Buying From The Back Ring: High-Stakes Snap Judgments At Thoroughbred Auctions – Horse


A Book 1 purchase at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale can entail months of careful shopping, from farm visits ahead of the auction to countless inspections, phone calls, and veterinary visits when the horses are on the sales grounds. When Book 5 comes around, and buyers are laying eyes on prospects for the first time in the back walking ring, that process is condensed down to about 20 minutes.

With so many horses going through the ring, and limited time and travel budgets to roam the barns inspecting horses at each consignment, many horsemen in the later books of the marathon sale will elect to find a spot in the back walking ring and inspect the horses as they come through, often standing shoulder-to-shoulder with several others doing the same thing. If they find one that meets their criteria, they’ll follow the horse up to the ring to place a bid. Then, once the paperwork is complete, they’ll often go back to the same spot and start the process over again.

It’s a pressure cooker for buyers and sellers alike, as they weave between nervous horses and each other in a crowded, enclosed area, trying to get the best sightline for a yearling on the walk or hunting down the consignor to glance at the vet report.

The horses purchased in these books are crucial to filling the ranks for pinhookers and trainers around the country, and while the prices might not turn heads the way a seven-figure star might earlier in the sale, the buyers still shoulder a significant risk relative to their initial capital. To succeed in the long-term, their quick-twitch judgement with back ring horses has to be right more often than not.

So, what do keen judges lean on during the bloodstock realm’s version of speed dating? For most, it comes down to the walk, the mind, and the budget.

“You can pick apart the book by pedigree at this point as much as you want, but honestly, we just look at individuals, and if we see something that catches our eye, we kind of go from there,” said Delaware Park-based trainer Chelsey Moysey. “You see the horse, see the page, and go on to vet reports and all of that. At this stage in the game, it moves fast, and that’s what works for us.

“The biggest thing for me is the walk,” Moysey continued. “I want a good walker, a good shoulder, and a good hip. I can work with anything from the knees down, give or take, but I want to see a horse with a good shoulder and a good hip.”

In addition to how the young horses move, buyers often judged prospects on how they handled their surroundings. A yearling that could handle the sensory overload of the auction process was more likely to warrant a longer look than one hanging on to its composure by a thread.

“They’ve got to be smart-looking to me,” said Eric Foster, a trainer based in Kentucky and Indiana. “I haven’t had a lot of luck with horses that weren’t smart. I want to hang around with smart people and smart horses. And never back in the knee. A lot of my rules I make, I wind up having to break them a little bit, so it’s hard for me to say, ‘I’ll never do this,’ because then I’ll be right there doing it.”

Foster said he comes to the sale with a number in his head in terms of setting a budget, but he allows some wiggle room if he feels he’d be getting adequate value at a higher price.

Moysey also said the horse will dictate the price in her eyes, but her goal was to come back with as many prospects within her overall budget as she could.

“We’re still on the lower end of racing, so for us to spend $50,000 on an individual is a lot, but for us to spend $50,000 on two is great,” she said We try to look between the $20,000 to $30,000 range, and if we get something cheaper, great. That isn’t happening right now, but we’re trying.”

The intent of the buyer can also swing the type of horse they’re looking for in the back ring. As buyers looking to race, Foster and Moysey said they were able to forgive certain conditions found on a vet report. Pinhook buyers, on the other hand, will need their horses to stand up to veterinary scrutiny when they’re offered again in the spring, and it’s hard to have a clean vet report as a 2-year-old if they didn’t start with one as a yearling.

Crystal Ryan of South Carolina-based pinhook operation Mason Springs said she prefers to do her homework back at the barns, but the volume of horses in the catalog sometimes makes back ring buying a necessity. When it does, due diligence has to be done quickly, and juggling prospects can be a challenge.

“It all happens so fast, and it’s so easy to lose track of one, when you get on one and you have to check on all those things,” she said. “It can be really hard, because one you like might not pass the vet, and then you look and the next horse you like is already going to the ring, and there’s not enough time to call it in to the vet.”

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Whereas Moysey was willing to forgive anything below the legs on a horse, Ryan’s checklist was the exact opposite.

“First off, I try to look from the legs up, because if I look from the side, I will tend to like something that I probably shouldn’t, so I really try to watch that walk, and see how correct they are,” she said. “Of course, there’s no perfect horse, so they’ll have a little deviation and you have to be a little forgiving.”

Buying to pinhook also means Ryan was not necessarily shopping for the horses she’d like, but the ones she expects potential buyers will like during the 2-year-old sales, both from a physical and pedigree standpoint. She admitted this has taken some fine-tuning of her critical eye.

“It does knock a lot of horses out that I would otherwise really like,” Ryan said. “I have an affinity for a turf horse and that doesn’t really fit the bill, so I have to be really careful about that.”

What a back ring buyer does when they fall on a potential purchase can differ wildly, as well. Querying the consignor for the vet report is standard procedure, but how much conversation they have with the agent about the horse and the economics around it depends on the buyer.

“I really kind of keep myself to myself and just do my own thing,” said Midwest trainer John Ennis. “I just paddle my own canoe, really.

“It’s a big investment that you’re buying, so you want to make sure you’re buying something with no soundness issues,” he continued. “Starting out on the right foot is the main thing.”

Book 5 of this year’s Keeneland September sale has been unusually robust, and that has given the traditional back ring buyers more competition than they might have expected. Because buyers in the higher books have gotten pushed down into the later sessions, prices have been driven up, and buyers on a tighter budget have had to be even more shrewd than before about picking their spots.

Just because it’s later in the sale and the average price has gone down, that doesn’t mean it’s gotten any easier to buy a horse than it was on the auction’s opening day.

“It’s hard to have a stone plan for it,” Foster said. “You need to be a little bit lucky.”


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