However high the tide, master of all trades surfs the value wave to quality
Chris McGrath talks to John Warren about a market he knows from both sides
Nestling among green pleats of Berkshire downland, its paddocks swaying gently beneath wooded ridges, Highclere Stud on a fine autumn morning would have to be counted one of the most enchanted havens of the British Turf.
On the second day of the annual Highclere Thoroughbreds yearling parade, however, the usual, highly persuasive formula – the presentation of one glistening young horse after another; the ease of the patrician hosts, now in their 25th year of operation; the sheer harmony of the setting, man's restrained interventions seamless with the hand of Nature – was overlaid by the eerie passage of Storm Ophelia's eastern fringe. Dark cloud churned over the ridges, drawing into its folds a sinister half-light, and the canopy of the miniature grandstand snapped fitfully in growing gusts of wind.
Everyone knew, of course, that this was only the ragged margin of the tempest. And, in its way, that was a pretty apt analogy for John Warren's zone of operation over the past few weeks. For the yearling market, this year, had its lid blown clean off by a wild surge of spending, from Deauville to Keeneland to the final frenzy of the Tattersalls October Sale. Yet once again Warren has somehow come away with 11 yearlings to sustain his reputation for scrupulous selectivity, all uncovered in a periphery of the market between 42,000gns and 240,000gns.
Was it harder than usual, in the midst of such a giddy bull run? "I'm tempted to say yes," Warren muses. "But the fact is that it's never been easy. We're so used to it being hard, we beat ourselves up on trying to get horses that tick all the boxes. It was an incredible market, a phenomenal market. But I feel we didn't have to compromise. And that's the most important thing for us. We would rather not buy than compromise."
When Warren started out as an agent, he had no choice but to concentrate on physiques. The pedigree was purely the filter of what might be affordable. But necessity is the mother of invention, and the habits he learned then continue to serve him well now.
"You could argue: how do we know that a first-season sire like Australia is going to pan out?" Warren says, reflecting on his latest recruits. "But when they're that high class, any stallion can get a good horse. And if we stick to the physicals we try to buy every year, then we've got a decent chance.
"Whenever it was, nearly 40 years ago, we never had any money to spend. So the only thing we could concentrate on was a physical. Back then you had the option of buying a bit of pedigree and hoping for the best; or of concentrating hard on a physical that might over-ride his pedigree."
Warren, of course, has a rare breadth of perspective on a market he surveys both as a purchasing agent for the Highclere syndicates and as co-owner of the stud's consigning operation, supervised by his wife Carolyn. Highclere was again the leading vendor at Tattersalls Book 1 – by a distance, and for the seventh time since 2007.
"If you actually analyse a very hot market, there is a case for saying that there are very few players [driving the top end]," reflects this master of all trades, who also manages the Queen's racing string. "And while you might have an idea what they're doing, you never know what their exact brief is. So if they're concentrating on something specific, with a couple of thousand horses out there to buy, then it might be this Australia or that New Approach – or it might be ten others. So there are cracks, there are gaps. And we just keep our heads down, we've got our system in place.
"There were lots of horses we were realistic enough to understand weren't going to fall into the category of what we're trying to achieve here. But at the end of the day there are 500-odd in Book 1, 800 in Book 2, 300 in Ireland, a couple of hundred in Deauville. So you've just got to wear the system down: keep eliminating and eliminating and eliminating, until you've got your final horses you want to lock onto."
And even these have two final hoops to jump: in the parade ring, and then in the sales ring itself. "When you've only looked at a horse in isolation, all of a sudden it can all look quite different upsides its contemporaries," Warren says. "But if it still ticks all those boxes, on that last parade, and then comes into the right price range in the ring, that's where we'll be."
Warren's purchases for Highclere and the Royal Ascot Racing Club, likewise managed by his brother-in-law Harry Herbert, include seven champions – crowned by a Derby winner, Motivator, for just 75,000gns; and an 11-length King George winner, Harbinger, for 180,000gns. The latter was sold to stand in Japan and Warren was delighted, over the weekend, to see that he had sired a first Group 1 winner.
