Horse buyers at Del Mar auction betting on future champions

The Barretts auctioneers welcomed several hundred horse buyers on May 28 at the Surfside Race Place. Photos by Joe Tash

There’s no scientific formula for picking a sure-fire winner when it comes to thoroughbred horses, said Carlsbad trainer Peter Miller.

“It’s something I’ve been doing since I was 8 years old; it’s become second nature,” said Miller. “There’s no book on how to buy good horses.”

Miller was one of several hundred prospective horse buyers to turn out May 28 at the Surfside Race Place, a satellite wagering center at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, for an auction of future race horses conducted by Barretts Equine Limited.

A handler steadies his horse at the auction.

Buyers came from across the United States and as far away as Japan, to look over some 150 thoroughbred horses, most of them 2-year-olds untested on any race course. All of them were hoping to find the gem in the rough that would one day prove to be a champion. But making the right buy is more art than science.

Jeff Bonde, a trainer from Northern California, said, “There’s some decent prospects here.”

What is he looking for?

“An athlete,” Bonde said. Both he and Miller compared Thursday’s auction to the NFL or NBA combines, where scouts check out athletes before deciding whether to sign or draft them.

But it’s up to the buyer to make sure he is getting a good deal before making a bid.

“Once the hammer goes down, that’s it,” Bonde said.

Barretts moved its sales to Del Mar this year after several decades of conducting horse auctions at Fairplex Park in Pomona, which closed last year. Three more auctions are scheduled for Del Mar this year, two during the summer meet and one during the fall meet.

George Bradvica, general manager of the Surfside Race Place, said Thursday marked the first time in at least a decade that a thoroughbred horse auction was held in Del Mar.

The building’s roll-up doors were raised for the occasion, and the horses escorted inside, along a pathway of rubber mats, where potential buyers could observe them and bid in response to the auctioneer’s patter. Earlier in the week, the horses worked out on the track as buyers watched.

“This is great. This facility is perfect for a horse sale,” said Bradvica.

Officials with the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned Del Mar fairgrounds, are looking for new uses for the 91,000-square-foot facility, because of declining attendance and revenue.

Among the ideas under consideration are a craft brewery or tasting room, restaurant or music venue.

On May 28, though, the place was packed, as bidders spent tens of thousands of dollars on prospective race horses. Some would sell for as high as $100,000 to $200,000, Bradvica said.

A few of the horses up for auction on May 28 had been in at least one official horse race. But most were “unraced,” said William Baker, vice president and controller with Barretts.

“This is kindergarten,” he said.

A July 25 sale will feature “race ready” horses, which will most likely join the field during Del Mar’s summer race meet. A yearling sale — of 1-year-old horses — is scheduled for Aug. 15. Baker said those horses will go into training, because they can’t legally race until they are 2 years old.


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