Sep 22, 2020

We are now seeing bloodstock auction houses around the world dragging themselves into the 21st century, and may be secure in the knowledge that South Africa’s players in that game are well up with the pace.

Auction Houses come in all shapes and sizes. Sotheby’s and Christie’s were both founded in the mid 18th Century in London, the latter still having its King Street HQ in St James’s plus the Rockefeller Centre in New York and more around the globe. The former – more American owned since the 1980s – is always a nice place for breakfast in Bond Street followed by a nosey wander around – plus its presences in the Upper East Side and in several other smart parts of smart cities.

Sotheby's, Bond Street

On the other hand, your every day, common or garden salerooms purveying antiques, furniture, jewellery and watches, film posters, postage stamps, you name it, all have something in common with Sotheby’s and Christie’s: a bank of employees taking telephone bids, more or less since the telephone was invented, and on-line bidding relatively soon after Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989.

Christine Trevanion

Christine Trevanion

Presenters of the plethora of antiques shows on TV have familiarised viewers for many years with on-line bidding, the Olympic Champion of Likeability Christine Trevanion, saleroom owner and auctioneer leading the way.

In contrast, Tattersalls, Goffs UK & Ireland and Keeneland in the USA have only just got there! But got there they have. In the Tattersalls July Sale (A Live + Online + Phone Bidding Sale in Action, 27 July 2020) both those additional media enlivened proceedings, undoubtedly contributing to the brilliant clearance rate.

Keeneland’s marathon yearling sale – 4275 lots (hips) 13th-25th September – has been assisted by both extra media as the up-on-high auctioneers rattle through their cattle-style patter.

Keeneland September Catalogue Spread

The BSA Emperor’s Palace National Yearling Sales was much more successful than many feared. Yes, the figures were the figures, but the world-standard live on-line bidding (bidders having inspected either on farms or on brief visits to Germiston before the sale) was undoubtedly an important (new) feature.

Surely these innovations at BSA will continue beyond COVID, thus contributing to a changing pattern of inspections, showing, visits and presence during the sale.

When we first witnessed the Nationals in the early naughties, it was unlike any other major yearling sale. The general aim at Sales was (and is) to get in there, work your backside off getting round hundreds quickly, analyse late into the evenings, communicate, do business and get out. In Ireland and UK, plus France, USA and Germany, the pace is dictated by having eight weeks of barely separated yearling sales followed by a week of horses in training then a month of breeding stock and foals, with some left over yearlings.

The Germiston sale ground back then seemed more like a festival gathering. Horses were contained there for up to a couple of weeks, instead of being on show for maybe 3 days at most, rotated out and in throughout the sale weeks.

Germiston Sales Ground

Getting round at Germiston was a process of meeting, greeting, chatting and catching up. An absolute pleasure, no question, and a great way to get to know people in early years. But a different pace.

With horses and people travelling from far, it made sense on a social level. Mind you, the horse-journey from a Western Cape farm to Germiston is actually no longer than to Newmarket from most parts of Ireland, whence 70% of what is sold comes. To cover the risk of delayed ferry crossings, yearlings do arrive a couple of days early, staying in sales company overflow premises. Then they move onto the sale ground for immediate, multiple inspections and sale within 2/3 days then off to start new lives very soon. The sale grounds have lungeing rings for lungeing yearlings for exercise or getting the gas out, and for wind tests after purchase, but they horses are not there for very long. There are no large communal walking areas as at Germiston or the adjacent spaces at Durbanville.

Where the middle ground in South Africa will end up is anyone’s guess. Time at sales is already shorter than before, encouraged by the more quick-fire CTS processes. Now – in addition to progressive BSA moves – we can surely expect state of the art innovation at CTS with heavy duty bloodstock expertise coming in to – surely – oversee the end of the CTICC era in favour of a new sale in February/March such as we have advocated for donkeys’ years.

It is absolutely certain that photographic and video products will improve continuously.

I do not mean that the current practitioners need improvement as photographers! But their video products are supposed to be absolute substitutes for live inspections and should therefore reproduce the sequences, sounds (or lack of them) and durations.

We can get away with mares and fillies for stud being videoed in a rudimentary fashion, but are less inclined to rely on a video for a yearling or weanling. With enhanced techniques as we progress, video quality will increase dramatically with repeated walking, proper view on the turn, standardisation of procedure and visual information on the height of the lead up person.

Two current features should be “lost”. One is slow motion. This is an artistic addition that skews one’s judgement badly. On inspecting thousands of yearlings, I have not met one that can walk in slow motion.


Stormzy on stage

The other is music!!! What is more distracting that someone else’s choice of music when trying to look at a horse? Imagine a professional consigner at sale when a colt is pulled out to be shown saying “Hang on a minute. We’ve got Rod Stewart for him and the Neil Diamond tape is stuck in the machine”. (I am pandering to the older generation here, but could use Stormzy and Miley Cyrus).

But oh! There are three yearlings being shown simultaneously. What would they do? Give you a blue-toothed earpiece for “your yearling’s music”? Nah.

Dump the music please, and have the only sound being that of hooves landing on the hard standing (not grass) on which the yearling is being walked. That rhythm plays a part, actively or subliminally, in inspections. No other sound.

BSA is contributing to its own techno-development with its series of on-line (only) auctions over the course of five days each. These are excellent innovations. OK, we are not seeing whopping prices but for broodmares at least this is a superb step forward.

The Worcester mare sales were dead on their feet. The KZN equivalent even deader. It is a tragedy that there is no mare market in South Africa. But that will change!

Foal numbers are falling like a lift with no cables. Mares have been slaughtered in numbers that would suggest that horse meat is a South African staple food. But now, the BSA online sales have found homes for mares that have merit.

With good videos and the elimination of the need to travel personally, it is not inconceivable that the BSA online sale of broodmares and fillies for training will completely replace actual mare sales in South Africa.