One to One
James Delahooke is a bloodstock agent based in Yorkshire. By his own account, he has purchased 23 grade/group 1 winners including Dancing Brave, Rainbow Quest, Polish Patriot, and others.
TBH MarketWatch: How did you become involved with horses?
I was born and bred on a horse farm in England. My parents had horses which to them were more of a hobby than a business, but they had always hunted, raced and bred horses. Farming was their principal business, and horses were their hobby really. I was more interested in the horses than the farming. So I concentrated on that aspect of it rather than watching the corn grow, which I found a bit slow.
How did you develop your eye for picking out a horse?
I certainly didn’t consciously develop it. I think my mother was a very good judge of horse flesh and a lot of what she said must have rubbed off on me unconsciously. When I started going to horse sales and making comments rather nervously and totally unsure of myself, to my amazement people started to listen to what I was saying, one particular person that started listening to what I was saying was Guy Harwood. He started not only listening to it, but acting on it and buying horses that I said I liked. They started winning races, so it all grew from there. I made a lot of mistakes and hopefully learned from most of them and tried not to repeat them. There is no substitute for experience.
What mistakes did you learn from?
When I was first allowed loose with a big checkbook, I maybe paid insufficient attention to pedigree. I recollect paying a great deal of money for a Tom Rolfe colt at Keeneland, which was probably not the smartest thing I ever did. I think Vincent O’Brien, for example, wouldn’t have done that. He would have said he may be a very nice colt, but he is a Tom Rolfe, and is not worth whatever I paid for him, which was somewhere in the seven-figure range. I think there was a time when I perhaps wasn’t paying special attention to pedigree and if I really liked the horse I used to try to buy him regardless, and that was definitely dumb. I certainly now pay a lot more attention to pedigree and it’s not something that I’m particularly good at.
You had a fairly well-known parting of the ways with Juddmonte in 1985, and it took some years to rebuild your client base. Was that a difficult hurdle to overcome?
Yes, sure, it was a difficult time, and it was a big set-back. There’s no secret to that. Well, it was entirely self-inflicted.
Who are your major clients now?
My principal client now in Europe would be Peter Savill, who is chairman of our racing board. He has a farm in Ireland, and he breeds and races quite extensively. Here, in the U.S., my principal client would be Winsong Farms, based in Versailles. They’re building a broodmare band of quality mares.
What is your methodology in looking at a horse?
Well, there used to be a lovely man named Victor Heerman, who was one of the greats in the horse business. He said to me one day years ago, “The only way to work the horse sales is to start at Hip 1, and work through to the end of the book; there is no substitute to looking at the horses.” He was absolutely right and that is what I still do to this day. When Victor was actively involved, they didn’t have 3,500 horses in a sale, so it was a more feasible activity to say you were going to look at every horse. Now, it is physically impossible to look at every horse in September. I do my best with my team to cover as many of them as we can, but even if two of you are working flat out, really 300 a day is the maximum you can cover, and bear in mind you have to second-look a lot of them. They’re selling more than 300 a day for 10 to 12 days running now. That just is mission impossible.
The methodology is comparison. I go through as many horses as I can and mentally compare them against each other. Then the ones that I want to see again are listed and compared against each other. It is a process of refinement, really; there is no magic to it, just hard work. It’s like judging. I mean if you’re put in a show room with 20 horses trotting around you and told to pick the prettiest one, you’re going to remove 10 of them, then remove five. Then you’re down to your last five. Then you can pick out your winner. I have a mental picture of what I want to buy as a racehorse, and I get my list of horses down to that mental picture. It’s a little bit like the boys running around with measuring tapes and doing all sorts of things with computers. They are actually doing the same thing as I’m doing, but I’m doing it by mental arithmetic, and they’re doing it by actual arithmetic. I know exactly what measurements I want to see, and I can see them.
What measurements do you like to see in a horse?
If there is one word that sums it up, it’s balance. Then, symmetry, quality, though I’m not a person who is influenced by a horse’s head. For example, I don’t mind if a horse has a head like a Mongolian tadpole, because it doesn’t know it has an ugly head. Now Vincent O’Brien, whom I had the privilege of working with for a year or two, is enormously influenced by their head and their face, and he has a record second to none of buying yearlings. It works for him. I personally couldn’t care less what their heads look like, and it’s worked for me, so I don’t think it is a significant factor. I think the mechanics of the deal are obviously vitally important because it doesn’t matter how fast your horse is. If the wheels drop off, then you won’t go pleasing anybody. So, they have to be sound, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be totally correct.
There is an awful lot of over-emphasis these days placed on correctness and indeed a lot of horses are, in my opinion, spoiled by what I call carpentry, trying to make limbs grow in directions which they don’t wish to grow and all you end up with is an even more unsound horse. I don’t think you fool anybody. If you have a horse that tries to toe out a bit, and you force that, then it goes where it doesn’t want to go. One of two things happens: the joints on the way up suffer the moment you start going faster, then the bits starts falling off. Alternatively, the moment you trim that foot level it goes straight back to where it wants to go anyway. I would rather it was left to go where it wants to go because I would rather have an honest horse that toes out or toes in a bit, than one artificially created to do what nature didn’t intend it to do.
