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Q&A: Fasig-Tipton’s Browning on Turf Showcase

Divisidero, shown winning the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, is a son of Ramsey Farm’s sensation turf stallion Kitten’s Joy, whose progeny figure to be prominent in the Turf Showcase. Coady Photography

‘We’re producing a product that is serious, and it’s significant’ – Fasig-Tipton president Boyd Browning on Sept. 10 Turf Showcase

Fasig-Tipton announced in early April that the prominent auction company will conduct its first Turf Showcase on Sept. 10, a selected sale of yearlings with the potential to become top performers on the grass. In a telephone interview with turf writer Bob Fortus, Fasig-Tipton president Boyd Browning shared his thoughts about the concept and expectations for the sale in Lexington, Ky.

Bob Fortus: It seems like turf racing is becoming more important in the United States. I know it is at Fair Grounds. It seems like there are more turf horses going to stud. People like to bet the big fields — Kentucky Downs is certainly an example of that. Is all that behind this idea?

Boyd Browning: Certainly, there are a number of factors that led us to introduce a Turf Showcase, one of which is, as you mentioned, the pretty dramatic increase in turf racing in the United States in the last 15 years. You look at statistical analysis, the number of dirt races has dropped pretty significantly throughout the United States for a 15-year trend period. Yet the number of turf races has increased significantly over that same time frame. So, clearly, there are many more racing opportunities. There are many more earning opportunities for turf horses in the United States in 2017 than there would have been in 2005. So that was a factor.

Another factor is the significant commitment made by some of the brightest people in the game who stand stallions. They’re industry leaders like Lane’s End, like Hill ‘n’ Dale, like Taylor Made, like WinStar, like Calumet, Claiborne, Gainesway, Ashford, Spendthrift. Virtually every farm that we looked at around central Kentucky that’s a major stallion operation has added or has a stallion with a major turf influence potentially. They’ve sired outstanding runners that are performing on the turf. They themselves might have been outstanding turf horses, or they’re by a horse or have a pedigree that would indicate an inclination that they might be successful sires of turf runners. So that was certainly a factor.

We’ve seen, along those lines, the almost magical impact that a stallion like Kitten’s Joy has had on the marketplace in North America. You know, he started off at a very moderate stud fee, was heavily supported by Mr. and Mrs. (Ken) Ramsey with their own horses, and now has become a household name in both the breeding and the racing industry. So it was those factors as well as the success that American-bred horses are having internationally.

I think all of us who are involved in the North American breeding and racing industry felt some pride and puffed our chest out just a little bit – we felt some real accomplishment – watching the horses from America run at Royal Ascot last year. We can compete, and we’re producing a product that is serious, and it’s significant. And we need to take advantage of that and capitalize on that opportunity.

Calling this sale the Turf Showcase implies that the horses have a good chance to excel on the turf – or that’s what you would hope. So how is Fasig-Tipton going to figure out which horses belong in the sale? What’s the process? It’s always interesting when you’re looking at the races, trying to handicap if this is a turf horse and if this one isn’t. How are you going to do that?

Well, there’s no playbook that says “here’s how you select horses for any of your sales,” whether it would be for our Saratoga selected sale, whether it would be for a 2-year-old sale, whether it would be for the Turf Showcase. We’re looking for horses, first of all, that are attractive physically. Every horse that we’re going to accept for the Showcase will be inspected by a member of our team for his or her conformation to make sure that they’re the type of horses that we believe have the opportunity to sell well and ultimately perform well on the racetrack. So first and foremost, they’re going to have to have what we believe is desirable conformation to the buying audience.

Then we’ll look at the pedigree. Who’s the horse by? Who is the stallion? What are the tendencies, the characteristics there? We’ll look at the female family. If the mother was a particularly outstanding runner on turf, that might lead us to slant a little bit in that direction for the Turf Showcase. There are a few different physical characteristics of turf runners compared to dirt runners. But at the end of the day, we’re looking for good-looking horses that have turf characteristics. And that being said, I promise you that we’re going to sell a horse in the Turf Showcase that’s going to be a really good dirt horse in 2018, 2019. Because there’s no rhyme or reason, there’s no specific recipe that says this one is going to run on the dirt and this one is going to run on the turf. If you’ve been in the business for any time at all, you know that horses make liars out of all of us on a consistent basis.

One of my favorite horses was Affirmed, and it seemed like a lot of his runners liked turf. He never ran on the turf. And even now, like Scat Daddy, for some reason they like the turf or seem to.