Given how narrow is the ledge of the market where these syndicates must find a foothold, however, the brief is an exacting one. Whether its members are to dream of the ultimate prestige of another Motivator, or simply of an up-and-at-em Ascot two-year-old, there is an unsparing premium on the physical qualities that simultaneously diminish the likelihood of things going wrong, and give you a chance of breaking into elite competition. The two starting points, judging from the parade on Tuesday, are depth and fluency.
"One likes to call those the priorities," Warren says. "But there's always this jigsaw puzzle. If you look at 100 horses a day, for weeks on end, you know that all the pieces are still in the box and you're just trying to work out whether they're going to fit together; whether this young horse is going to develop the right way.
"So although the emphasis is on action and depth, we have a mental checklist that also means they've got to have a good beam; a great head, with an important jaw for breathing; a certain length of rein; really good angle to the shoulder; a great foreleg, and the hindleg sitting right.
"It's interesting. We wouldn't be averse to buying a Mo Farah or a Usain Bolt, and you couldn't stand them both up and expect them both to do the same job, physically: they'll be built according to their pedigree. But even though they might have more muscle definition, if they're going to be faster or more precocious, or might instead be wiry and flat-sided, ultimately the fundamentals of those two specimens are the same.
"So if you stood Harbinger up there, and practically anything else [next to him], a technician would say there wasn't any difference. We do buy a mould, though it is one that's quite hard to find!”
Aside from the obvious imperative of action for sociable investors, there is a further, equally practical dimension to the premium on soundness.
"There's an adage about when you buy the house on the side of the motorway, you've got to sell the house on the side of the motorway," Warren explains. "So although Highclere is about enjoyment and fun and camaraderie, we are very conscious of the resale. The international market has become so fantastically strong, we've had some phenomenal sales over the years and that has helped people to come and play again. But to pass the vet to get to Hong Kong, for instance, is very difficult. So if we don't buy the right horses to start with, we've no chance of capitalising on that for the owners."
The new syndicates vary from one of 15 shares at £36,500 for a Sea The Stars filly with Sir Michael Stoute and another by Showcasing with John Gosden; to one of 20 shares at £6,950 for a Helmet colt with new recruit Ed Walker. Now it is over to the marketing team, to fill the syndicates, and to the trainers, to draw out the latent quality Warren has glimpsed during an exhaustive sieving process –nowadays assisted by his son Jake as well as by Herbert, the three of them starting on the farms and then threshing their way through sale after sale.
By that stage, Warren wryly admits, he is "not regarded as particularly sociable." But fatigue is always countered by the fresh energy he finds in the immersion of his wife and son – in their different roles – in the whole, hectic quest: whether shaping the development of yearlings on their own nursery, or measuring that of those raised elsewhere.
"It's a real family affair," he says. "We share all those thought processes. Which broodmares to retire and develop? Which stallions to use? That's very key. What works and, more importantly, what doesn't work?
"And then having 100 horses on the place, on average, all the time. Carolyn is outstanding at dealing with every horse's minor issue: and there are always issues, with horses, whether it be the blacksmith tweaking a foot to sit like this, or putting the right person on the right horse. And for those ten weeks of the sales, especially, it's all very high octane. So we are fortunate to have such a high-class team here."
The consistency of Highclere's Book 1 performance, as vendors, is all the more remarkable when the large scale of the operation is balanced by the quiet accretion of all those tiny, daily adjustments that ultimately qualify a horse as wheat rather than chaff.
"There are a lot of professional consignors that do a fantastic job," Warren says. "But I think what we pride ourselves on here is the attention to detail, and communication – both with the clients, the breeders of the horses we sell, and with the buyers. It might be that certain breeders wouldn't necessarily know what other people have in comparison. They might have a very nice horse, might think it the best they've ever bred. But then it gets to the auction and they might not have the relief staff, to cope with what's happening at home, and therefore the horse might not have had its full opportunity to be exposed to the market.
"We make sure the market knows exactly what we've got - and we run a straight show. I think people, over the years, have understood how we operate: the record, and the expertise, and the feedback. Which is why we're lucky, as a family, that we're always liaising together, always bouncing things around. You'd be driven mad, living in our house."
Maybe so. Yet here is a man who has made abiding sense of an ever less rational marketplace. If this is being driven mad, then spare us all from sanity.
If you enjoyed this, you should also read...