Thoroughbred horses are always a bet on the future, whether you are at the track and wagering on which one will win that day or an owner deciding which mares and sires will produce the best offspring — with no proof for years.
But the biggest speculators may be the people trying to divine which foals (under a year old), yearlings (older than a year) or 2-year-old horses are going to emerge as champions or be top breeding stock.
For the past couple of weeks, these speculators, known as pinhookers, have been taking their chances at the thoroughbred sale run by auctioneer Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. And now they are vying with online buyers who have a higher risk tolerance and do not seem to have the same financial constraints. It is a new phenomenon brought on by the pandemic.
Last season, the pandemic forced the traditional world of horse auctions to go online for the first time and dampened prices. This year, the 12-day Keeneland sale is on a record-setting pace: With two days remaining, it had netted almost $340 million, compared with a $248 million total last year. (The record is about $380 million.)
"There's such a pent-up demand for racehorses," said Shannon Bishop Arvin, CEO of Keeneland. "We have such a diversity of buyers this sale. Previously, we'd have fewer buyers buying more horses. Now, we have agents who are excitedly active for different buyers."
Pinhookers like Eddie Woods, who bought a yearling for $1.2 million early in this year's sale, are feeling pressure from online buyers.
"You've got to remember a lot of people had spare money to spend that they weren't going to invest it in other things," Woods said. "So they bought themselves a hobby."
The high prices are good for sellers, but for speculators, the question is what the resale market may look like. Early in their lives, horses are sold on a timeline, by their age, and that is a big determinant of price. (Later on, their price is determined by their success on the track.) Many yearlings bought in the past two weeks can be resold in February, just five months from now, as 2-year-olds, when their physical attributes become more apparent.
The other complicating factor — the growth in the number of online bidders — started only at last year's sale because of COVID-19 restrictions. At this same sale in 2020, online buyers spent $12.1 million. This year, buyers spent $15.7 million online in just the first six days.
"COVID has desensitized us to online buying, where we used to be more compelled to be there in person," Arvin said.
But buying exercise equipment or even a car online is different from buying powerful, fast but remarkably fragile animals in the hope that by age 3 they will be winning big at the track. The higher prices only raise the stakes.
"The greater the risks, the greater the rewards," Woods said. "When you have a top-end horse by a fashionable stallion, and he works well at the 2-year-old sale, it will most likely go very well for you. If it doesn't go right, it's going to cost you a lot of money."
The best pinhookers look at horse buying as an investment like any other that requires a tremendous upfront outlay of capital. They start by trying to remove some of the romance, especially for novice investors flush with cash.
"Spread your risk as best you can," said Nick de Meric, who owns de Meric Thoroughbred Sales in Florida with his wife, Jaqui. "We have several partners who take pieces of horses we buy. This gives us the opportunity to go after more expensive horses. It gives us the chance to buy a few of those."
Nick de Meric and others run syndicates, created for specific horses or structured as a broader pool. This is basic risk management.
"If a $300,000 yearling goes down to zero, that's a hard one to swallow," de Meric said. "But if you have only 20% of that horse, it's easier to absorb."
Returns vary widely. De Meric aims for an average return of 17% to 25% on the yearlings he buys, trains and sells, he said. A bad year is a 7% or 8% loss. His best year was a 43.5% return to investors after all expenses and fees. A horse costs about $30,000 to feed, insure, train and transport in the five months between the yearling and 2-year-old sales.
"You've got to understand, you're going to swallow some lumps," de Meric said. "It is a bit of a roller coaster. But the highs are so euphoric that we all forget about the lows."