Racing is full of risk-takers, not least those who fork out hefty sums to buy yearlings or unraced two-year-olds. Back at the Keene-land Sales in 1983 Sheikh Mohammed paid a record $10.2 million for Snaafi Dancer, a colt by the great Northern Dancer. Snaafi Dancer alas proved so slow that he never made it to the racecourse. Retired to stud, he had fertility problems and only ever sired four foals. In 2006 a frantic bidding war at Fasig-Tipton between two great racing empires — Sheikh Mohammed’s John Ferguson bidding against Coolmore’s John Magnier — saw Coolmore pay a new world record price of $16 million for The Green Monkey. Despite having been foaled in the Chinese year of the green monkey, the expensive animal failed to win any of his three starts before being retired.
Such stories will never stop the serious players: at Goffs Orby sale this month dockets were still being signed for eye-watering sums with Amer Abdulaziz and Phoenix Thoroughbreds, for example, outbidding Coolmore to acquire a Galileo filly for £2 million. But while racing’s serious bidders are prepared to live with the inevitable uncertainties of their chosen world, they are increasingly nervous about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. As John Ferguson put it when I met him in the winner’s enclosure at Ascot last Friday with successful owner Michael Buckley and trainer Jamie Osborne, the horse buyers, sellers, owners and trainers at Goffs had been collectively spitting blood that six months away from Britain’s exit date the politicians have still left us without the haziest idea of what shape Brexit will take or indeed whether there will be a deal at all. Quite apart from whether or not we still see any free movement of people between Britain and the EU after Brexit (crucial to studs and stableyards desperate for qualified staff), they want to know what will happen to the free movement of horses.
The purchases at Goffs heading for English trainers’ yards, the wonder filly Enable who travelled from Newmarket to Longchamp at the weekend to win her second successive Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the countless mares visiting Irish-based stallions, and the winners of hurdle races in the French provinces who are being snapped up by eager agents for British-based owners seeking a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in three years’ time are part of a total of more than 25,000 thoroughbred horse movements a year between Ireland, France and Britain. Around 7,500 make the journey from Ireland to Britain, 2,500 the other way. More than 2,800 go from France to Britain and 2,100-plus the other way to the Continent. In 2016 more than 2,350 horses travelled from France to Ireland with 2,780 doing that journey in reverse and nearly all of those last two categories made their journey via Britain.
Seventy per cent of the horses who race in Britain are bred in France or Ireland, a country with 50 thoroughbreds for every 10,000 people. At the moment those journeys can be made comparatively simply under the TPA, the Tripartite Agreement made in the 1960s between the three countries to avoid sensitive animals being held up by excessive border health- and paper-checking. But after Britain and Ireland joined the EU in 1973, the Tripartite Agreement became part of EU law and EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has made clear that the moment Britain leaves the EU the TPA will cease to exist. The Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association, headed by Julian Richmond-Watson, and racing’s civil service in the form of Weatherby’s and the British Horseracing Authority, have ensured that ministers at Defra are aware of the importance of the issue to an industry worth £7.2 billion a year to the British and Irish economies. France Galop, the French equivalent of the BHA, has joined them in making representations to the EU. But what frightens many racing folk is what happens if MPs at Westminster, hung up on high theory and unconcerned with the practicalities of life, vote down every possibility and there is no Brexit deal. The thought of high-mettled racing thoroughbreds en route to an Arc, or pregnant mares, being held up for hours by paper-checking border officials in 24-hour lorry queues is a frightening one.
The racing jurisdictions of Ireland, Britain and France clearly want to recreate something like the Tripartite Agreement. But doing so, they concede, will involve agreements on an electronic passporting system and more detailed recording of horse movements. What will be needed is a series of ‘alignments’ between UK, Irish and French practices. But to the Brexiteers at Westminster (and it is the Conservative party that ‘owns’ Brexit) there is no dirtier word than alignment. And any successor to the TPA will have to be agreed by all 27 remaining EU nations. The politicians in those countries will no doubt have plenty of points to raise about such issues as animal welfare and biosecurity. And in a no-deal world they are unlikely to be doing so in friendly fashion.