Jonathan Irwin is Managing Director of Goffs, the highly successful Irish sales company and Managing Director of the consortium-owned Phoenix Park Racecourse outside Dublin. His visit to South Africa and Zimbabwe was sponsored by the respective Thoroughbred Breeders Association.
We were interested in his impressions of our breeding industry - and our sales.
"I haven't been here for ten years, so the run up to the sale, the promotion, the way the horses are, the way they are presented has really come from Edwardian days into the modern age. It is so improved, I can hardly believe it. I was very impressed.
"I thought on Saturday night from the rostrum, and by now I should be able to judge, that it was terrific. I think some people were a bit nervous on Sunday and maybe even Monday that the sale wasn't going to hold up, but I did say to them all - I did a little talk on Sunday morning - how good the previous night had been and that they shouldn't have any qualms."
Irwin believes that if the top of the sale is really strong the rest follows through.
"What really showed it to me on Saturday night was the number of people who bid for any one lot. It just wasn't one man against the reserve. There were a lot of people bidding on virtually every horse, which is always a very good sign.
"I find every time the market goes up people rather question, not the morality of why it is going up, but if there is an underlying weakness - I think this is a little unfair on the horse as a commodity, because South African horses are really much cheaper on an International scale than anybody elses, and I think you are really just catching up with the rest of the world. The other thing that really, really strikes me, and you have to remember this, that yours is the only major yearling sale that is catering for the entirely domestic market - there is virtually no foreign money, and I think that makes it all the more extraordinary.
"South Africa has got its cost ratios right, you know. Nominations are fairly inexpensive, keep is inexpensive. I would have thought it was a healthy situation. Very good stakes. You have got your gambling machine correct. It is channelling money back into racing in a very efficient way - I mean they are talking about putting the stakes up another 25%. If ever you could get foreign governments to lift the African horse sickness ban, there's no telling where the breeding industry might go."
There has been endless discussion as to whether South African horses are in fact of international quality. Jonathan Irwin feels they are.
"I'm not going to say they are going to come and win the King George VI or anything like that, but they are perfectly good horses. I'm not sure that I think the Japanese will ever breed a good horse because their background is not suitable, but I think here the people are definitely horsemen and I think the bloodlines are being greatly upgraded. I would be very content about the future of the industry."
A talking point of the sales was the first South African-bred crop of top European sire Northfields (USA). His owner Mr Sydney Press was reportedly disappointed with his sale. Irwin on the other hand thought they sold well.
"They made more than they made with us. Strangely enough there was also a General Assembly who made at least four times more than he would have made with us. But Northfields sold terribly well. He is, strangely enough, a horse that I bought originally in America. I bought him in New York then went to Chicago to see him run the next day and he got beaten in the Hawthorne Gold Cup! And the funny thing was it just shows you how people's eye changes. When we brought him back to Ireland, everybody said, ?My God, how could you have bought that tiny little polo pony.' We managed to fill the horse and everybody was not very complimentary about him, but, of course, when he became a great success, the same people then said, ?What a grand little horse, how much ground he stands over, and what quality he has.'
"Northfields has been a great success, but the strange thing is that he has never been the perfect horse for the commercial breeders because his yearlings never had a lot of size. But I noticed the other day, with one or two exceptions, perhaps being crossed with South African mares, the produce seem to have much more bone and scope and size. I think that he may, apart from anything else, be the perfect individual to have been brought out here. Mr Press should be extremely pleased with his sale because I don't remember a Northfields crop ever averaging the same in Europe."
South Africans intending to buy horses overseas and import them into this country have, in the last year been severely restricted by the particularly stringent regulations imposed by a TBA - presumably as a protective measure. Yearlings and horses intended for racing have been particularly heavily penalised. Irwin holds particularly strong views on import restrictions.
"Well, I have always been a free trader myself. I don't think that you can breed the thoroughbred, which is really a breed that is all about excellence - and this goes back to speed on the racecourse - and yet at the same time demand that they don't face open competition.
"Take Ireland as an example, the largest nursery in Europe now, we are a fairly small racing circuit and very unbalanced because we have yards of the calibre of Vincent O'Brien suddenly in the middle of this tiny racing circuit.
"There was a move ten years ago, maybe longer, when a lot of our breeders wanted to put a restriction on American-breds running in Ireland - basically to try and stop Vincent going abroad and buying all his yearlings - and it was never brought in. I think it would have been an absolute disaster. It would have protected the Irish breeders, but to the detriment of Irish breeding, and I would feel exactly the same here.
"My own feeling is that the restrictions they have dreamt up are quite crazy anyway. I mean it seems to me that you can get a dwarf, crippled filly, who is related to a Derby winner, into the country, but what good is she to anyone because she is going to pass on all her defects.
"I do agree that it would be very unfair for a rich man to b able to go to Newmarket or Ireland or to American and buy a whole crop of yearling colts. I think that could be a real sting to the breeders, but I think breeding stock of any sort should be allowed. They say well, they will bring rubbish in. No-one is going to bring rubbish in because the best restriction is what it costs to get the horse to South Africa. And unless the man wants to put a gun to his head why on earth should anyone bring in a load of rubbish.
