Whether people are thinking about it or not, nobody in racing seems to be talking about Brexit anymore. The immediacy and brutal impact of Covid-19 have superseded Brexit as the greatest threat to the current well-being of racing.
That the industry was not to the forefront of those sport and leisure pursuits in the national plan to begin the journey back to normality left a feeling of shock among racing folk. Whatever the case may be or the specific reason behind the omission, it was symptomatic of a greater feeling that Leo Varadkar’s address to the nation on Friday evening last left more questions than answers.
On bare reading, June 29 is the date for the return of racing, falling under the banner of those sports to be returned “behind closed doors”.
That date, while only eight weeks away, means the livelihoods of tens of thousands in racing remain under tremendous pressure.
In the six weeks since the last horse race on this island, at Clonmel on March 24, this industry, like most others, has struggled. There is no question of people putting racing, or any other sport, ahead of the health of the nation’s people, but racing has previous experience running behind closed doors, and that should put it towards the top of the list to spearhead the return to normality in the sector.
When we think of the return of racing, we probably think primarily of jockeys, trainers, horses, and racecourses, but the breeding industry, which must thrive for the sport to have a prosperous future, is also dependent upon a restart.
In one aspect, breeding has continued unaffected, but the real knock-on effect is the sales, which have been kicked down the road. The Derby sale in mid-July and the Land Rover sales in August may still go ahead but they are now part of a best-case scenario.
“Mares have been visiting stallions, so that end has remained largely affected,” said breeder and journalist Ryan McElligott. “Of course, they continued to do their bit with regard to social distancing. If they were going to a stud with a mare, they were arriving at the stud, remaining in their jeep or lorry, and the stud staff were taking over from there. From that side of it, there hasn’t really been a glitch.”
The breeze-up sales should have come and gone by now, and it seems there will now be nothing until late June, at least. These sales, such as Ascot’s in early April, are tailored towards the sharper, speedier type of two-year-old.
There were more than 900 horses categorized for the breeze-up sales in Ireland, France, and the UK, and the vast majority of those were based here in Ireland. The races may still be there when racing finally returns but you would have to think that for many of them, their time has come and gone.
“The bloodstock industry depends on racing taking place,” added McElligott. “Racing is at the nucleus of it. If racing doesn’t resume until June 29, which is what is being proposed, that’s the same date there is going to be a two-day breeze-up sales between Goffs and Arqana, held in Goffs.
All these sales require the momentum of racing to be successful, so if you are going in there cold, from a situation of no racing, there is going to be lower demand, at least from the Irish buyers.
“And there are certain sires who could have been having their first runners, who would have hoped to have been making their mark with earlier types, up to and around Royal Ascot, before the Galileos arrived. Those stallions won’t be afforded a fair crack of the whip.
“These months are also crucial to many yards throughout the country. They could have horses which could have come out around now, won a two or three-year-old maiden, and been sold to Hong Kong. That trade is gone for a couple of months and could remain so for another couple, but there are many yards in the country for which that is the business model: they are selling the whole time so they can keep going.”
Pinhooking, which is the business of buying foals with the intent of selling them on at a profit as yearlings, is another notable part of the industry but whatever the pinhookers paid for their foals, the market is going to drop significantly.
As far as store sales are concerned, the backbone is the point-to-point handlers. Most of the leading handlers have about half of their high-end stock still to sell. Sales took place at the Cheltenham Festival but for those not included in that select list, they would have gone to Aintree, Punchestown, the more recently scheduled sales at Cheltenham, or the Spring Sales at Doncaster.
“The nice four-year-olds, that haven’t yet got to run in a point-to-point, will hold their value until the autumn,” said McElligott. “If you win your point-to-point impressively, you’ll still get very well paid but, because they haven’t had the chance to offload a lot of their stock, point-to-point handlers are going to be a lot more circumspect in their spending at the store sales. They won’t be buying in the same volume.
“The cohort of buyers who represent the backbone of the market are going to be quieter, and that has to result in a fairly significant market contraction. In turn, if store vendors aren’t getting very well paid, this is going to feedback into the National Hunt foal market in November/December. The long-term consequences are extremely significant.”
Generally, the sales market is one that thrives on confidence, and what is happening now, in such uncertain times, is particularly bad news. Yes, a racehorse is seen as a luxury item, and the wealthy will be able to weather the storm, but for those at the lower echelons of the industry, this remains a most uncertain time.