Mick Goss
Livestock farming is a tough business, particularly when you’re dealing with a hot- blooded creature like we are. It’s not only a matter of flesh and blood; it’s the speed and the volatility of the racehorse, that bodes for his fragility.
— Mick Goss / Summerhill Stud CEO

There’s one thing about time in the racing game; it lends a perspective to your thinking. We’ve had a bit of time to reflect on the outcomes accruing from last week’s CTS Johannesburg Ready To Run Sale, as well as the contingency plans we’re having to make in the wake of Await The Dawn’s passing. You might ask what the two have to do with each other, and the answer is, “everything”. We’ve always maintained that the Ready To Run was one of the pillars on which our Breeder’s Championships were built, if only because it informed us so clearly of what we might expect from a particular mating, and especially from a new sire’s progeny. When you have the opportunity to work with an animal, the one thing he has to do to be a racehorse, is run, so very soon, you get to know about his temperament, his action, how quickly he learns, what gears he has, how much work he can take and how well he responds to his work physically. That in turn is a guide to whether a stallion is worth persevering with, and if so, what sort of mates he is best suited to.

While we won’t always get it right, in short, it’s rare for a breeder to work with his stock to the point of going to the races, more so when you’re doing it 200 times a year. And since the sale itself instructs us more vividly than anything else, perhaps that’s where we should start. In order to achieve a fair comparison with the previous year’s sale, we should bear in mind that, for the time being, the CTS format is “without reserve”, which means that in arriving at an average or median price for example, you should strip out the vendor buy-backs first. According to CTS, applying this exercise, the average for their sale was R206,000 (as opposed to the officially reported R178,000 odd), and by the same measure the Summerhill average was R212,484 (compared to R207,598 in 2013).

CTS Johannesburg Ready To Run Sale at the Inanda Club, Sandton / Hamish Niven Photography (p)

It’s true, our one lament on the back of an exceptionally well organised inaugural CTS Jo'burg sale, was the paucity of buyers in the middle to lower brackets, which meant that, while some horses fetched far more than we might have anticipated, more than a few made less than their worth. Yes, there was a post office strike and the catalogues are only now reaching their addresses (you wonder how many others were similarly affected and what impact it's had on the economy), and yes, the signs at the National Two Year Sale in August warned of a market in which the smaller players were struggling to find buyers, yet we’d still have anticipated a better performance in this terrain. The answer is partly financial, and perhaps partly political: for the time being, the name Cape Thoroughbred Sales has a “provincial” ring to it, particularly in a year in which the Currie Cup final was a Western Province / Lions affair, and it does conjure some fear in the minds of the smaller fellows who for the first time in their lives, are subjected to the conduct of diligent credit checks.

Many trainers, senior members of the profession among them, have little in the way of assets to back their credit applications, so the only thing a sales company can rely upon, in a world where banks are reluctant to provide references, is reputation. Gauteng is a new bedfellow for CTS, and as the only sales organisation in the land that guarantees vendors their receipts in a specified time, they are understandably cautious in their credit-granting, particularly with late applications. You need only turn one or two people down or clip their credit wings, and the word is out soon enough.

Knowing CTS and their management, they will take the time (now that they have it, as we only gave them two months’ notice of this sale) to engage one-on-one with the fellows who make up this market, and allay their fears. The simple truth is, if you’ve been around long enough and you’ve always been a good mark, you have nothing to fear.

Since the Ready To Run Sale in the Johannesburg environs was, for the first time in 28 years, split by our decision to go with CTS, comparisons between the two were inevitable. At face value, the TBA was better by average and median, while the CTS sale was the winner by aggregate. We use the word “face value” advisedly: once the vendor buy-backs are stripped out of the CTS numbers, and the undisclosed buy-backs at the TBA sale are discounted, the averages were not far apart.

The growth in numbers at the TBA sale in recent years has been the product of two things: firstly, as a former chairman of the TBA once said, “Summerhill has become a victim to its own success”; the better the results and the bigger the prize, the more vendors want a piece of the action. Secondly, the TBA’s policy of accepting all-comers in the way of entries in its pursuit of commissions, has encouraged any number of speculative buyers to enter their horses in the sale, if only to qualify them for the big race a year later. This has meant that the catalogue has become cluttered with horses whose owners’ intentions are aimed principally at qualifying for the race, and hence buying them in at inflated numbers. This is best illustrated by the TBA’s joint top-priced colt (at R1.2million), which was a buy-back, and if he alone is stripped out of the numbers, the average drops by more than R12,000 a horse. We’ve not done a full analysis, but eight other pretty obvious buy-backs drop the numbers by a further R30,000 odd per horse, which, together with the top price, reduces the average by more than R40,000. One thing we do know about the CTS event, was that it was a proper racehorse sale, where the horses were there to be sold, and their figures are therefore likely to be more reliable. On this basis then, it is evident that the more accurate outcome was that the CTS numbers were better in all three departments, aggregate, average and median. Coupled with this is the fact that there were probably more smaller players in their market who enjoyed the confidence of the TBA’s credit committee and were thus enabled to buy, and you begin to get a sense of where the market really resides. In the end, though, we’re comforted knowing that, at the very least, we and our vendors will be paid. On time, nogal.

Enough said on the question of comparisons: it’s our business to deal with our own outcomes and what they meant for our consigning customers, and how we can build on these for greater success in the future. One thing’s for sure, CTS could not have done more in organising the best gallops we’ve had the pleasure to host, they could not have done more in transforming the venue into the spectacle it turned out to be, and at the top end of the market, they couldn’t have done more in ensuring the buyers were there to support it. CTS was the week’s dominant player at the upper end, no argument, and knowing what has to be done to secure their share of the rest of the market, there’s hope for the future.

Turning to what has to be found to fill the gap left behind by Await The Dawn, we need to accommodate some 75 broodmares elsewhere. Of one thing there is little doubt, and that was the enthusiasm with which the Visionaires, and to a slightly lesser degree, the Brave Tin Soldiers, were received at last week’s sales; both have made promising debuts with their first runners at the races, and represent obvious alternatives, already apparent in their respective advance bookings. The grapevine in racing is a hot line at this time of year, and it’s well known that the first Golden Swords (now yearlings) have enjoyed the admiration of several highly-placed judges, while back at the “plaas”, the people who are closest to them have more than a passing respect for the Traffic Guards. With few opportunities at his disposal, Admire Main has certainly put his hand up, so we have enough options available; it was only a matter of securing the generosity of our stallion principals, and we’ve been able to accommodate every customer on the best of terms.

Livestock farming is a tough business, particularly when you’re dealing with a hot- blooded creature like we are. It’s not only a matter of flesh and blood; it’s the speed and the volatility of the racehorse that bodes for his fragility. All seemed well in the world of Await The Dawn, yet it’s one of the savage truths of breeding thoroughbreds, that when things seem too good to be true, they almost certainly are. A horse like Await The Dawn leaves a gaping hole, and as we revisited the foals this week, we’ve realised just how hard he will be to replace. We are lucky though, in the friends we have, and those that are already in search of a successor. The one thing you can be sure of, we won’t rest till we’ve found one of his worth.