Updated: Mar 29
In an unprecedented year and uncertain financial times, the thoroughbred industry held its breath as the yearling sales got under way at Goffs Doncaster in September. Usually a fair barometer as to the financial health of the industry, everyone waited with bated breath. With many big players missing at the sales, most people's worst fears were realised when poor sales averages and totals left the industry with a bloody lip.
After Arqana and a few other sales the market seemed to settle at the lower level, but nobody could have predicted what was about to happen at Tattersalls the following month. Many of the absent buyers appeared out the blue (although some made sales companies bring the horses to them!) and a strong Book 1 was followed by an incredibly vibrant Book 2.
Why this happened may be down to logistics and media Covid coverage biases against certain areas of the country. With Sheikh Mohammed and Hamdan Al Maktoum, totalling 145 years between them, and the American coverage of the UK situation, the lack of Arab/USA buying power at Doncaster may, with hindsight, have been a little unconcerning with none of these in a rush to catch a virus seemingly out of control.
What is more concerning than the declining yearling averages is the decline in breeding numbers on the whole. Anyone who gets the 'Return Of Mares' book from Wetherbys (a brilliant read for the statisticians) will notice some ugly trends appearing and they are set to get a whole lot worse, despite the massive reductions seen in stallion fees over the past few weeks.
Now a Covid vaccination has been announced, hopefully the industry can get back up and running in early 2021, but even if this were so, which is best case scenario, we can expect another year or two before the situation can correct itself. Breeders that survived the pandemic crisis can't just magic another few hundred horses overnight and the levy boards can't just add a few million in prize money from thin air with the levy contributions on such a downward spiral. With so many breeders cutting numbers again for next year, the probability is that we are looking at least 3/4 years for a fightback, maybe even more.
As previously mentioned, an underlining issue is the levy which, be under no illusion, is in complete freefall. With bookmakers' offices shutting down after the FOBT gate, they then had to shut for large periods due to Covid restrictions. Coupled with their unwillingness to take horse racing bets anyway, much prefering to force FOBT/online casinos onto the unsuspecting public, the levy's future was bleak even before Covid. Prize money has not only collapsed, but the recent warning signs from the industry experts are that further big culls in prize money are due, simply to survive. Several big owners have upped stumps recently and this could get worse.
Sadly, most 'punters' just want a bet and don't care which is such a shame. FOBT, virtual racing/online casinos, etc., are forced upon them and it's sad to see so much levy being taken away when we need it most. Even people who claim to love racing like racing tipsters, gamblers, and racing journalists, etc., just use the industry to line their own pockets and don't put back into the industry that feeds them.
The word that springs to mind to survive is 'stability'. The industry desperately needs to look out for each other, stabilise over the coming years, and then move forward. We cannot just carry on like nothing has happened next year, the issues of levy and breeding are intertwined. Until the industry is lead by someone who understands the mechanics, we can only hope that the damage will be limited.