Q&A: OBS President Tom Ventura On Rescheduled Spring Sale, Navigating The COVID-19 Landscape

A lot has happened in the months since the final horse changed hands at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. March 2-Year-Olds In Training Sale.

OBS president Tom Ventura had to adapt in March to a landscape changing by the day at the domestic onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic strife that came with it. The Central Florida auction house will once again be in the spotlight this week, as the North American auction industry reemerges for the rescheduled OBS Spring Sale.

The four-day sale kicks off Tuesday, with over 1,200 horses in the catalog before outs and supplemental entries, serving as one of the juvenile marketplace’s bellwether events. Sessions begin each day at 10 a.m. Eastern.

Ventura spoke with Paulick Report bloodstock editor Joe Nevills about the upcoming sale, and how OBS is adjusting to an uncertain present and future.

It’s been an unprecedented time in the world and the Thoroughbred industry since the last OBS sale. What has that time been like for you in terms of managing the company?

Ventura: It’s been very hectic. It’s been hectic for everybody reacting to this whole situation. In our little horse sales world, we’re trying to focus and prepare for the sale, and there are all these outside influences that we normally don’t have to deal with, so we’re monitoring it and reacting to it the best we can.

We’re trying to keep a balanced mindset. You’ve got so much to take care of between the normal preparations with the sale, and dealing with the safety measures and the health situation, and regulations and restrictions that you just need to take a deep breath at some point and focus on what you’re trying to do, and knowing that there are some things you have no control over.

We’ve been fortunate to move forward with the sales. Three months ago, if someone had mentioned [personal protective equipment] to me, I don’t know if I’d know what that actually meant. Now, everyone knows about flattening the curve, and social distancing, and PPE, and those are terms that weren’t part of my normal conversation. Now they’re a topic we’re constantly dealing with.

Someone had to have the first auction back after the shutdown. Do you feel any additional pressure being in that spot, either in terms of sales performance or safety?

Ventura: I don’t think it’s really additional pressure. There’s always that feeling of anxiety as you approach any sale. Obviously, there’s some heightened sensitivity as we’re getting ready for this sale, but ultimately, we just want to get back to business and give sellers a chance to generate some income and the buyers the chance to buy some horses in a market that’s very uncertain. We’ll find out how the market reacts to that in the next week.

There’s pressure in this business all the time, in all the participants – the buyers, the consignors, the riders. Whatever it is, it’s not an easy business, but now we’ve got to deal with all the outside influences. I think you just have to try and control what you have some ability to control and deal with the rest as best you can.

With so many unique factors going into the equation – both in the Thoroughbred industry and the world at large – how do you begin to set expectations for this sale, and the 2-year-old season in general? What’s your bar for success?

Ventura: We had the discussion in November that we were looking to build on our successes at the sales. This sale had three Eclipse Award winners last year: Mitole, Midnight Bisou, and Storm the Court, and we’re looking forward to building off of that. Certainly that’s attractive, but really, there are no metrics to compare this year to any other year.

I think ultimately, you’re just going to hope that you’ll be able to sell some horses and move on to the next step. This is an industry that is so reliant on each part of the business being healthy, and we just hope that the sellers have a chance to generate some income to move on to the next step.

On the same token, the buyers are going to have the opportunity to buy into a market that certainly isn’t going to be like one they’ve seen in the last few years. One thing about this business, it’s always been a “glass half-full” business, so let’s hope that mentality continues.

What makes you optimistic for both this sale and the remainder of the 2-year-old season?

Ventura: The good news is, it’s a unique situation. In March, when we had the sale, things were just shutting down, and two weeks from the time we had the sale, more and more places inside and outside of the horse business were closing down, and there were stay-at-home orders. It seems like we’re on the other side of that. A lot of states are opening up, and carefully loosening up some of the restrictions.

Strictly from the horse industry side, there are racetracks opening up regularly. We were down to about four racetracks, and now you’ve got all these tracks opening and the major racing centers are racing, so I think from that aspect, the owners that have these horses and have just been paying bills for the last 2 1/2 months or so are now getting an opportunity to race and enjoy their horses and generate some purse income. That certainly is a bright spot, and is going to benefit the mindsets of both sides – the buyers and the sellers.

The OBS March sale took place just as COVID-19 was becoming widely recognized in the U.S. What did you learn from that experience that you’ll be applying to this sale?

Ventura: We certainly were able to react accordingly to get things as safe as possible. One thing you have to take into consideration is we’re spread out over 250 acres, and other than the day of the sale, things are all spread out. On the day of the sale, things will get focused on the auditorium and the sales facility, but the rest of the time, everybody’s spread out.

Inside the auditorium, in addition to what we’ve done before, we’ve increased the signage, and increased the availability of the hand sanitizers. We’ve been taking some additional steps for this sale. We’ll be limiting our food and beverage offerings, in terms of the concession area. We’re just going to have grab-and-go items. That way, we can have people in and out, and not have it congested in there. The bars will be closed for sitting, but we’ll have some service. You can get a drink and take it with you.