How many horses will you see that have the hooves doctored?
Almost all of them. There are a number of horses which are naturally correct, and there are a number of breeders who are wise enough to leave the ones that aren’t naturally correct to be what they are, because if you take a stable like the Phipps or the other great owner/breeders, when you’re breeding to race, you can raise your horses naturally, and send them to the barn and trainer. It’s the sales ring that dictates all this doctoring or trying to create, a “sales horse.” I don’t think it does the horses any favors at all, I don’t think it does the breeders any favors, and actually I don’t think it does the vendors any favors because very few people are taken in by it and all you end up with is a lot of unsound horses. It’s quite noticeable in your June 10 issue (TBH MarketWatch), who’s been selling the horses that can run and there’s a lot of big names missing.
How can you tell when their feet have been doctored?
In extreme cases, you have a pastern which is trying to go that way, but then the foot is going another way. That’s an exaggeration. In other words, what you’ve done is make the foot go north-south, but the pastern is still going east-west. It looks unbalanced, it looks unnatural and the carpal bones are not going into the center of the foot, but going into the side of the foot and the whole thing is not likely to stand up to the impact of a half-ton of horse landing on it at 40 mph. Maybe a lot of people are taken in by it, maybe it works in the marketplace, but I’ve been looking at yearlings for long enough to know that it’s not what I want to buy, because, generally speaking, the result will be a less sound horse than one that hadn’t been.
What is more detrimental to a horse staying sound, toeing in or toeing out?
I think that toeing in is fairly uncommon and not particularly significant. The sort of toeing in I don’t like is when a horse puts his foot down and all the weight is falling on the outside of the foot as it hits the ground. If he is toeing in, but putting the foot down with the weight evenly distributed across the bearing surfaces, I don’t mind that at all. Where you get the sort of horse that’s toeing in and the outside of his foot hits the ground, and then the rest of it, those are the ones that are hard to train because all the strain is going up to the outside of the limb. Toeing out isn’t a particular problem as long as it is not too extreme-provided again that the horse has good joints, good ankles, good knees, and good bone and if he is allowed to mature and not put under pressure before his limbs and his skeleton are mature, set, and finished growing. I think a lot of the problems arise from putting these things under stresses and strains while they’re still like a young tree. You can break a young tree very easily; you can’t break an old tree. It’s the same deal.
What other qualities in a horse do you pay attention to?
I pay a lot of attention to attitude, and constitution is also very important. A horse that looks like a happy horse is a horse that I want to be around. A horse that looks like an unhappy horse is one that I don’t want to be around. The horse that is still bouncing at the end of the day when the others are dragging is another type that interests me a lot.
What signs do you see in a happy horse?
A horse that is bright, intelligent, alert, aware of its surroundings and what is going on, but cooperating with what it’s being asked to do, and going about its business exactly the same way as you would describe a human being as being a cheerful, alert, intelligent person. You see other horses coming out there looking behind them all the time, instead of looking in front of them. They’re not cooperating with what they’re being asked to do. They are put through a lot. Don’t underestimate that the horse must wonder what the hell is happening when this guy walked it up to the end of the strip and walked it back again 200 times in a day. They must think what the hell is going on with these guys, but some of them do it cheerfully and honestly, and others think “who needs this?” I think that translates straight through into their later life and certainly into their racing career.
Do you try to go to the farms beforehand to look at the yearlings?
In September, I try to do some farm-looking, but it’s getting increasingly difficult as the numbers grow every year. The farms are more and more tied-up with shipping, shoeing, and generally getting their stock ready to go to the sales that they’re finding it increasingly difficult to actually find time to show them to the buyers, which is ultimately what they’re supposed to be doing. It sounds ridiculous, but it is a fact that it’s actually becoming more and more difficult to get to see the goods that are supposed to be in the shop window. If I am really on a roll, and there is good service, I can look at 20 horses an hour. So that tells you how many you can look at a day and you have to stop every now and then and just go and do something else because they all start to look the same. It’s a bit like driving down the highway, and after awhile you start to feel drowsy. If you have a five-minute nap you can be good for another 200 miles.
Do you look at the catalogue before you go to the sale?
No, I don’t look at the catalogue when I’m looking at horses and I very seldom look at the catalogue before I go to the sale because all the catalogue tells me is what the horse is going to cost. I remember sitting with a very good young trainer in England, James Fanshawe, and he came to the September sale with me once years ago when he was an assistant with Michael Stoute. On a Delta flight to Cincinnati, he waded through these pedigrees non-stop for eight hours. I was enormously impressed with his concentration, but when we got to Cincinnati, I said, “Well, that’s a waste of time, James, because 99% of those we’re going to put lines through them the minute we see them.” So studying pedigrees to me is a futile exercise because if you don’t like the horse, I don’t care what the pedigree is. Broodmare sales are a different game, because then you are buying pedigree. You still have to like the horse, but obviously the pedigree becomes much more significant.
