MICHAEL Donohoe remembers every detail from the process of buying Magical Lagoon. He always does for the good ones. What stable they were in, his first impression, the bidding, the signing.
But, in any case, Magical Lagoon’s sale on the second day of Book 1 at Tattersalls in October 2020 was an unusual one. This was at the initial and most effective stage of the Covid-19 pandemic on business which led to unprecedented measures. In this case, most significantly, there was an inside and outside bidding area. The filly in question was a somewhat unusual one as well, put up for sale by Coolmore and naturally, that led to plenty of second guessing.
Too good to be true or a golden opportunity? Agents live and die by such quandaries.
“Obviously she had the great pedigree,” Donohoe recalled this week, “But when I remember pulling her out of the box and she had a real swag to her. She was a lovely, kind filly.
“I wasn’t worried as to why Coolmore was selling her. My view is that Coolmore have so many Galileos and they have all these brilliant families and they can’t keep everything, like any breeder. It’s just their opinion against the buyer’s opinion. They have a value and it’s up to the potential purchaser to match that.
“I was bidding outside and they had someone there to relay the bids inside. I just took the view of sitting back to see how the bidding went because I was unsure what the reserve was. It got up to 300,000 and just as the hammer was about to go down, I came in with 305,000.
“Normally, after you get by 200,000, the bid increments go up by 10,000 but because they were relaying bids from outside into the auctioneer, they accepted the 5,000, and there was no counter. You never know for sure what’s going on with other people, but sometimes when you come in that late, you can catch your competition off guard and they’re a bit deflated.
“They don’t have the time to gather their thoughts on whether they want to go again and the nature of this sale played into that. The filly had been in the ring for a long time because at the time they were also using online bidding so the process was a bit slow, and at that stage they were trying to speed up the auction.
“I think the hammer probably came down quicker than it usually would have. Listen, I was delighted to get her. It’s extremely satisfying to see her develop into the filly she is. Mr Zhang is a very good judge but obviously with Covid, he couldn’t make the trip. Normally at the yearling sales, we’re able to bounce off each other. When you’re left to make the decision yourself, you can’t be blaming anybody else for picking the wrong one.
“Mr Zhang’s plan is for us here to make stallions and broodmares to feed his farm in Australia, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Magical Lagoon’s progress has been impressive. Donohoe admits that he was a little bit disappointed with her run in the Fillies’ Mile last October, when well held by Inspiral, but as it has transpired, her two-year-old form, which contains a Group 3 win, was bonus territory. Since she was just touched off by Concert Hall in the Listed Salsabil Stakes at Navan this term, she has battled her way to a Ribblesdale win at Royal Ascot and showed all her tenacity again with an all-out win from Toy in the Irish Oaks last Saturday, giving Jessica Harrington and Shane Foley a first win in the classic.
Excitingly, Donohoe, Harrington and Foley all share the opinion that next year is when you could see the best of her, but whether she stays in training or not will be down to her increasingly influential owner, Mr Zhang Yuesheng, whose Yulong Investments vehicle is gaining significant traction on both sides of the world.
Zhang is a self made billionaire from the Shen Xi province in mainland China. He has steadily developed his interest in racing after studying racing jurisdictions around the world, concluding that Australia was the right place to set up a stud farm and Ireland as a lush source of stock.
His Yulong Farm is the largest stud farm in Victoria, where 600 mares are served by his stallions which include Written Tycoon, Tagaloa, Alabama Express, Grunt and Lucky Vega, who will shuttle between Australia and Ireland, and currently resides at the Irish National Stud.
Besides that, he has also undertaken an exciting project of developing racing in his homeland, again using Ireland as the premier source for stock and expertise, with Donohoe playing the integral role. In 2017, the pair combined to source the largest ever single export of bloodstock from Ireland to China, when 76 horses were flown from Shannon to Beijing.
These horses are relatively low grade and such a move was hailed by Irish Thoroughbred Marketing and BBA Ireland’s Declan Murray, as it particularly supported smaller Irish breeders.
Zhang has developed a facility in his home town in Shen Xi, and not only has he invested in Irish horses, but also in infrastructure, sourcing the stables and walkers from this country as well. Although the pandemic has halted the progress of that project, Zhang has continued to source horses from Ireland since, and the bodes very well considering the long-term potential of the Chinese jurisdiction.