"We have just had great success in Europe, through the European Breeders Club, of forcing the Germans to drop all their restrictions. They are doing it in stages so by 1990 even their classics are going to be open, and I think that is a great achievement - to actually get Germany to open up its doors to international racing. The Germans breed very good horses, but their racing is of no account because nobody else can race there. They have been racing against themselves and we had the old traditional breeders of Germany absolutely determined that the young up-and-coming new rich should not be allowed to go to France or Ireland to buy breeding stock and start dominating the racing.
"I can see that there is a certain danger to a breeder here if there were unlimited imported colts, or foals or yearlings, but I think don't bar any filly coming in and let the market itself be the restricter."
It was noticeable that the top buyers at the National Sales were those who have recently enjoyed great success with racing imported stock.
"It is like any of the owner we have got. Let's take Robert Sangster. Robert has got an awful lot of American-breds racing in Europe, but he also has an immense number of locals racing in Europe. His mares patronise all the local stallions. You can't just say you will take this man's trade today but won't let him trade elsewhere as well. It is like me. I'd love everyone to sell with me. I'd like to sell all their horses, but people just be able to say I am sending three to Newmarket, five to you, or whatever it is.
"A lot of the Irish still ship out of Ireland and into England to sell - for no good reason that I can see - and people say we must tax them for taking their horses out of Ireland. And I say the one way I don't want to beat Tattersalls is through restrictions. I think it is self-defeating. So we get all the horses and what's that - a hollow victory really. So, no restriction, no restrictions.
"Some areas do need nursing - I do understand that they are trying to get the New York State breeding programme off the ground and that you have to nurture it for the first so many years. Give it incentives and give New York-breds a bonus if they do something. That I can understand, but at the same time I don't notice any restrictions about who is allowed to breed or who is allowed to sell."
South Africa is unique in that our major yearling sales are run by a Breeders Association. Is this necessarily a good thing?
"They do it very well. But, and I have said it to all of them and I am saying it to you, it doesn't work and it hasn't worked anywhere else in the world, and I don't think the role of a breeders association is to deal in horses. I really don't. There are more important things to be done."
What then, in Irwin's opinion, is the role of a Breeders Association?
The Thoroughbred Breeders Associations that I have come across - the English Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association are absolutely excellent and they meet all the time and what they have achieved in the last ten years is fantastic, particularly to do with import restrictions and veterinary and fiscal problems. And this is what your people should be doing and not getting all bogged down with the sales. It seems to me in an association nobody, not one particular person, is a decision maker or carries full responsibility - it is a collective responsibility.
"I think it is an unhealthy situation for major breeders to be making commercial decisions for not only themselves but for other people in the same business and then also trying to be seen to be nice to everybody.
"In a commercial company you make a decision - if that horse is not good enough that horse is not coming to the sale. It is going to slow down the sale for everybody else. Don't get me wrong, the people who are actually there running the sale are doing a damn good job and I think this sale is a tribute tot hem, but just the picture of the thing is wrong.
"I fight constantly with my breeders council - they are fine fellows but they have absolutely no clue about the overall picture of marketing horses. They come up with the craziest ideas which I listen to very quietly and then forget about. Here it is the other way round. If Goffs was a subsidiary of the breeders association, I wouldn't be working for them. You can't be answerable to a committee that doesn't have any of their own money down on the table. When I go to my Board they have to think very seriously about what they are doing because they have a hell of a lot of money invested in the company, and people only make the best decisions about commercial things when they are at risk.
And that is the difference between your Council and any other Board that runs a sales company. Oh gosh, they can go on doing it for ever and they will always go on making a profit, but let's face it, they have changed mammothly - more than any other sales organisation in the whole world.
"I think it is a shame as they have come so far and so quickly. It doesn't need someone like myself to come and say, my goodness, the sales ring is horrific, for God's sake carpet the place, the acoustics are terrible, the sound system is like a village fete - all those things have got to be done, but they should have seen that as soon as they started - it's little things like the catering, those sort of things. I bet Peter Youell will do a bloody good job, but it needs Peter to be the boss and not have the committee saying, well I've got an idea!
"I do think that they have got to sell alphabetically by the dam. At the moment, they give you so many slots and you can slot in your own horses wherever. Let's say the breeder has got three slots at the sale and what he is basically saying to the buyers is that this yearling, because it is number one, which is not the position we would choose, is probably not the best. This is damaging. I know it sounds very fair, but again it is the sort of decision that a breeders association will make - trying to be fair to everyone. It's crazy! They have got so much right, that it is a pity that they don't tighten the commercial side of things.
After one week I'm an expert on South Africa, which is very unfair."
There has been some confusion over what is or is not our official list of Graded races. We have been told the main purpose of classifying races is to simplify cataloguing and as such the decisions should be left to the breeders. Is this the case?
