Despite the challenges of holding yearling sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, all CTHS divisions in Canada are currently in agreement with Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (CTHS) BC president Grant Watson that the best way to sell horses is to do it live with an auctioneer.
“As far as we’re concerned, that is the optimum way,” Watson said Friday (June 26).
Recently, Canada’s largest standardbred sale announced it was being held as an online auction only due to challenges making its entirely-indoor sales facility — which, as an important aside, is currently a COVID-19 field hospital — safe given government restrictions on group gathering sizes.
Going online only does allow buyers and sellers to maintain social distancing and potentially opens the auction up to buyers anywhere in the world. Online auctions – think ebay — also give a longer window for buyers to figure out a way to buy a horse they really want by enlisting more partners, if necessary.
Critics say online auctions may produce lower prices for horses because they lack the three-minute frenzy of rapid-fire live bidding that have been proven to drive bids. The necessary technology to do an auction entirely online — and produce video footage of horses so buyers can see what they are buying — may also be cost prohibitive for some CTHS divisions and consignors. The online-only auction may also be hampered by some buyers living in remote locations with poor Internet connections.
“Personally, I’ve bought online and it wasn’t a good experience,” Watson said.
That’s one of the reasons, in BC, Watson said the CTHS is still planning on, “an in-person, live sale” on Tuesday, Sept. 8 at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC. “We’ve still got Thunderbird booked,” Watson said.
However, CTHS BC is waiting for the province’s Ministry of Health to loosen some restrictions on gatherings in order to make the sale happen as planned. “We’re supposed to enter Phase 3 in BC sometime (the first week of July), which will change some of the parameters.”
In Ontario, the 2020 Canadian Premier Yearling Sale, to be held at the Woodbine Sales Pavilion in Toronto, has changed its date to Wednesday, Sept. 2 in response to Woodbine changing its live racing dates from Wednesdays to Thursdays. CTHS (Ontario) president and sales chair Peter Berringer, in a letter to canadianthoroughbred.com, said there are three possible scenarios for this year’s sale:
1. If the province has formally re-opened before September there will be no changes to the sale and it will “mirror last year’s sale. We remain optimistic that we will have attendees at the sale to participate in a live auction.”
2. If Ontario has not re-opened by sale time, the sale will be held as a live auction following provincial guidelines on social distancing, group gathering size limits, face coverings, hand washing and the like. “The provincial framework and Woodbine Entertainment protocols that will be in place at the time of the sale will be followed by the CTHS (Ontario division).”
3. Other alternatives are being considered “to facilitate the selling of yearlings for our breeders, which include increased phone bidding and online alternatives.”
In Alberta, CTHS (Alberta division) manager Jean Kruse said via email on Tuesday (June 23), “at this moment we are planning on going ahead with our sale at Westerner Park on Friday, Sept. 18. The sales committee is looking at a number of options regarding how to host the sale following AHS (Alberta Health Services) guidelines which may be in place on that date and have also looked into backup plans should things go back to how they were earlier. As the sales committee is still in the process of these discussions, I can’t really comment further.”
In Manitoba, CTHS general manager and sale organizer Jill Withers said via email that the status quo is expected to be in place. “We are holding the yearling sale at the Red River Exhibition Grounds as per years past. The date of the sale is Sunday, Aug. 23 with viewing on Saturday, Aug. 22… We will be adhering to all the COVID-19 provincial restrictions in regards to both outdoor and indoor gatherings that are in place at the time of the sale.”
All CTHS divisions noted plans could change due to the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the mindset as of now seems clear: hold a live auction and supplement it with technology to help inspect and bid on horses to maintain social distancing guidelines.
Watson said online-only auctions are cost-prohibitive for the BC sale. “With 77 yearlings, we don’t have a very big margin, so cost is quite a factor. We don’t mind losing money on (the sale) to a certain extent, but we try to mitigate that and always try to break even. We think the only way to really do that is to have in-person bidding.
“There’s going to be lots to go with that. Obviously, it’s not just the auction itself, it’s the preview. Historically, we’ve had a preview parade. We’ve cancelled that because it’s not functional, at this point, with a 50-person limit and spacing around the place. We may have to even go to book appointments to see a horse. We’re looking at all those options.
“It’s going to be a matter of being creative enough and working with workplace safety and the health department to put a plan in place that they’re comfortable with. Whatever needs to be done. If we need to be taking temperatures coming in, if we need to have people not enter the barns, that you come to the front of the barns and you have the employees bring out the horse you want to see.”
Though foal numbers have been declining in Canada for many years, Watson said that when the pandemic hit, CTHS BC added an incentive program to breed mares if breeders commit to selling the offspring at the BC sale or to racing them at Hastings Park.
“We were quite fearful for future sales that nobody was going to breed this year because what’s going on with no racing and uncertainty,” Watson said. “We put in an incentive to breed your mare. We actually have 193 mares bred under the program that are committed to either going into our sale or racing at Hastings. It drained our account to do it. So the cupboard is bare as far as other programs…. [but] if we can come through this [year’s sale] with decent pricing we’re set up to give our customers a pretty good sale in two years and supply BC with almost 200 horses.”
Still, this year’s sales remain a major concern across Canada.
“Everybody’s concerned about the price that they’re going to receive for their yearlings. BC is harder hit than anybody because we still haven’t started racing. They’re going at Century Mile, they’re going in Winnipeg and they’re going at Woodbine,” Watson said, adding Hastings Park’s season is expected to begin on July 6. “We have a 25-day meet here, so the same buyers that we’re looking at are restricted in what they can earn. We have a pretty loyal group of buyers on a yearly basis that support our sale. I will be reaching out personally to them in my position as president here to encourage them, given the tough times, to make sure they attend the sale if possible and they can afford it and try not to be shy with the bidding, let’s put it that way.
“We don’t see it hindering the bigger owner groups that have disposable yearlings that buy the yearlings anyway. Where we see it really affecting us is really the trainer groups where a trainer will buy a horse or two. Those are the guys that aren’t getting their 10 per cent, their horses aren’t running and they’re not earning income.”