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'Cooking and cycling were two things I never thought I could do'

Industry figures tell us how they are managing in self-isolation

Alex Elliott: fears the middle and lower tiers of trade will be decimated
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Bloodstock agent Alex Elliott tells us about how he is managing – both personally and professionally – with the Europe-wide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus

How is life ticking over for you at the moment?

On April 17 I became a father for the first time when my partner Gina Bryce and I welcomed Esme Anne Elliott into this world weighing 9lb 5oz. With all that goes with having a baby, lockdown has gone surprisingly quickly and we have established some sort of routine which I have enjoyed, as that is often what I find lacking in my life as a bloodstock agent.

We are based on a stud farm in Hertfordshire so have been lucky with having plenty of room in which to exercise, and the weather has been generally very good which has helped everyone.

Lockdown has also seen me cultivate two new hobbies. Cooking and cycling are two things I never thought I was capable of.

I’ve always liked eating (as you can tell) but not cooking, and I’ve always hated cyclists. But with the arrival of Esme, the kitchen has become my refuge from nappy changing duty and Gina’s dad and I now go out for a few hours most days on the bikes.

It's reminiscent of the film Meet The Fockers, with me tracking him round the Hertfordshire countryside, but it's definitely something I’m going to keep up, if and when we get out of lockdown.

I’ve also commandeered Gina’s FitBit, which was a 'push present' that didn’t go down too well. I’d highly recommend them.

With no racing or sales in Europe at present, your scope to do business must be limited. What are you doing instead?

Initially I had some clients looking to try and buy some breeze-up horses with the expectation that they would be cheapened by the onset of Covid-19. That never materialised as the values of horses were extremely hard to gauge the deeper we sank into this crisis.

January, February and March are barren months for my business but I know that is the case and can plan for it. April and May are when the action starts and in turn when the business starts again. It feels a long time since December!

Last year I bought 50 yearlings who have gone to a variety of trainers, including Ralph Beckett, Michael Bell and Roger Varian. They have all been excellent at keeping clients up to date with their horses’ progress via video and WhatsApp, which has helped keep owners' spirits up.

Unfortunately for trainers the only real news they can deliver clients while there is no racing is bad news. It's deflating paying training fees with no sign of action but the trainers are doing the best they can in these troubled times.

Amo Racing Ltd have also significantly increased their number of horses in training for 2020 and with 26 horses to run this year the management of that is taking up part of each day. There are some lovely horses ready to run.

What's your view on online sales, if they had to happen in Europe this year?

I don’t see it as a viable option for buying stores, yearlings and foals.

I think buying mares or form horses online is very straightforward but untried stock is a different ball game. Seeing one video of a store, yearling or foal is going to make life very difficult.

We saw it work in Australia but those horses were seen on farms many times by agents and purchasers before the sale, and the majority of those horses were in the Hunter Valley. It will be impossible for agents here to see horses in Britain, Ireland, France and Germany, which is where the stock originates from.

I think we have to get the horses, grooms and buyers to the sales if at all possible. The auction houses are going to have to come together as Goffs and Arqana have done for their breeze-up sales if we're going to get to the other side of this.

Flexibilty and unity is the key.

The North American Jockey Club have livened up lockdown by announcing the 140-mare stallion cap - would you welcome a similar move in Europe?

I think the marketplace sorts itself out in terms of supply and demand and it's a cyclical process.

If there is firm evidence that breeding too many mares weakens the breed then I’m all for a stallion cap. However, if there is demand for mares to be bred to certain stallions then whose right is it to decide that that should not happen?

If Covid-19 impacts on the market the way I think it will, then I think stallion books will be reduced naturally. It's all part of the cycle.

Elliott would like to see middle-distance horses breeze for three furlongs

What's your best guess on what will happen to the market this year, and how long it will take to recover?

A lot will depend on how quickly the lockdown is relaxed and we can get racing back on.

Generally, I believe it will be a case of 'same old' with the market. The top will remain strong. We have the best bloodlines in the world here in Europe and they will always be well sought after.

As we know, prize-money in Britain is appalling yet we consistently top the charts with record prices for horses. However, travel is essential in order to get the biggest players in the world to the marketplace and where we will be with international travel is difficult to predict.

What we do lack is depth to the market and I fear that the middle and lower tiers will be decimated. We were already in a recession before the virus hit so this is going to accelerate everything.

With our prize-money structure, the bottom third of the market has no place anyway so perhaps it's a good thing in terms of correction.

That said, people will suffer terribly as will horses if they don’t find homes. Human and equine welfare is already suffering.

Trying to predict when we're going to recover while we're in the middle of the crisis is very hard to do.

What I do know is that pain is temporary and people do have short memories. Racing and its supporters have been resilient for hundreds of years and Covid-19 isn’t going to stop that.

I’m sure we will learn lessons from the way this plays out that can lead to an improved industry in years to come.

Do you think there will be any positives to come out of the crisis eventually? 