In the end, it comes down to people have to have some common sense, and certainly, in the world we’re in right now, everybody’s very aware of giving people their space to protect themselves and each other. Not only are we in a better position as a company, I think the buyers and the sellers that will be here certainly have adapted to this new lifestyle, to be careful, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, all these things you took for granted in the past.

The pandemic left a lot of items in short supply. Was there anything you had trouble acquiring ahead of this sale?

Ventura: We had a hard time getting masks and sanitizer. We’ve been able to get all of that, but it’s been a challenge to get it. I’d rather spend my time focusing on the horses and the horse sale, instead of figuring out where we can buy masks, but we’ve been able to come up with enough masks for anyone that might need them. The PPE has been in such demand.

OBS will be expanding its online bidding capabilities for this sale. How will this work for buyers?

Ventura: The buyers will register to bid online, they’ll get credit. There was a lot of work to get to the point where you have a functional online system, but I think it will be a fairly simple process to do the actual bidding.

It’s something that we went zero-to-60 with in a matter of a month or so, just to get things up and running. It was something that we’d considered and discussed, and it never got to the front burner. We were just in the research stage, and then it got pushed to the forefront as something that was important to do.

It is going to be helpful, and at the end of the day, to sell 1,200 horses, somebody still has to look at the horse. You still need somebody to look at that horse, and watch the breeze show, and evaluate the horse, but it does give more flexibility in addition to our phone bidding.

Especially at a sale like this where you have seven days of breezes and four days of sales, it’s very difficult for most people to take 14 days out of their life to come to OBS and buy horses, so it adds more ways for people to buy horses. People have contacts here and buy horses through their agents on the phone, and through us on the phone, so I think the online component is going to be beneficial, and it’s something that’ll be here to stay moving forward.

For an overview of the OBS online bidding platform, click here.

As a company with several major consignors on its board of directors, what discussions took place with the sellers in terms of setting the new schedule for the 2-year-old season?

Ventura: I think after the March sale, it became obvious that the April sale would get rescheduled. We took a look at the calendar and saw what we thought was the most viable place. We already had dates for the June sale, so we put that sale in that location and we moved the June sale out. Certainly, we’ve had discussions with Fasig-Tipton to find an opportunity for both of us to shift our schedules.

It was a target that we set knowing that we’d potentially have to adjust again, and that seems at this point in time, we just have to be flexible to the situation. Whether they’re on the board or not, the consignors certainly were wanting to have a sale, but you can hold a sale and nobody comes, so we had to hold the sale in a safe situation where there will hopefully be interest in buying horses. I think we tried to put enough time to hopefully see the situation tail off and start improving. We set those dates knowing we don’t have a crystal ball, and we would potentially have to react and shuffle the deck again, but we’re at the point where we’re there and ready to kick off the show. Things fell into place as far as that goes.

Has there been any challenge in retaining horses for the two remaining OBS sales, as opposed to selling them privately as summer gets closer, or has the stunted spring racing calendar pushed everyone back at the same rate?

Ventura: We had the OBS catalog online for a while. We had the books, not completely printed, but for the most part, they were done. We needed to reprint covers, and then they were going to be bound. We couldn’t back up at that point.

It didn’t make sense to back up and start over, so what we did was contact the consignors and said, ‘We understand the situation. Do you want to take your horse out of the sale? You can do so by a certain date, and whatever cataloging and entry fees associated with that will be waved.’ There are horses in this catalog that we knew a month and a half ago weren’t coming to the sale. That actually made space for the supplemental catalog.

We have another 80 horses or so in the supplemental catalog that gave people the opportunity to put horses in the sale. The way we handled that was if you wanted a horse in the supplemental catalog, those horses could only come if there was space available within your consignment. It was a trade. Maybe there was a horse that the owner had a change of heart and wanted to take it to the races, so that opened up a spot in that consignor’s group, and they were able to add a supplement.

It’s like a jigsaw puzzle putting consignors in barns. It’s not like an airplane that if 50 people show up to get on a 30-person plane, 20 of them can get on the next flight. If 60 horses show up to get in a 50-stall barn, then you’ve got a problem. You have to have a scratch in your consignment or a neighboring consignment that we’re able to accommodate. We try to be as flexible as possible to help the consignors in that situation.

International travel will obviously be more difficult than usual this season. What feedback have you gotten from global buyers on their plans for this year’s sales?

Ventura: There’s some parts of the world where we probably won’t have nearly as much participation. The Korean buyers have a presence, some connections in this country, that have bought here in the past. They certainly have people that represent them here, so I think they’ll still be active, but probably not to the level they usually were.

In the last week, I’ve written some invitations, for lack of a better word, to buyers that wanted to come here and are able to come because they want to buy horses and they need to justify their travel. There’s interest, but ultimately, I think there’s going to be less international participation, at least on the grounds. Maybe that’s where the phone bidding and the online bidding may help that situation.

The post Q&A: OBS President Tom Ventura On Rescheduled Spring Sale, Navigating The COVID-19 Landscape appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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