Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pinhookers' Bloodbath

The Saratoga yearling sale starts Monday, and the big Keeneland sale, which determines the fate of a large number of thoroughbred breeders, is barely a month away. For the past two decades, an important factor in those yearling sales, has been the activity of "pinhookers," seeking to buy yearlings for resale. The July issue of the Blood-Horse Market Watch, a pricy industry newsletter, contains what is, to me at least, a shocking but unsurprising report detailing the economic disaster that has befallen pinhookers this year. If one needed any more proof that our industry is going through a major restructuring, this is surely the smoking gun.

Pinhookers (see a definition here) in the thoroughbred industry buy yearlings at the summer and fall sales, then try to sell the horses as two-year-olds, especially at the so-called "select" two-year-old sales (Fasig-Tipton Calder in February, Ocala Breeders Sales Co. in February and March, Barrett's in California in March, and Keeneland in April). A smaller part of pinhookers' business is buying weanlings, then reselling them as yearlings or two-year-olds. In the past two decades, their business has boomed. According to Market Watch, profit rates for pinhookers at the select sales (the price they received for selling two-year-olds less the cost of their yearling purchases and maintenance and training expenses) ranged from roughly 30% per year to as much as 90%, the latter in 2004; for the most recent years, the profit rate was 28% in 2007 and 38% in 2008. In contrast to these healthy numbers, Market Watch calculates that this year, pinhookers in the aggregate actually lost 0.2%at the select sales, the first net loss they've ever recorded.

And that figure is based only on the horses that the pinhookers managed to sell this year. It doesn't take into account the losses that they suffered on horses that didn't sell at the two-year-old sales, nor does it account for the interest that they have to pay on the working capital loans most of them take out each year to provide money for buying new stock, nor the cost of their substantial investment in land and facilities near Ocala, where most pinhookers have their base of operations. So the real loss is much, much larger than that 0.2% figure.

Using Market Watch's methodology -- the pinhooker's cost is set at what he/she paid for the yearling, and a conservative $18,000 is added for the cost of getting the horse to the two-year-old sale -- some prominent pinhookers appeared to suffer staggering losses on their 2008-2009 ventures. All these people are hard-working, honest horsemen, who do an important job in the industry. It truly makes me sad to see some of these numbers. For example, Market Watch reports that Nick DeMeric (perhaps not so incidentally, one of the nicest and most trustworthy people in the business) lost almost $2.4 million on the 42 horses he sold at the five select sales this year. (Nick also had another 14 listed as not sold). Other important pinhookers with major reported losses include Niall Brennan (loss of $1 million on 55 sold, with another 37 not sold), Jim Crupi (loss of $1 million on 36 sold; another 29 not sold), Ciaran Dunne's Wavertree Stables (loss of $1.5 million), Robert Scanlon (loss of $969,000), Paul Sharp (loss of $630,000) and Eddie Woods (loss of 1.5 million).

Among the few major pinhookers to have recorded significant profits were Hoby Kight ($386,000) and Leprechaun Racing ($303,000). Interestingly, the two women who are major players in what has largely been a man's game -- Murray Smith and Becky Thomas (Sequel Bloodstock) -- were both reported as more or less breaking even, which is a major achievement in this year's market

The Market Watch figures don't reflect any pinhooker's overall financial state; there's just too much we don't know. Were they able to sell any horses privately, and for how much? Were their yearling purchases financed by other investors, who would then have taken much of the loss? Are they using their own money, or bank loans on which they have to pay (probably high) interest rates?

Despite the reported losses, it's already clear that the pinhookers as a group are still in the yearling market. In the first major yearling sale of 2009, the Fasig-Tipton July sale in Lexington, Kentucky, I was able to identify at least 55 purchases by pinhookers, or by agents whom I know to work primarily for pinhookers. And virtually all the major players were there, with Nick DeMeric, Jim Crupi, and Mike Ryan (who purchases for Niall Brennan) all making several buys. There were probably many additional horses sold that will end up being pinhooked, as purchasers often send their yearlings to pinhookers for breaking and training, and then on to the sales for the horses that develop quickly.

The Saratoga Select Sale catalog is attractive, the auction company has made a major effort to attarct foreign buyers, and there seem to be a lot of potential bidders out on the newly remodeled grounds of Fasig-Tipton in Saratoga, but it's way too early to tell if pinhookers' financial woes will impact this yearling sale. And the really imprtant test will be the Keeneland September sale. That's when more than 5,000 yearlings, some 15% of the entire US foal crop, are offered for sale. If the major pinhookers don't have the money available to be an important part of that market, breeders will feel the economic pinch even more than they already have.

The pinhookers' plight mirrors that of the industry as a whole. We're breeding too many horses and running too many races. When companies in other industries have overproduction, they cut back, sometimes drastically. But it's hard for the racing industry to lay off 20% of its workforce -- the horses -- and harder still to make the 40-50% cuts that are probably needed to restore economic health to the survivors.

In a substantially smaller industry, there would still be a niche for pinhookers. But, like the rest of racing, that niche would be smaller, and it wouldn't have room for everyone who's a pinhooker today. Perhaps the disastrous 2009 season will encourage some to consider other career possibilities. I'd hate to see another year or two of the trends I've described above truly ruin some fine people.

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