Claiborne Farm’s War Front is a prominent turf sire in addition to producing top-notch dirt horses. Credit: Claiborne Farm

Or War Front. The second-most expensive horse in North America raced exclusively on the dirt, and he’s a prominent international turf sire as well as dirt sire. He’s a poster child for not knowing exactly what the affinity is going to be on a long-term basis. You can look at it in retrospect and say War Front is by Danzig, who was a great influence in a variety of pedigrees, many of which had turf tendencies — but Danzig was a dirt sprinter.

The process has to start with these horses being nominated by the sellers. When does the nomination process close, and how has the reception been?

Well, the reception has been very, very positive thus far. I’m not going to say it’s 100-percent unanimous, because I’ve never seen anything in the thoroughbred industry be 100-percent unanimous. But it has been overwhelmingly positive. Lots of interest. Lots of support thus far. And I think we’ll be able to put together a nice, nice catalogue. The process of putting a sale together really began on April 3, when we made the announcement. It’s hard to believe that we’re a little over three weeks into the process.

Fortunately for us, and it was not complete blind luck, we’re also in the midst of doing our inspection process for yearlings for our July and Saratoga sales. So we’ve been able to incorporate the Turf Showcase in with most of our inspections at most of the farms that we were going to visit. Surely there have been some additional stops and some additional nominations that have come in and continue to come in. We’ll be probably going through this process through another month or so. But I think for the vast majority of horses that will be looked at, a decision will be made by the middle of May.

What about the reception from prospective buyers? Have you had a lot of inquiries?

We’ve had interest. In the normal life cycle of a sale, I think the buyers are going to say: “It’s a really interesting idea; we have a lot of success with horses that race on the turf. But we’re going to wait and see what the catalogue looks like, because then we decide what we’re going to do.” So anytime you put together an auction, you kind of work two sides of the street. The first side of the street is with the sellers and accumulating the product to offer out there. And once you have a pretty good idea of what you’ve got, then you go all over the world and try to promote the sale and encourage the buyers to attend. Our focus today and thus far and for the next few weeks will be on recruiting horses. And once we get a catalogue kind of put together, our focus shifts to recruiting buyers.

You mentioned around the world. This seems to be a sale that is going to be, from your point of view, popular with racing people and horse people everywhere.

That’s certainly our intention. As I noted earlier, seeing the success that American-bred horses had at Royal Ascot has got to be a positive. We’ll be spending plenty of time recruiting European buyers – England, Ireland, France, Italy and so forth. We’ve had a long-standing relationship and do a real amount of business with folks from the Far East, particularly Japan, that we would expect to have activity there. I don’t know how much participation we’ll have from, say, Australia because of the difference in hemispheres – northern vs. southern – so realistically, that’s probably not going to be a significant source of activity. But Europe and the Far East will certainly be major targets for us, major areas of interest.

Do you see American racing becoming even more dependent on turf racing?

I’m not a racing secretary; I was a CPA in a former life. And all I’ll tell you, if you do this trend analysis, it would sure say that the dirt racing, the trajectory is continuing to decrease, and the turf racing, the trajectory is continuing to increase. I think that one of our goals with this sale is to kind of help change the perception of horses from a sales perspective to say, “Hey, more than 40 percent of graded stakes in the United States are turf races. Hey, Mr. and Mrs. So and So, Mr. and Mrs. Buyer, look at all these opportunities that you’ve got that you might not have realized.”

Some of it is an education process to owners, to agents and the trainers in the United States to say that we sometimes get some preconceived notions in our minds. Part of our job in this process is to educate people and open people’s eyes to the opportunities that exist in a turf world.

And if you do wind up with a good horse, then you can see things like John Henry, who won top turf races but he also won Grade 1 races on the dirt. He was actually better than people realized.

Right. A good turf horse opens up a whole lot of opportunities, worldwide opportunities, from a racing standpoint. Whether you’re in the thoroughbred business, whatever business you’re in, we live in a shrinking world. There’s more international participation in virtually every walk of life. And thoroughbred racing certainly has seen those tendencies, and they are going to continue to be in that direction.

So where do you see this sale going within the next five or 10 years. What are your hopes for it?

Well, I think our hopes are to establish an outstanding marketplace for buyers and sellers alike to transact business on yearlings with turf characteristics. I think our objective is to educate, particularly in America, owners and trainers on the racing opportunities that exist on the turf. And I think the other objective is to kind of reverse the tide.

We’ve seen, pretty much across the board in America, reduced activity, reduced buying activity, particularly from the European counterparts at our yearling sales over the last 10 to 15 years. And (the hope is) to reverse that trend, and to encourage and educate that buying population, too, as to the quality of horses that have raced, and are produced and raised, in the United States.

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