At Keeneland September, how many horses will you see?
With one assistant, we will look at pretty much everything. We might take out the yearlings out of very old mares, the very late foals, because certainly in Europe, we don’t have 12 months of racing. If you got a late May or June yearling, he is unlikely to get to the track as a 2-year-old, which means that he has to wait until March or April of his 3-year-old year before he can start. It’s not so significant here because you race somewhere all year round. So very late foals, and very old mares I probably would eliminate, but otherwise we will look at just about everything in the first week. The 300, 320, 350, or whatever it is that they’re throwing at us probably on average will be reduced by the time we have been around two or three times to maybe 30-odd horses that really make the list. Then I will sit down with Bill Oppenheim (TBH MarketWatch contributor who also is a pedigree consultant) and go through the pedigrees and discuss whether we want to buy that stallion, whether this mare is getting the job done, whether this family is right and going places or going nowhere and what are these families worth. That is the final analysis really. You put a price on them, not what they’re going to cost, but what we think they are worth. Then we see where they fit into our orders. Generally speaking, we will be very pleased if we buy three or four horses out of the 30 that maybe survived from the 300. So often it doesn’t happen that way. Particularly the first two days of the September sale have become very, very tough for me to buy a horse. I’ve put in a huge amount of work and it’s quite common to come out of Book One with nothing, but that’s hopefully good news for breeders and vendors and just means we have to get stuck in Books Two, Three, and Four to try to find good horses.
What do you think of the repositories used at US yearling sales?
Provided the people who are interpreting these radiographs are veterinarians with racetrack experience, then it’s helpful to both sides. I do think a number of horses are being condemned unnecessarily. I bought one last year for $20,000. I was working for a client that stipulates no vetting, who wants to buy a horse, and doesn’t want any vet bills. I went in to buy an El Gran Senor colt and was prepared to pay quite a lot of money for him and he is knocked down for $20,000. So, I know immediately that there is a problem in the repository, because this is not a $20,000 horse; this is a six-figure horse. I know instantly there is a problem and indeed there was supposedly. The fact of the matter is the horse made his first start in June of his 2-year-old year and was second and made his second start the same month and won. He is sound as a bell of brass, but people were seeing something in that repository which they thought condemned the horse. I do believe that a lot of the problems which are currently in vogue are due to overproduction, to force-feeding if you like. I mean it’s a foie gras syndrome. They are force-feeding these horses to reach a size and weight by sales time which their skeletons just can’t keep up with. Nearly all the problems that are apparent are skeletal or cartilaginous. If they were turned out in a field and living on grass and water, they would be much sounder horses at the end of the day. I think this is where owner/breeders have a huge advantage because they don’t have to force-feed their horses to meet a certain sales date. I have no doubt we have less of this sort of OCD-type problems in our European yearlings. My personal view is that this is because they aren’t forced-fed, they’re not hot-housed plants like we’re dealing with here. As a result, they’re growing more solid, stronger bone and causing less problems.
What commonalties do you see in successful stallions?
I think the commonality is that there is no commonality. You often hear people say a new stallion hits town, his first foals arrive, and everybody says he’s really stamping his stock. That to my mind is a load of nonsense because if you think of the greatest stallions of my working time tell me what the Northern Dancer type was? I mean you got everything from Nijinsky who was a great barge of a horse that stood about 16.3, to The Minstrel who was a neat, flashy little horse. They could not be more different and they both were serious racehorses. Same with Mr. Prospector. Big ones, little ones, everything from Fappiano, to tiny little things like It’s in the Air who had match-stick legs, and was minute, and ran like the wind and was made of iron. So anybody who says to me this horse is really stamping his stock I don’t think they know what they’re talking about because it’s not necessarily a good thing.
What do you like in a broodmare?
Youth and beauty, same as women. I do like a mare that can run, because it’s the only criteria of excellence we have. It’s what we’re trying to achieve, and of course, I won’t say I never buy out of a mare that couldn’t run because sometimes you have to. To me, the mare that could run has a significantly better chance of transmitting that to her offspring than the mare that couldn’t run. And I’m deeply convinced where you have something of superior ability, like Serena’s Song for example, she may not be any good as a broodmare-that remains to be seen-but I guarantee you if she isn’t, one of her daughters will be. It is almost cast in stone that ability has to erupt somewhere in the immediate family. When I was buying the foundation mares for Juddmonte, I tried to buy the best racemares all over the world that I could find and they do me proudly. They now have a broodmare band that is probably as good as any in the world-some say possibly the best-and it was based on ability.
What would you say to someone who wants to develop an eye of picking out horses?
The best way is go to Wall Street, make a lot of money, and employ me. Look at horses, hundreds of horses, thousands of horses, and build your own database in your head.
Source of interview: TBH MarketWatch, published by The Blood-Horse.