Sale experiment bids to exploit new momentum for US turf racing
Niche innovation gives a different start to big week in Lexington
They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. In American racing, however, that has never been true of the turf side of the rails. In the minds of most trainers, owners and breeders, the grass has only ever been greener on the dirt track.
One elite consignor is candid about this historic prejudice. "Most racing on grass has been by default," he says. "Very few start out wanting a grass horse – you end up having one because it couldn't run on dirt. There are exceptions, of course. But I know a lot of people who say: 'My horse is with this big trainer and he's like, he's not going to show him the turf until he has to; but he thinks he's going to have to pretty soon…'"
Yet this same witness is unmistakably enthused by the inauguration of a new sale oriented to turf prospects at Fasig-Tipton's Lexington base on Sunday. "I'm excited by the concept, and we've prepared a draft," he said. "Some of the things Fasig have been highlighting, in promoting the sale, I must admit I didn't really realise; about the way turf racing is going here. It's all very interesting, and we just hope there'll be some Europeans in town early."
The market is not short of local stimulus, after all: the recent success of American raiders at Royal Ascot has captured the imagination of many, while a growing US turf programme seemingly caters – in part, at least – to perceived benefits in terms of racing longevity. Little wonder if the sale has achieved secured an unusual branding partnership with Woodbine, already celebrated as a hub of the discipline in North America and now constructing a second grass circuit.Flintshire; I see Ashford with Magician, Declaration Of War and so on, across the board; I see Karakontie at Gainesway, Noble Mission at Lane's End. At virtually every major farm, all the smart people are investing in stallions with 'turf' appeal.
"Then you start doing a little research. And I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I was blown away by the statistic that 40 per cent of the Graded stakes in North America are run on turf. I'd have guessed it was maybe half that.
"And then there's something that's happening in virtually all commerce: the world is shrinking. We see Americans participating strongly in the Australian marketplace, and in Japan. And while there's been a lot of back-and-forth commerce between here and Europe over the last 75 years, you've seen an increasing profile in operations having racing programmes in both continents."
The emphasis in nearly every other culture, of course, is on turf. And the Americans, belying a reputation for insularity, are showing ever greater adventure. In wry acknowledgement of an unpredictable reception among certain clients, Browning says that Fasig-Tipton had "already jumped the cliff" (with an April announcement) by the time Wesley Ward took American momentum at Royal Ascot to a new level. But his success certainly did not diminish the appeal of the type of horses being selected, whether on pedigree or conformation, for the catalogue.
As such, Fasig-Tipton did not even survey its core customers – feeling bleakly certain that for every ten green lights, there would be ten red. They believed in the project. And there was little point sampling the opinion of clients, when you were guaranteed to proceed against the advice of at least some.
"We're supposed to be known for innovation," Browning said. "We're supposed to be more agile, willing to take a little bit of risk – I don’t mean unnecessary risk, but evaluated risk; carefully planned risk-and-reward. And the overwhelming reaction has been positive. Any time you start something new, there's gonna be a few folks that wait and see. Before they commit, they want to see can these crazy folks pull this off? But I think we've educated folks, if nothing else we've demonstrated that we really do want this business and that it's important to us."
"Ultimately the marketplace is always right," he said. "We're firmly confident in our ability to evaluate and adapt. You might ask me how to measure the success of the sale and the answer is that I don't know. There's no 'metrics'. I'm a CPA [accountant] in a former life, so I'm used to having everything in numbers, our goal being this or that. But it'll be a feel. It's a process, an education, and we're committed to making it work.
"We've lofty goals but you've got to dream big. There's got to be some outside-the-box thinking in every walk of life. In every business there's risk and reward. And I think this was extraordinarily low risk, and the reward could be pretty significant – not just for Fasig Tipton but for all of us.
"I'm not going to sit here saying we're going to revolutionise the auction process around the world. But maybe we can build a few bridges along the way. And in a world where people, in many walks of life, seem more interested in tearing them down… Well, maybe one bridge might turn into two – and you never know where that might lead."