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A Canter down Memory Lane

Oscar Foulkes April 20, 2011 Uncategorized No comments

Mother Russia, bred by my mother, wins the Queen's Plate, South Africa's most important 1600m race.

I took a walk down memory lane (or should I say, a trot down the back straight) by attending the National Yearling Sales in Johannesburg over the weekend.

Until 18 years ago it was an event I participated in every year, both as a small-time buyer (representing Form Bloodstock) and seller (assisting my parents’ Normandy Stud). In fact, when I was still at school the sale did double duty as family holiday (presumably because it involved a trip to Johannesburg). It’s the most important horse sale of the year, and represents the majority of breeders’ annual income. Assuming they sell their horses, of course.

The sale is conducted as an auction, which means that vendors don’t have a great deal of control over the final price. While many prices probably are a fair reflection of the ‘value’ of a horse, gross inequities do pop up. A vendor can protect himself by using a reserve price, but ultimately the best prices require two determined bidders.

What I can report about this year’s sale is that it was jolly hard going. The majority of horses sold at reserve, or below, and very few involved a spirited contest between two bidders. Buyers shopping between R100 000 and R250 000 had the pick of a large number of good-looking, well-bred individuals. Given a choice of buying one horse for R2 million, or ten for R200 000, my money would be on the latter. Especially this year.

The reason for my attendance was to stand in for my mother, Veronica Foulkes, who cannot travel to altitude following a recent eye operation. Apart from watching the odd horse race on TV I’m completely out of touch with what’s happening in the industry, so it was an act of extreme parental trust for her to hand over the reins to me.

When I last attended the sales I had a different kind of emotional involvement, and at times I found it to be extremely stressful. This time – while I obviously wanted to get the best result possible – I could be more detached from the emotion side of things. I had been helicoptered into a situation that required me to understand the market environment and to develop a strategy for each lot from that point. So, a critically important part of the process involved identifying realistic levels at which to set reserve prices. In a select few cases, I came to the conclusion, it’s better to have no reserve at all. The reason for this is that in these cases the horse is “on the market and for sale”, so it’s easier to attract a bid at the floor price (R50 000), which then seems to draw further bids from other bargain hunters.

Part of my duties also involved collecting some awards on behalf of my mother, for each of the Grade One winners she bred in the past 12 months. Based upon the number of foals she produces, she statistically shouldn’t breed more than one Grade One winner every eight years. And yet, in the calendar year 2010, she bred three!

2010 wasn’t a flash in the pan. She’s been outperforming the averages by a wide margin for many years (click here to read more). When one factors the cost of her bloodstock into the equation she’s outperforming by an even wider margin. I have to admit to shedding a little tear or two when walking from the podium with the trophy for Mother Russia’s Queens Plate victory, both out of pride for what she’s done, and because she wasn’t there in person to receive the accolades.

One of my tasks, also, was to thank the buyers after each lot was auctioned. Some of the people I do know, but 18 years is a long enough time for many new participants to have entered the industry. So, I went up to one successful bidder and thanked him, after introducing myself.

I thought I heard him say, “You need a beer”, to which I was on the point of replying “no thanks, I’m driving”. After all, my voice was particularly scratchy, so a little lubrication wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Instead I leaned closer and apologised for not hearing first time around. This time I heard his name, loud and clear, “Coenie de Beer”, which in a noisy environment could sound as if he was offering me a drink.

I think I’m OK with saying that I left school 26 years ago, but it does seem really weird that something out of my adult life – especially something that feels so recent – should have happened 18 years ago.

Memory Lane is a road that gets longer with every step we take. Then we start forgetting stuff.

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