We take a look at what you need to do before you buy an ex-racehorse — whether from the sales or not.
1. Where to look for your ex-racehorse
How, having decided that you want to take on an ex-racehorse, do you find one? There are three main routes. You can obtain one directly from its owner or trainer, you can buy one at the sales, or you can acquire one from a retrainer — either by buying it or loaning it.
2. Look up the horse’s record
Whichever option you choose, the basics remain the same — do your research, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The racing record of every horse that has raced in Britain and Ireland is available on the Racing Post website: www.racingpost.com. Look for gaps in the record that might indicate time off with injury. Look at how many times it raced — although don’t count out a horse with a lengthy racing career. If it managed to stay sound for a long time, the chances are that it will continue to do so.
2. Ask to ride it
If you go to see a horse at a trainer’s yard, remember that it may well still be racing-fit and will look lean and toned. But approach it as you would the purchase of any horse — is it the stamp of horse you want? Will its conformation stand up to what you would like it to do? How does it behave in the stable and when being tacked up? Ask to ride it — it may not know much about flatwork, but is it willing to do what you ask, and does it move reasonably well? Do remember that it is unlikely to be used to being asked to stand still while you mount; lads and jockeys are legged up while the horse is walking.
3. Ask about the horse’s temperament
Ask the horse’s trainer — and if you can the lad who looks after it — about its personality and temperament.
“Temperament is key,” says Di Arbuthnot, chief executive of Retraining of Racehorses (RoR). “But trainers are pretty good at knowing whether or not a horse is suitable, and we have sent them all a checklist for when they pass a horse on.”
This checklist includes things like registering a Non-Racing Agreement with Weatherbys; checking the new owner has public liability insurance; asking for references if the new owner is unknown to them; advising then to register with RoR; asking for feedback on their progress.
4. Get it vetted
Ask about injuries and why it is retiring from racing. If you decide to buy it, make sure you get it vetted — as you would with any purchase.
5. Expect to pay
Don’t expect the horse to be given away — if it is likely to have a chance at succeeding in any kind of career, it is worth a price, like any horse. And trainers and owners have recognised that, if they put a value on a horse, it has more chance of ending up in a suitable home.
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6. The advantages of buying from a retrainer
The obvious advantage of getting an ex-racehorse from a retrainer is that it has already started its post-racing career in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing. It will bump the price up — rightly — but, especially if you are not a professional rider or one with a lot of experience of retraining racehorses, it is usually worth it. Retrainers have evaluated the horse and schooled it with a future career in mind — you are increasing your chances of winning what is something of a lottery. Any physical issues will have become apparent and should have been treated appropriately. Contact RoR for a list of retrainers the racing community recommends.
7. Buying from sales
Many people choose to buy from the sales — principally at Ascot and Doncaster. Essex-based eventer Victoria Bax and her husband Jason have bought about a dozen ex-racehorses at the sales, and have developed a highly polished system for doing so.
“I bought my first one from a trainer’s yard in 2007. He [Crystal Ka] is now at two-star, but after that, we have gone straight to the sales every time,” says Victoria. “You have a wide variety of horses to choose from, rather than just going to see one.”
The majority of horses they buy have raced on the Flat or, if National Hunt-bred, didn’t make it as far as the track.
“If they have hurdled, they tend to have an atrocious jumping style and you will have to change that, whereas if they haven’t jumped, you can start from scratch,” she says. “And I wouldn’t be put off if it has raced as a two-year-old. Research says that if it raced at a very young age and came out of its career sound, it is likely to stay that way. Crystal Ka had raced 23 times between the beginning of his two-year-old season and the end of his four-year-old year.”
Jason does all the early work once they receive the sales catalogue. They are looking for horses aged between four and six of 16hh-16.3hh, and Jason has strong opinions on what sort of bloodlines he likes.
“I went through the pedigrees of all the event horses I could find that had raced, and started to build up a database, to which I continually add information,” he says.
He prefers horses which raced over a mile and a half.
“The fast-twitch muscles of sprinters make them like coiled springs, which doesn’t work well in a dressage arena. I think the mile and a half distance gives you a chance of getting a horse with stamina and athleticism,” he says.
Jason has worked out that certain mixes of bloodlines don’t tend to produce horses that event well — either because of the physical types they tend to produce or because temperament issues are common.
He also views the films of their races on the Racing Post website to get an idea of what the horse looks like and how it moves.
They whittle a catalogue of around 200 down to 10 or 12 horses, which Victoria then examines closely at the sale itself.
“I look for obvious signs of injuries and operations, ask to see the horse trotted up, and talk to its groom,” she says. “I want a good shoulder, good hocks, and nothing too long — long and ‘lollopy’ might be good for racing but it isn’t good for collection and jumping bounces! I want them to be fairly straight-moving, although they don’t have to be perfect.”
Jason says: “Sales can be intimidating. People don’t ask the same questions they would if they were going to view a horse in another situation — but they should do. I think it is good to go in a group of knowledgeable people so you get different views and aren’t afraid to ask questions.”
Find out more
British racing’s official charity, Retraining of Racehorses (RoR), has a useful and comprehensive website at www.ror.org.uk