that readily explains the top end quartile averages lacking a little of their usual vibrancy, but beyond that trade has largely been very solid, with little talk of the polarised market that has been in evidence at breeze-up sales in recent years.
Median prices have been robust across the board and from the 465 two-year-olds that have been offered at Goffs UK and Tattersalls' two sales, 399 have sold for a combined clearance rate of 86 per cent.
Pinhooking is never going to be a licence to print money, particularly in the breeze-up sector where months of hard work and any amount of investment can unravel over the course of a two-furlong breeze.
However, the results detailed above suggest there is unquestionably still profit to be made when the right product is brought to market, albeit the absolute home runs have proved harder to hit. The participation of those with the deepest pockets is usually a key component in such blockbuster lots, but as yet racing's superpowers have largely kept their powder dry.
There has been a growing sense in recent years that many consignors, and buyers too, now view Arqana as Europe's premier breeze-up fixture, meaning there is a chance that the top end firepower could be about to converge on Doncaster for the relocated Deauville auction on May 28.
However, even if Arqana and Goresbridge, which follows in Newmarket on June 3, maintain the trajectory set in motion by the three sales that have already gone, they will produce more than satisfactory trade.
Should 2021 prove to be the first step towards recovery from the Covid-19 mayhem, rather than the extent of a full-scale revitalisation, the results already recorded should make for perfectly firm foundations upon which to build.