You probably already know by now that owning a racehorse isn’t cheap – and neither is buying one in the first place.
This is the Sport of Kings, one in which it’s often been said that if you want to make a small fortune from owning a horse, you need to start out with a large one!
While many punters still prefer National Hunt racing, and they will tell you that regularly, as a sport it effectively can’t carry on with the use of its own ex-racing stallions as they are all gelded.
It’s those bred for flat racing in Europe, Australia and North American primarily which are used to keep the thoroughbred, and the racehorse in particular, in business – and it is a big business.
But why are the best thoroughbreds in the world so expensive?
What Makes Race Horses Expensive?
Naturally, a horse at seven or eight years old isn’t as valuable to a new owner, or breeder for that matter, simply because the horse in question would have less time remaining to prove their worth on the track or in the breeding sheds.
Horses in training at 2, 3 or 4 may still sell for a lot of money, whether that is with racing or breeding in mind, while it is the yearlings that sell for the big bucks.
Many breeders keep that as their speciality and don’t race their horses. The business model is based around breeding what may be considered to be excellent foals, then selling them as yearlings to a major owner/trainer either privately or at auction.
But, when a horse is a yearling and has never even been close to a race track, how can they sell for so much money? That’s where the best pedigrees come in.
Some may argue the same thing happens with humans, but certainly in the thoroughbred world breeding has been proven to be the biggest indicator of future success.
There are tons of top broodmares being covered by even more expensive stallions every year, the aim being to not only make big money from their foals but also to carry on improving the thoroughbred racehorse overall.
Case in point, when track records are still being broken today it’s because the species is improving. The very best sprinter of 2019 (Battaash) is most likely just a tiny bit better than the very best sprinter of 1990 (Dayjur).
It’s well known that bloodlines are incredibly important. The best modern-day example would be that of Galileo’s family line and what that has done for the sport of flat racing.
Coolmore, the Irish breeding giant whose horses are trained primarily by Aidan O’Brien, bought stallion Sadler’s Wells in the 90’s. Sadler’s Wells was having some great success with his progeny, notably in the Derby, which was highlighted when one of his offspring Galileo became a terrific Derby winner himself in 2001.
Upon retiring, Galileo immediately became a very expensive stallion with top-class horses Nathaniel, Australia, New Approach, Highland Reel and many others all sons of his. His top offspring of course was the one and only Frankel, considered to be the best horse ever seen on the track.
While Frankel’s racecourse exploits were fascinating enough, as if to accentuate the breeding point he too began producing wonderous offspring to keep this family line going.
Frankel is responsible for Fillies’ Mile winner Quadrilateral, Oaks winner Anapurna, St Leger winner Logician and dual Champion Stakes winner Cracksman among others – and it’s still early days.
Cracksman, inexplicably, was underrated by the majority of casual racing fans but not only were his exploits on the track genuinely brilliant, he will prove to those with patience how good he is when his only progeny start racing.
Breeding then, is the number one factor when it comes to potential buyers determining the value of a yearling.
If a horse has already been out on the track, then of course form itself is an important factor when it comes to valuation.
A young horse representing a less prominent owner which wins a valuable sales race or scores in Pattern company can then be bought by one of the larger owner-breeders for a lot of money.
Form is particularly important for the breeding industry. A filly or mare who manages to gain some Black Type, i.e. she is placed in a Pattern race, will be far more valuable as a broodmare.
Likewise, since breeding is so important, a colt winning a Group 1 race such as the 2000 Guineas or the Sussex Stakes can demand a hefty stud fee for his owners after he retires.
Even with the bloodline on record, buyers will still wish to see the horses being offered as lots in person to check their conformation.
Many horses may be offered for sale with similarly impressive pedigrees, and so checking out a horse’s musculature, body proportions and how it moves are extremely important to a buyer in order for them to differentiate one potential star from another.
How Racehorses Are Sold
On very rare occasions, horses can simply be bought and sold privately. In the lower grades, horses can also be sold or claimed in selling and claiming races on the track. In general however, it’s all about the hustle and bustle or the sales ring and the auction.
At auctions, horses can be traded at different levels, sometimes for millions of pounds. Occasionally, an owner may buy a yearling by a stallion of their own which helps to keep the money flowing throughout the sport.
For example, as Dubawi stands at Darley Stud and is owned by Godolphin, you’d think they have all the Dubawi offspring they want. However, the breeder is classed as the person who owns the mare, who would simply pay Darley a stud fee for their mare to be covered by Dubawi.
When this happens, if the foal turns into a very good-looking yearling the Godolphin team may well bid for the horse at auction and have to pay a pretty penny to get him.
These auctions are often about the richest, most prominent owners in the world flexing their financial muscles and trying to outbid each other, though it can be done a different way.
Slightly down the buying and selling ladder are the ‘breeze-up’ sales. In these, horses are actually asked to run a short distance so potentially buyers can actually see how they move when galloping before making a decision on whether or not to buy.
The Most Expensive Horses in History
Even in this day and age, should we see that a horse cost £100,000, €250,000 or 350,000 guineas, we tend to think it’s going to be pretty decent on the track.
These figures aren’t even Premier League in the breeding world to be honest, with the value of many horses down the years going into the millions.
Remember, a horse’s value may be due to their expected excellence on the track, but can often be based on how valuable they are expected to be at stud over the course of a number of years which can ratchet the price up into the mega-bucks category.
It doesn’t even always go well. North American horse Snaafi Dancer was beautifully bred, but was desperately slow in his work. So, without ever racing he was retired early to stud and sold for $10million. He was just about infertile however, meaning this was a very expensive gamble that did not pay off.
Another Northern Dancer offspring was the last Triple Crown winner in Britain, Nijinsky. One of his progeny was Seattle Dancer and because of that lineage, he was sold as far back as 1985 for $13million, coming in at more than $30million today.
They all pale into insignificance however in comparison with the sale in 2000 of Fusaichi Pegasus. A brilliant horse on the track in the States, Coolmore took the plunge on his future prominence as a stallion when buying him for some $70million!