By Jeff Lifson
The Keeneland September yearling is upon us (check out the catalog) and it’s a good time to answer the age-old question, should I buy a yearling or wait for 2-year-olds?
At West Point, we buy both yearlings and 2-year-olds, and we offer both at various times of the year to our Partners. But there has to be a difference, right? And there have to be pros and cons to owning a yearling versus a 2-year-old in a racing partnership. There are. And I’m going to spell them out and let the jury – you and other potential racehorse owners – deliberate.
THE OBVIOUS QUESTION: WHAT’S A YEARLING, WHAT’S A 2-YEAR-OLD?
Before I start to list the differences between owning the two, how about some basics? Here goes…
1). A yearling is a one-year-old horse. They dropped to the earth, cute as all get out, sometime in the winter and spring on a farm somewhere (generally, but not exclusively, in Kentucky). They are separated from their mommas, referred to as weanlings, and when January 1st of the following year rolls around, they all become 1-year-olds or “yearlings.” They look like a racehorse but more of a mini-version – an immature one.
2). A 2-year-old is a more polished product. They’ve had a saddle and rider on their back, and they’ve been taught to gallop on a farm. There are several factors that determine when they start breezing, or going fast. Those factors include whether or not they’re being prepped for a sale, pedigree, owner preferences, maturity, etc.
NEXT OBVIOUS QUESTION: WHERE DO YOU BUY YEARLINGS VS. 2-YEAR-OLD RACEHORSES? IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?
You can buy yearlings and 2-year-olds privately from the folks who raise them at the farm, from trainers who are readying them for the races, and from connections after they win their first race (although you’ll typically pay a huge premium in this last case – hey, they just won, didn’t they?) In each of these examples, you’re hunting and pecking all over the country or all over the world to find these horses to buy.
Want simpler? Many do. That’s why there are bigger-volume, larger-variety, one-stop shopping places to buy yearlings and 2-year-olds. These are called horse auctions or sales. That’s where we buy, and there are some big differences between yearling and 2-year-old sales. The main sales companies in the United States are Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland.
Yearling sales – remember when I said that yearlings are immature racehorses? We certainly aren’t looking at the finished product at a yearling sale, meaning we can’t watch them run while evaluating them. Several inputs go into determining which horses are added to the stable — from pedigree to knowledge that the current owner is a billionaire.
Here are the factors that go into buying yearlings:
Family Matters What we do is look at their family history in what is known as a sales catalog. Who’s the father (called a stallion or sire)? What kind of racehorse was he? What kind of offspring has he fathered? What about the mom (called a dam or broodmare) and her progeny? Have they been successful? And on and on down the family tree. If a horse has a “weak” female family or is by an obscure sire, yet we love them physically, we may still bid on them but will know that we shouldn’t get too aggressive in the bidding process.
Physical Inspection With yearlings, we have the ability to have a groom pull them out of their stalls so we can eyeball their physique from head to hoof, watch how they move when they walk and check their attitude during all this poking and prodding. The goal is to find well-balanced, smooth walking individuals who use their bodies efficiently and have no conformation flaws that could predispose them to injuries. We then start to separate what we like and don’t like and do our very best to envision them one year plus down the road, chiseled and fit, ready to tackle their first race.
We also like to see horses who are inquisitive and easy to work with. Many top-flight horses have good minds and are focused on the task at hand. But it’s also important to keep in mind many of the yearlings have never left the farm they were born at until this point — unfamiliar surroundings could make anyone out of sorts.
Veterinary Exam After narrowing down horses that meet our physical and pedigree analysis, we call in a veterinarian to examine the horses, looking for potential flaws in throat anatomy, joints, tendons, and ligaments. There’s no such thing as a perfect horse, so it’s important to work with a team with decades of experience in evaluating horses. A radiographic finding that makes a horse a poor prospect to resell as a 2-year-old may have no bearing on the long-term racing soundness. Some horses may need surgeries before having a rider on their back. Grade 1 winner Awesome Gem had bone chips removed from both front ankles. That didn’t stop him from earning over $2.8 million and racing until he was nine years old.
Once the veterinary exam is complete, it’s time to decide on our budget once we have a list of horses who “jump through all the hoops”.
Filly or colt Many owners dream of buying a horse who could compete in and hopefully win the Kentucky Derby or Breeders’ Cup Classic. The reality is very few colts end up as viable stallion prospects, but the ones who do — they often earn millions of dollars on the racetrack and in the breeding shed. Buying a nice filly gives you a better chance at residual value following the racing career as there’s a far greater number of broodmares compared to stallions (some stallions breed to 140+ mares a year!) and even a listed stakes win can up a filly’s value.
Turf or dirt? Long or short? With more and more high-dollar turf races being written in the United States, turf horses aren’t nearly as overlooked. We try to buy a blend of horses — colts and fillies, horses bred for dirt and turf, sprinters, milers, and classic-distance types. If your goal is to have a horse on the Kentucky Derby trail, you may focus your attention on colts with significant dirt influence in their pedigrees.
Being the final bidder The reality is when the hammer drops and a person buys a horse, they are the only person in the world who values the horse that high — the market has spoken! It’s important to remember that all it takes is two people to drive a price up, and it takes one person backing out at the last minute to keep the board from lighting up. Some owners set ridiculously high reserves on their horses, hoping they get lucky. And sometimes they do.
