By Pat Raia
Tennessee equestrian and horse breeder Lisa Cook wanted a Thoroughbred mare to breed to her Thoroughbred stallion, but perceived high prices always prevented her from buying one at high profile auctions such as Kentucky's Keeneland sale. But since the economy drove prices at this year's Keeneland September yearling sale downward, sport horse enthusiasts like Cook might be thinking differently.
This year, the gross prices for yearlings at Keeneland tumbled 14.8% overall, leaving some horses with no takers at the minimum starting bid of $1,000. Elsewhere sales figures haven't been much brighter. Prices for horses presented during the opening days of the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. fall mixed sale in Florida were down between 20 and 25%. And as the sale continues Tom Ventura, OBS general manager and director of sales, said he expects to see more of the same.
"There's been a downward trend nationwide and worldwide," said Ventura. "We're seeing the psychological effects of the poor performance in general economic markets."
But the sinking economy might represent a booming opportunity for horse buyers looking for athletic, willing mounts at bargain prices.
"Thoroughbreds have determination and desire bred right into them," said Anita Adamski, founder of the National American Thoroughbred Society, an organization that sponsors multi-discipline Thoroughbred events. "They are bred to assert themselves. But their versatility has never been promoted by sport horse trainers."
According to Adamski, trainers traditionally traveled abroad to purchase young Warmblood, horses to train and sell in the U.S. But the financial incentive to purchase European horses diminished along with the dollar's value against foreign currencies.
"There's just no money in it anymore," she said. "So lower prices should encourage trainers to take their clients to the Thoroughbred sales in this country."
There are other more permanent buyer incentives, too. Prior to purchase, prospective Thoroughbred buyers can peruse Jockey Club registry and performance records for a snapshot of a horse's ancestral tendencies for performance, durability, and inheritable health problems.
While sale operators say they can't track how a Thoroughbred will be used once it leaves the auction arena, Kentucky Thoroughbred breeder Antony Beck says traditionally the majority of buyers are engaged in racing.
"In the past we haven't seen participation from (sport horse owners)," said Beck, president of Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Ky. "But I don't know why we haven't seen more sport horse buyers at the sales."
According to Adamski, many sport horse owners opting for Thoroughbreds purchase their horses through private sales and rescue agencies. Others buy their horses via Web-based sales sites.
Internet sites such as such as Salesring.com and Starquine.com allow buyers to peruse hundreds of horses from their desktops. Many horses are offered at below auction prices because online seller listing fees are substantially lower than brick and mortar sales' consigner and entry fees.
But there are downsides to finding available horses online. Negotiations between sellers and buyers usually take place either online or via telephone, and buyers who want a close up look at a horse must travel to do it.
Buyers must travel to established sales as well. But generally, both horses and sellers are onsite when they get there. Support service providers are also available to assist neophyte Thoroughbred buyers.
"If people are comfortable choosing among the horses themselves they can do that," Venture said. "If not, we can provide a list of agents who can help make their choices."
Veterinarians are also available to examine potential purchases.
"For example if a mare is presented as being in foal, buyers have 24-hours to confirm that with a veterinarian," Ventura said.
Buyers are responsible to pay agents' and veterinarians' fees, but are not charged sales commissions. Those are paid by sellers. However, buyers must establish credit with the sale operator before bidding begins. Cash at the time of sale is preferred payment, but sale operators generally allow qualified buyers to purchase on credit as long as payment is made within 15 days.
"It's a pretty simple process," Ventura said.
Adamski said she doesn't expect sport horse enthusiasts to entirely stop purchasing horses via private sales and rescues, but she expects lower sale prices will spike sport horse owner interest in high-profile sale events.