John Constable, Golding Constable’s Black Riding-Horse.
John Constable, Golding Constable’s Black Riding-Horse.
Image: Sepia Times / Universal Images Group / Getty

So you want to buy  a racehorse? Abandon logic, all ye who enter here! There is good reason for the joke that the fastest way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one and buy horses. With statistics reflecting that only 3% of foals will ever become stakes winners, one has to accept that it’s like owning a yacht, or having a mistress — you enjoy the journey and don’t expect any returns.

You’ll be told a lot of things when looking at horses and people will bandy around terms like “AER” and “ROI” (most of which are a LOB). What they won’t tell you is that owning a racehorse has nothing to do with pale and boring things like investments or earnings, and even less with common sense. They are, instead, a Willy Wonka’s golden ticket into one of the most fascinating worlds imaginable. There is glamour and excitement, money (usually out of your wallet), beautiful people and travel — and horses are the passport to all of that. Be warned that the coin may land on the other side and bring frustration, heartbreak, and disappointment, but if you can laugh in the face of danger — and reckon your wallet and nerves can take it — read on!

WHERE TO BUY

There are lots of ways to buy a horse, the most common being at one of the many auctions held throughout the year. The sales calendar kicks off in January with the CTS Cape Premier Yearling Sale, held at the CTICC. It is generally scheduled around the same time as the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate, making it the perfect excuse for a long weekend in Cape Town. There’s the smaller, regional Cape Yearling Sale in February, and then the industry mainstay, the BSA National Yearling Sale at Germiston in April, usually coupled with Champions Day at Turffontein. Finally, there’s the KZN Yearling Sale, which can be combined with a trip to the Durban July — if you’re starting to see a pattern here, you’re not wrong!

Thoroughbreds traditionally embark on their training careers from around the age of two and a half. It’s worth noting that in the southern hemisphere, the season starts on 1 August and runs till 31 July and southern hemisphere-breds all turn a year older on 1 August. The trouble with buying a yearling (a horse aged between one and two years) is that it will be at least a year before your new acquisition is ready to go to a training yard, which can prove testing. To cater for folks who prefer their gratification a little more instant, there are 2 Year Old sales and even Ready To Run sales, at which you can buy a horse that has already been backed and worked and is theoretically “ready to run”.

BY THE BOOK

Whichever you choose, the list of horses on offer will be published in a catalogue, which contains each horse’s pedigree and relevant family information. If one is taking the business seriously, these provide great entertainment and study material in the weeks leading up to a sale. More serious buyers may even choose to visit their selections on the stud farm for a pre-sale inspection.

The father is referred to as the “sire” and the mother is the “dam”, and the catalogue will extol the virtues of both as well as any notable siblings and other family members down the female line. Successful horses are denoted with “black type” (bold lettering) and horses earn small black type (lowercase) for placing in graded races or bold black type (uppercase) for winning graded races, so a page “loaded with black type” indicates a horse from a successful racing family.

There is violent debate about whether yearlings ought to be sold named or unnamed. Some buy horses just because they like the name, while others refuse to consider anything they can’t name themselves. Fortunately there is a middle ground and should you buy a horse you like with a name you don’t, you can apply to change it before the horse races.

HOW TO CHOOSE

When contemplating a group of horses, one trainer was moved to comment, “It’s always possible, not likely but unquestionably possible — that one of them, almost any one of them, could be the greatest horse that has ever set foot on a racetrack. You know that almost certainly this will not be the case. But you cannot say it is impossible.”

A catalogue page from a horse sale reflects much more than just name and age.
A catalogue page from a horse sale reflects much more than just name and age.
Image: 123RF

Selecting a yearling is something of a dark art. You can ask a trainer to advise you, enlist the help of a bloodstock agent, or imbibe a lot of the hospitality on offer and simply “wing it” (a popular choice). People will feel legs, check wind, scope throats, and measure throatlatches. But know that you can study and scheme and plan and end up with much the same result as throwing your catalogue into the air and buying whatever page it happens to land open on. Racing is just like that. Which is one of its most appealing aspects.

While weighing the odds and studying pedigrees is noble, one cannot predict or measure heart or the all-important will to win, and racing folklore is littered with stories of the cheap little horse no-one wanted defying all odds to become a champion. Those stories are the best of all, because more than anything, racing sells dreams, and as dreams go, it offers some of the biggest and best.

A WILD RIDE

If you collect experiences rather than things, you’ll never run out of storage space and if it’s experience you’re after, there is little to equal racehorse ownership.

Be warned — the business is fast, furious, and pressured. The highs and lows come thick and fast and can test you to the limit, because there are no half measures. Much as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you also can’t be a little bit involved with racing. You dive into the deep end, because, well, there isn’t really a shallow one!

And it’s all condensed into a tiny microcosm, where personalities, emotions, and events are accelerated and amplified, so you really can live a lifetime in your lunch hour.

It is not for everyone, but for anyone mad enough to throw their hat into the fray, racing offers a space in the parade ring and a hell of a ride. It can be rude and crude, and it is filthy, hard, back-breaking work. It’s early mornings, little sleep, and a constant battle to maintain an equilibrium. But find the right crowd and we more or less guarantee that you will never drink so much, party so hard, laugh so loud, or have as much fun as you will with racing people. You will be excited, exhausted, and hungover in roughly equal amounts and should you ever be blessed enough to lead your horse into the winner’s enclosure, well, there’s simply no feeling like it.

Life is short. Buy the horse.

 From the April issue of Wanted 2020.

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