We’ve been fortunate to partner with some of the top owners in the business to purchase horses at the sales — the power of the partnership! Those owners include: Hronis Racing, Woodford Racing, Lane’s End Racing, Talla Racing, Siena Farm, WinStar Farm, Spendthrift Farm, St. Elias Stable, Repole Stable, Bobby Flay, Albaugh Family Stable, amongst many others.
2-year-old sales – Remember how a more polished product comes with an extra year of experience? Remember that a 2-year-old has learned how to gallop under saddle and how to have a rider on their back? A 2-year-old is closer to being a ready-for-the-races thoroughbred.
So, at a 2-year-old sale, we can watch the racehorses run. Big difference from a yearling sale. It happens in a day or two long event called a breeze show, also known as an under tack show – fancy titles for a pretty simple exercise. One after another, these 2-year-olds sprint down the stretch in front of all the potential buyers sitting in the grandstand. The 2-year-olds are timed and videotaped for an eighth, quarter, or sometimes three-eighths of a mile.
This gives a buyer the chance to compare the times and the mechanics of each 2-year-old that flashes by. The breezes are recorded, so potential buyers cab back and look at the videotape and the stride analysis data to refresh their memory on each individual horse before deciding whether or not to start bidding. There’s more data used in the buying process.
Keep in mind that buyers at a 2-year-old sale also do all the evaluating stuff they do at the yearling sales. They look over the catalog pages for the family tree, they pull the horse out of the stall and eyeball the physique, they call in their vet for further testing. But the breeze show is the added element.
TOP REASONS TO BUY A YEARLING
1) More variety. We buy at the best-known yearling sales throughout the world, and there are simply more horses available at those sales versus at the 2-year-old sales. If you totaled up all the North American 2-year-old sales horses available in one year, that number would still be fewer than those available at the single largest yearling sale in Kentucky every fall.
2) Pedigree power — While the pedigrees at the 2-year-old in training sales have gotten better and better in recent years, you have a greater selection of well-bred horses at the yearling sales. We often tell Partners that with yearlings, in many instances, you get “more pedigree bang for your buck.”
3) A lump of clay to mold. If you have kids, think about this – and if you don’t, play along. What if you didn’t have a chance to raise those kids from the moment they arrived at the hospital? Think about the habits you’d like them to develop versus what someone else would develop. And then think of a yearling as a horse closer to a newborn than a 2-year-old. A yearling is a lump of clay that your experts can develop at its own pace with your goals for that racehorse in mind.
4) Time – it’s your friend. When you buy a yearling, you’re a while away from racing, so there’s plenty of time to progress through to develop a great racehorse. There’s no pressure to run – racehorses can’t start racing until they’re two, so that’s a non-issue when you buy. If your horse has a setback and you’re dreaming of the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Oaks, relax. It’s a long way off. You bought a yearling, so you have TIME.
TOP REASONS TO BUY A 2-YEAR OLD
1) Knowledge is power. You remember how with a 2-year-old, you can watch a horse run at a breeze show? You can compare times to others running at the same sale, slow down the videotape, and really look at a horse’s mechanics as they run hard. That’s a lot more than you can know at a yearling sale.
2) 2-year-olds are sometimes close to race-ready. Are you so ready to race that you can hardly stand it? Are you dreaming of box seats, post parades, blood-pumping stretch drives, and pictures in the winner’s circle? Buy a 2-year old, and you could be racing within weeks. Most horses who come through a sale need a little time to decompress, but since 2-year-olds are allowed to race in North America, you could buy a horse that you take from the auction ring to the winners circle rather quickly.
3) These horses have been in the pressure cooker. If a 2-year-old made it to the sales grounds, went through the pressure of the breeze show, and passed all of the other physical tests, they’ve shown you a lot more than any yearling and possess a level of durability.
4) Money, money, money. When you get to the races quicker, you can start earning purse money quicker and paying for your horse’s upkeep. It doesn’t always work out that way, especially if your 2-year-old takes additional time to prepare to race than you anticipated. But without any setbacks, a 2-year-old is closer to earning its keep.
TOP REASON NOT TO BUY A YEARLING
You know less, so more can go wrong. When you buy a younger horse, there’s a whole lot that will need to develop before they can race. The horse can go through growth cycles that change the athlete from the superstar you bought to an awkward klutz. And let’s not forget that you’ve never actually seen them run when you buy a yearling. They can look fast as fast can be, but when it comes time to smash the accelerator at the racetrack, there’s no giddyup there.
TOP REASON NOT TO BUY A 2-YEAR-OLD
You know more, but you’ve stressed the horse to get there. Ask any human athlete how stressful it can be physically and emotionally to train for the big game or the big event. When sellers put pressure on a young 2-year-old to make it to the sales and the breeze show and be successful, it’s pretty darn stressful. There’s wear and tear – physical and mental. That fast-looking 2-year-old might have had its best day possible on the day it went an eighth of a mile down the lane and is heading south from here on out. You’ve got to be a sharp observer to gauge which of the 2-year-olds that pass all the tests have even better days ahead.
So there you have ‘em – the pros and cons, the benefits and drawbacks to buying yearlings versus 2-year-olds. Is there a definitive better choice? There is not. When it comes to racing partnerships and making this decision, at West Point Thoroughbreds, we purchase both. And we’ve have success with both.
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