There was no sign of any Brexit nervousness among the buyers at Tattersalls’ Book 1 Sale on Tuesday, as a colt by Galileo was knocked down for 3.4m guineas (£3.23m) to the Coolmore Stud operation and four more yearlings reached seven figures on the first day of Europe’s most exclusive bloodstock sale. When the right people are playing, the market for the most blue-blooded of thoroughbreds seems impervious to outside forces.
Among the vendors, though, it was a different story. The racing and breeding industries rely on the easy movement of horses between countries and continents, a process that has been facilitated for decades by an agreement between Britain, Ireland and France – the “tripartite” agreement – which predates the EU. But will it survive Brexit? The simple fact is no one knows for sure. As a result no one knows if, or how, this most international of businesses will be operating this time next year.
There are nearly 500 yearlings in the catalogue for the Book 1 sale in what is racing’s original, and still most famous, auction ring. Of those, almost 200 have been consigned by Irish stud farms, while there are yearlings from France, Italy and Germany. But how many will there be next year if there are barriers to trade standing in the way and other options like Goffs, in Kildare, for selling bloodstock?
No one expects Tattersalls to disappear overnight. Its history and well-earned reputation for offering the most elite specimens in every thoroughbred generation will see to that. It is also where Irish breeders are most keen to sell their yearlings. Britain has always been the biggest market for its horses but it could well be weakened if the easy movement of bloodstock is restricted, and that would most definitely not be good for business.
John O’Connor, the managing director of Ballylinch Stud in County Kilkenny, has been selling yearlings at Tattersalls for decades, as his parents did before him.
“I’m an optimistic type of person generally,” he said, in the brief interlude between selling a Kodiac filly for 300,000gns and a Muhaarar colt for 375,000gns. “You need to be in this business or else you wouldn’t stick it, but it’s difficult to know how it will all pan out. The tripartite agreement is based within the EU and after Britain leave they will be treated as a third country from the point of view of trade.
“Horses moving around require the least interference and delay at ports and, if there’s a great delay, it would have welfare implications. If anything went wrong in a horsebox, it would be difficult to deal with it in a port situation, so it’s important it’s as frictionless as possible.”
“Quite how that’s going to be realised is not clear at this point, it’s one of the imponderables of the Brexit situation.”
Jimmy George, Tattersalls’ long-serving marketing director, is another optimist but he, too, stresses that frictionless movement of bloodstock is essential. “That’s the key to this market,” he said. “It’s very international, not just in terms of the buyers but in the vendor profile as well.
“On the encouraging side [the tripartite agreement] pre-dates the EU and there’s a huge amount of will on all sides to make sure it isn’t disrupted. When people work for a common aim, that’s normally an encouraging start.”
The Book 1 sale may not be the best place to form opinions. It is a law unto itself, far removed from the business of selling the horses that go on to form the great bulk of the racing population. Those yearlings are sold at auctions like the Book 2 sale in Newmarket next week and the Breeze-Up sale for juveniles which will take place next April, just a couple of weeks after Brexit.
“This is an elite sale,” Michael O’Hagan, a veteran of the industry and the former head of Irish Thoroughbred Marketing, said. “People buying here are buying to race, not to trade. Next week is much more of a commercial sale and there has to be a fear factor there. Who will buy those horses [to resell in April] as Breeze-Up horses?
“Shipping companies will tell you they’re already running at about two-thirds of what they were last year back to this part of the world. It could become a paperwork nightmare and a huge hindrance.”