"The system was started so that with the movement of a racehorse from one racing circuit to another the new circuit could understand what calibre the horse was and what penalties he should carry in an equivalent race. I think it was Romanet's devised scheme originally - to be able to cope with the various imports. They had such good prizemoney in France that they were getting invaded particularly by the English who didn't seem to carry any penalties at all because the penalties revolved around money won, and, of course, in those days English horses could race for ever and not catch up with the money the French were winning. Secondarily, it has become a great aid when cataloguing. But this is secondary, although it's a very good thing to have. It should put catalogues on a very truthful basis, but this was never the prime reason.
"What was designed originally in European pattern racing was a pyramid and let's say the Epsom Derby was the top of the pyramid and it sprinkled out downwards and it was done to make some sense of the racing season. When we started in 1975, we were the first people to introduce what I call the American system of cataloguing, giving black type of good horses and everybody in Europe followed us. We get into trouble in Ireland where we have got something like 9% of our races group races, but then we have very few races and it is easier to build up a percentage of a few than it is in America with hundreds of thousands of races. But it ranges down to 2% or 3% of all races run. It is all under 10%. It is very difficult for people to come to terms with this. Australia is another country that has got terrific races, but an unbelievable number of group races, really. But the, maybe it is entitled to them. We monitor ours every year - they are reviewed and if they are falling in stature they get demoted. Or someone has a look at the race and upgrades it.
"You have probably seen the book which is the cataloguing style (International Cataloguing Standards), with certain countries in the front because they are fully approved of, the others in the back. We rather grandly told you how to do it - anyway certain criteria were demanded. South Africa was one of the countries that qualified to be moved up to Part I. The problem that came up was that we couldn't perceive who was quite in control of your gradings - there was a letter from you Thoroughbred Breeders Association and a letter from your Jockey Club, so that very nearly set the whole thing back a year, because we only really take any notice of the racing authorities around the world. The other problem we had was that your pyramid was upside down, let's say, three times as many Grade I races as you have Grade III races. Well, that just can't be, so what we have said is, you're in Part I, but can you ever try now and police your actual grouping of your races as there seems to be something a bit cockeyed.
"Every country is represented by their racing authority, by a member of the breeders association and by one of the sales companies. And that is really how it breaks down, but it is the Turf Club in Ireland that at the end of every year makes the final decision. Pattern races go up for international review every year and the International Pattern Committee racing authorities review the application for new races or decide to demote. That is done at international level at which sales companies can have no input at all.
"The listed races, which is like Group IV, are decided at a national level, but again, it is he Turf Club that decides not the breeders or sales companies."
This year the National Sales featured an invitational Select night and the method of selection of the participants involved created a fair amount of controversy. How do Goffs do their selection?
"We screen the pedigrees first, then we screen the individual. We probably do that on two occasions, or even three occasions - as close to the moment we have to go to print as possible - to make this as flexible as possible. We try not to have the disaster of pulling them off at the last moment."
"We do still get screws loose, let's not make any bones about it. We still have had horses that have not made the price they should have made because they are bad individuals and that is really basically our fault. The only other thing that we do is that if we put a man's horse in the premier sale and suddenly something wins at Royal Ascot, a half brother or sister, we can up-grade the horse to the select sale. We keep the thing open until the last minute. We can change the positioning up to the end of July, and if you think that we produce the catalogue at the end of August it is not too bad. Our select sale is usually between 70 and 80 lots. Premier would be about 530, and then we have an open day at the end when we sell all the also rans.
"Most of the select yearlings would select themselves by pedigree. We do a physical inspection. We have an independent panel. It is always very difficult to find people who breeders don't think have some axe to grind. We have now got, I think, a very good independent panel of three who will go and look at them all and their decision is final. We also use the device of minimum commission because I find the best way to talk to the breeders is through their pockets
"If the panel says that the horse is an absolute scrubber, he doesn't get in at all, but there are one or two horses that are borderline. We give our advice that there would be a stronger market probably for it in the premier sale rather than in the select sale. If the breeder won't go along with us, we say that's fine, but there is a minimum commission to be charged and it usually is 5% of half of last year's average, so if we are right and he is wrong he may end up paying 15 to 20% commission to us. That teaches him very quickly that he was in the wrong sale. We do the same in the premier sale, which is our real good backbone sale. It is probably the best commercial sale in Europe. There gain there are one or two horses at the bottom end that we would much prefer to have in the open sale. People won't agree with us, so we charge them a minimum commission. And that's a very good way of self-regulation.
"You are trying to deal with too many here. You have too many horses, that is the difficulty. Again, I don't know, because I don't know enough about the marketing here, but I'd say probably the 99 horses we had the first night were about 15 too many. If they could try and weed out - say 200 out of the rest of the catalogue that really aren't good enough to come up to Johannesburg. I think there is a great future for two-year-old and horses in training sales here. I don't like them. I would never run one back home, but I think the Johannesburg businessman might be rather like the man from Miami, where they started this two-year-old thing, very keen for instant action!"
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