'Our lack of prize-money in the UK is hardly enticing for new owners'
Industry figures tell us how they are managing in self-isolation
Bloodstock consultant Billy Jackson Stops 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?
I’ve stayed in Newmarket throughout the lockdown. Fortunately, I live on the edge of the Heath, so while doing my daily exercise I’ve been able to liaise with trainers to find out which gallops they’re using and then head over to watch horses that I’m involved in work from afar. That's given me a mild sense of normality once or twice a week.
I’ve also done a lot of rambling about the Heath and both Newmarket racecourses in the afternoons.
Basically, I've become one of those people I never wanted to be, who wears an anorak and shorts while sporting a pair of offensively white legs and dangling a recyclable water bottle.
With no racing or sales in Europe at present, your scope to do business must be limited. What are you doing instead?
There's been a small amount of business happening. I’ve been able to trade nominations as usual, and have managed to sell a couple of mares. Other than that it’s been very limited.
I manage Al Rabban Racing and that has grown extensively over the last 18 months. It has mares and foals spread across Britain, Ireland, France and Qatar, horses in training in Britain and Qatar, as well as its stallion Kuroshio in Ireland.
Kuroshio kicked on again this year at Starfield Stud and has outdone his 2019 tally of 108 covers, so he’s kept me fairly busy and Micheal Orlandi hugely busy.
Keeping on top of the Al Rabban Racing stock, my own stock and the stock of a few other smaller clients throughout the breeding season has kept me ticking over too.
The beginning of the year was fairly hectic bouncing between Australia and the Middle East before returning to attend all of the February sales in Europe. I had therefore planned for a quiet March before getting back on the road for the breeze-ups.
But instead I’ve spent two months stuck in the same place, which hasn’t happened for a while. I’ve enjoyed not having to go to an airport though.
What's your view on online sales, if they had to happen in Europe this year?
I spoke to a lot of guys in Australia after the online Inglis Easter Yearling Sale to find out how they thought it went. The majority of those I spoke to really liked the format and the results proved that it worked for Inglis in that although the aggregate took a hammering because they sold less horses, the average was only marginally less than 2019.
The majority of the horses that were sold were based in the Hunter Valley, though; Kiwi horses couldn’t get across and some Victorian consignors pulled out. That meant agents, trainers and prospective buyers could drive around the Hunter seeing the horses as many times as they liked.
Some agents were going to studs as many as three times to check the horses they liked. It wasn’t therefore as if the entire sale was done from people buying horses based on videos and pictures online; all the horses had been seen in the flesh.
This is where Europe will struggle. It’s just not possible to see the majority of the horses selling here as they’re spread out across five different nations. I can’t see how the sales houses will get past this issue should it be a route we have to take in Europe.
I know I couldn’t recommend an unraced horse to a client without having seen it in the flesh myself.
Growing the online platform to work alongside a normal sale will definitely be beneficial in the future. Prospective buyers will be able to view decent content online, as they can now, for the horses they like while referring back to trusted agents and trainers who are on the ground at the sale for their opinions.
Prospective buyers would then have an option to bid themselves online should they wish to. This could do two things – increase the size of the buying bench and also help with improving the integrity of the sales ring.
The North American Jockey Club livened up lockdown by announcing the 140-mare stallion cap – would you welcome a similar move in Europe?
I’m sure the North American Jockey Club is going to come across a lot of legal issues from the stud masters regarding free trade and that will no doubt be interesting to follow.
The Jockey Club have been clever with the integration of this plan, in that it’ll come into circulation slowly and give the stud masters time to acclimatise, rather than their initial plan that seemed too direct.
A cap in Europe would be interesting in many ways. The lower and mid-range stallions would inevitably cover more mares and be given a better chance to succeed. Breeders would reap rewards in the sales ring as they’d face less competition from progeny of the same sire, and it would also help prevent breeders flocking to unproven first-season sires.
What's your best guess on what will happen to the market this year, and how long it will take to recover?
The market is going to suffer without question, starting with the breeze-ups unfortunately. With the general uncertainty of actual sale dates and the limited possibility of travel from within Europe and further afield the buying bench is going to be heavily depleted.
This will bring some opportunity for buyers, obviously, but it will come at a cost to the industry as a whole.
Without the breeze-up consignors investing again at the yearling sales, that area of the market will slump and will knock on to foals, mares and stallion fees. Everyone will feel the effects.
There will be a lot of owners currently in the game who have suffered financially because of the pandemic already, and racing being a hobby means it is the first thing those people will cut ties with, so owners will be falling out the industry as well.
It’ll be hard to replace those owners as our lack of prize-money in the UK is hardly enticing for new people to get involved.
Do you think there will be any positives to come out of the crisis eventually?
I suspect the pandemic will cause a number of breeders to retire mares earlier than usual, as well as people resting more mares because of the financial implications of stallion fees and keeping foals. The general gene pool and quality of mares needs to replenished and this should be the catalyst for that.
Other than that, I’m pessimistic about the future of the industry. I think this will have significant negative effects on the market for a considerable amount of time, which will be life-changing for a lot of industry participants.
Any film, TV or book recommendations to share to get through home confinement?
Guy Ritchie’s film The Gentleman was very entertaining.
I’ve been piling through quite a lot of racing books, the most interesting of which were Peter Moody’s biography and Beckhampton, a book on the history of Roger Charlton’s yard.
Finally, Eddie Jones’s autobiography My Life and Rugby. It's fascinating to understand how his mind works, and what he’s been through to get to where he is.
What are you most looking forward to when racing returns?
Business will restart slowly the moment that racing gets rolling again. I’m look forward to finding some horses to trade and keeping an eye on siblings of horses shaping up well.
Essentially, though, it’ll be good to just get some normality back to our lives and for people to start getting busy again.
Read more Life in Lockdown Q&As with industry figures