As with all crises there is opportunity and we will certainly have the opportunity to make positive changes. The problem with change is that it doesn’t suit everyone and therefore you’ll meet resistance.

Throughout Covid-19 I think it's been obvious that as a whole, racing and breeding is a tight-knit community that has a colossal fan base around the world. However, as you delve deeper into it, it becomes apparent that there are many committees that find it impossible to come together in order to facilitate change.

An example of this is a small change I’d like to see instigated at the  breeze-up sales. As it stands, all horses breeze over two furlongs. But why not give the option to breeze over two furlongs or three furlongs?

It's a simple change that would allow middle-distance prospects a more suitable platform on which to showcase their talents. Trying to get auction houses, vendors and purchasers to agree on such matters can feel nigh-on impossible.

The way racing and breeding have evolved in our country is not sustainable with the levels of prize-money. Things had to go bang at some stage.

How we find ourselves in the position we do, with prize-money, is beyond comprehension and throughout the middle and lower tiers of racing and breeding it has led to too many people 'robbing Peter to pay Paul'.

As Covid-19 rips its way through our industry and takes out the lower end of both the breeding and racing sectors, perhaps the pruning of the industry has been taken out of our hands and we can come back stronger than ever before.

Any film, TV or book recommendations to share to get through home confinement?

We've been enjoying Money Heist on Netflix. It's a Spanish series that needs watching in English subtitles. It sounds hard work but it isn’t. It’s brilliant.

Book-wise I’ve just finished reading Talking To Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is a personal favourite of mine and I’d highly recommend his renowned Outliers: The Story of Success.

What are you most looking forward to when racing returns?

Competition and rivalry are the major tenets of market economies and business. Racing is the lifeblood of the industry and without it everyone has, understandably, become very deflated.

When it comes back everyone will be reinvigorated and appreciate what a wonderful sport we're part of. That mixed in with a few smart two-year-old winners and I’ll be a happy man.


Read more Life in Lockdown Q&As with industry figures

Joey Cullen: 'Racing has the chance to showcase itself to a captive audience'

Claire Sheppard: 'The TBA had to move quickly to save the covering season'

Tomas Janda: 'Lower prices could encourage new buyers to get involved'

Matt Hall: 'Films are a waste of time – I watch festival replays instead'

Tom Goff: 'I've painted two garden seats. God, I sound so middle-aged!'

Simon Sweeting: 'Rightly or wrongly I'm having all my mares covered'

Richard Kent: 'Stud fees and sales house charges will have to come down'

Philippa Mains: 'The industry is a family and we help each other out'

Claire Goodwillie: 'People have realised if you're not online you're invisible'

Tina Rau: 'I'm enjoying post-dinner quarantinis with friends over video call'

Daniel Creighton: 'The market will recover – the only question is when'

Ed Player: 'We're happy to move with the times and embrace online trading'

Patrick Sells: 'Chasemore Farm is effectively operating in a bubble'

Chad Schumer: 'Racing in the US being cancelled is the biggest frustration'

Tom Blain: 'Trade will be down but all we can do is roll with the punches'

Ted Voute: 'We'll need to strengthen the way we showcase young stock'

Simon Kerins: 'We'll embrace any format that will help get horses sold'

Barry Lynch: 'The industry has often bounced back as quickly as it dipped'

Tim Lane: 'Working with horses does you the world of good in these times'

Jerry Horan: 'My sister butchered my haircut. I think it was payback'

Violet Hesketh and Mimi Wadham: 'Social distancing isn't hard - just lonely!'

Henry Beeby: 'Nick Nugent and I have entered a beard growing competition'

Charles O'Neill: 'ITM will be ready to go when the markets open up again'

Freddy Powell: 'We're improving our online sale platform in case it's needed'

Bumble Mitchell: 'Online sales could be tricky for outlying studs like mine'

David Stack: 'I had to give a garda a lesson about the birds and the bees'

Colm Sharkey: 'I've been torturing myself trying to sort out my golf swing'

Rachael Gowland: 'I didn't realise how much I loved racing until I couldn't go'

Sam Hoskins: 'I've been listening to endless Cold War podcasts on my tractor'

Niamh Spiller: 'Video calls are very important to keep everyone motivated'

Jamie Lloyd: 'Staff have had all their own gear labelled, even wheelbarrows'

Micheál Orlandi: 'The stallions are flying and that gives me great hope'

Richard Venn: 'The French are in a good position to get back racing sooner'

Tim Kent: 'It's difficult to plan when we don't know when racing will resume'

Russell Ferris: 'Weatherbys had contingency plans that we activated at once'

Grant and Tom Pritchard-Gordon: 'Inglis Easter has kept us busy since January'

Peter Hockenhull: 'The social side of meeting and chatting to breeders is gone'

Polly Bonnor: 'We've fulfilled every feed order, including all our exports'

Richard Lancaster: 'We're fortunate that some Shadwell staff live on site'

 

If Covid-19 impacts on the market the way I think it will, then I think stallion books will be reduced naturally. It's all part of the cycle
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