Sales catalogues: lots could be better

 

Tattersalls July Sale  08/07/16

With the yearling sales season now under way, thousands of pages of sales catalogues will be scrutinised in the coming months. But what information does the catalogue tell a prospective buyer about the animal he or she could potentially spend hundreds of thousands of guineas (euros, dollars…) on? And what information is missing?

Sales catalogues the world over look broadly similar, standard practice being to display the horse’s three-generation pedigree near the top of the page and listing the racing and breeding records of (usually) the dam, grandam and great grandam in the space below. French, American and Australian catalogues also give brief details of the sire’s racing and stud record for each individual lot, whereas British and Irish catalogues carry a separate stallion reference elsewhere in the catalogue.

Within that structure, there is further uniformity resulting from certain criteria for pedigree compilation established by the International Cataloguing Standards Committee (ICSC). Sales companies on the European Sub-Committee of the ICSC, agree, for example, that pedigree details may not extend beyond the fifth dam. Nor can reference be made to relationships other than full/half-brother or -sister (so ‘three-parts brother’ is not a permitted phrase).

The cataloguing of lots was not always so regulated, with considerable variation from country to country. This was made clear in Miles Napier’s 1973 book Thoroughbred Pedigrees Simplified. Napier points out that, at this time, English sales companies didn’t compile catalogue details themselves (as American companies did) but instead relied on vendors to put pedigrees together, leading to ‘an inevitable lack of method and uniformity in the way these pedigrees are presented.’

Napier goes on: ‘Many vendors in England are under the impression that by providing their pedigree with “padding”, i.e. the mention of a large number of mediocre horses and the insignificant races they have won, they will make the pedigree look strong and thus increase the sale potential of their horse.’

This he contrasts with a much ‘cleaner’ looking American pedigree of the time whose lay-out in fact looks very similar to a page from a present-day catalogue, American or (as this was the template adopted internationally) European. ‘American methods do not merely give the facts. They advertise the pedigree’ says Napier. ‘They are a sales medium for the lot in question.’

Another difference was that American catalogues highlighted stakes winners much more than English ones where, for example, according to Napier, Mill Reef (Europe’s champion of 1971) would ‘receive scarcely more prominence than would the winner of a small selling race at Pontefract.’

Prophetically, as it turned out, Napier concludes that ‘with the increasing internationalisation of the bloodstock industry a method of cataloguing that is uniform throughout the world is highly desirable.’ The ICSC was duly formed in 1981.

The highlighting of stakes winners (and placed horses in such races) is achieved through the use of the famous black type – in capitals for winners of races with Group/Grade or Listed status and in lower case for horses placed second or third in such races. Horses placed fourth in stakes races before 1990 also earned black type.

Talking of placed horses, there doesn’t appear to be any international agreement on the precise definition of a ‘placed’ horse. Strictly speaking, it should refer to one that finishes second or third, maybe fourth at worst. However, the French interpretation of the term is much more liberal. Here are the form figures of the mare Hermanville for her three-year-old season in France in 2011: 57545872047. She was therefore placed once (when second) in the strictest sense of the term, possibly three times if we include her two fourth places.

However, the Arqana sales catalogue (and France Galop’s database) states she was placed seven times! ‘Placed’ here effectively means a position from which the horse earned some prize money. Besides her second and fourth places, Hermanville also earned money for all three of her fifth-place finishes and even from one of her seventh-place finishes which came in a class B handicap.

black type
black type

Black type is the sales catalogue’s only systematic attempt to attach any value to the names in a pedigree. But it’s a very crude way of distinguishing ‘superior’ horses from the rest, and therefore has any number of drawbacks. Although stakes winners are in the minority in the horse population as a whole, that’s not the impression you would get from opening a catalogue at random. Typographically, no distinction is made between the winner of a Group 1 contest or a mere listed race. It can also potentially confer ‘superior’ status on animals which are anything but.

For example, there can be few more moderate horses to have earned black type than the filly Meohmy. She finished a tailed-off last in a three-runner listed race on the all-weather at Lingfield in February 2009. The daughter of Marju remained a maiden after 25 starts (four of them over hurdles) and earned a Timeform rating of just 54.

On the other hand, very good horses can miss out on black type. Not many colts come as close as Hala Bek to winning a Derby but because he finished fourth in a blanket finish at Epsom in 2006 (beaten two short heads and a head) and never raced again, his name appears in ordinary type in sales catalogues though he was good enough to earn a Timeform rating of 121.

There is another explicit way sales companies have of highlighting certain horses in a pedigree and that is through what the ICSC refers to as ‘excellence narrative’. In other words, using terms such as ‘champion’ or ‘top rated’. However, champion status is more easily earned in some countries than others, and it’s doubtful that ‘Champion 3yr old in Slovak Republic in 1993’ (Zimzalabim) is a label that in practice has helped sell that colt’s relatives.

In what is supposed to be the information age, it is remarkable how uninformative sales catalogues are about how good a horse’s relatives are or were.

An exception, though, is Germany, which would appear to be the only country in which ratings are published in sales catalogues. These are the official GAG (Generalausgleichgewichte or ‘general handicap weight’) ratings, expressed in kilos, ranging from around 40kg for the worst horses up to 110kg for the very best. [Click here for an example] A horse must have a GAG of 95kg or more to become a stallion in Germany. Germany’s best horse of 2015, Ito, for example, received a GAG rating of 99.5kg which corresponded to a mark of 119 in the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.

The other key piece of information which, surely, a potential purchaser, should be able to have at his/her fingertips is the distances of the races won by a horse’s relatives.

This information too is surprisingly lacking from most sales catalogues around the world. Again, there’s a notable exception, and this time it’s Australia which serves as the example which other countries should follow. [Click here for an example]

[top image: tattersalls.com]