It’s over 10 years since Donohoe first met Zhang. “I got to meet him through Michael O’Hagan and Caroline Kennedy, who were both working for ITM at the time and were doing great work in China,” Donohoe explains. “Ireland was going through a lean period at the time. It was just after the crash and a lot of people had gone to ground.
“It was a case of just having to get on the plane to go find new clients and new markets. The lads at BBA, Patrick Cooper and Declan Quarry, were extremely good and they bought me the plane tickets and gave me free reign. I always had my eye on China, and with ITM out there, I travelled around a bit, met plenty of people and that’s eventually how I met Mr Zhang.
“Interestingly, the first horses I bought for him were actually eventing horses. He was big in the showjumping and eventing at the time, trying to bring it forward in China. So the first horse I bought for him was actually an eventing horse at my family’s Go For Gold Sale in Goresbridge and he went on to represent China in the Asian games.”
Edward and Catherine Donohoe, Michael’s parents, established Goresbridge Horses Sales in 1968 and so his first real experience was with sport horses. He was able to talk to Zhang about those disciplines and that was probably important in establishing their relationship.
The first thoroughbred he bought for Zhang was Yulong Baoju, and she was a quality filly, trained by Eddie Lynam to win three times and spent the majority of her racing career rated in the high 90s. That was lucky and it could have been important too. As Donohoe points out, he’s seen plenty of clients down the years have no luck with their first few purchases and pull the plug quickly as a result.
Thankfully, Zhang’s influence on Irish racing has grown significantly. Lucky Vega’s win in the Phoenix Stakes in 2020 was hailed as a major moment by Donohoe and others, and that is how it has played out.
“I’d say he has just shy of 100 horses when you take everything into account,” Donohoe says. “He has 35 in training, then he has after investing a lot in Lucky Vega and bought a number of mares to support him with. Plying, the dam of Alcohol Free, is one most of the notable.
“He’s always on the look out for mares for his Australia operation, and we’ve got some foals and yearlings that he bred here as well. He has them spread out on a couple of farms in Ireland. It all accounts for a good bit of employment.”
Magical Lagoon’s Irish Oaks win could prove another catalyst. Donohoe is nearing 20 years as an agent, which all began when he joined the Curragh Bloodstock Agency in 2003, that company merging with BBA Ireland two years later.
His niche is overseas business and he has been a part of the development of his agency’s service to manage their international clients’ stock in Ireland. The Yulong stock takes up much of his time but he also manages the European interests of Middle East clients Ecuire Ama Zingteam, who own the likes of Hannibal Barca with Joseph O’Brien and Teresa Mendoza with Ken Condon.
With his experience working abroad, Donohoe is well placed to comment on a worldwide racing industry that probably never has been so transitional, with Middle Eastern jurisdictions hungry for horses, the more traditional racing countries like Australia going through a boom and closer to home, a British industry increasingly becoming more uneasy.
“Certainly, the Middle East is strong,” he says. “The likes of Bahrain and Qatar are still up and coming, and even some owners from Kuwait and Oman, besides the established owners in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. There is new players coming up there
“Joseph O’Brien has a few owners from those Middle East countries and they’ve done very well together, so it seems to be taking off. In Bahrain and Qatar, they’re increasing their international racing. And then you have Saudi Arabia - a huge country with a huge population and lots of wealthy people. The same with Dubai. As strong as they are now, I think they’re going to get stronger.
“Those people are mostly buying horses for the pure enjoyment of it. Yeah there are a few eyeing up a potential stallion prospect but the majority of them just want to have a runner and be able to go to the likes of Royal Ascot and York. They’re end users.
“We all know about the ridiculous situation with prize money in the UK and yet you have these owners from the Middle East who have horses in training there but that’s because they don’t care about the money, it’s the prestige, they just love seeing their colours on the racetrack.
“It’s probably not sustainable in the long run. We can be straight about the situation in Britain as regards to prize money, it’s a debacle. You have the Middle East money and then the old British money but they can’t be there for the prize money. It costs them money even if they win a race sometimes.
“It’s something we have to keep an eye on here. Britain is our biggest customer, we need that industry to be going well. It’s different here. If you have a horse that races in Ireland during the year, it can pay, you can make money from it, even before you sell on. It’s just something the Irish authorities will have to keep a really close eye on. We cannot get to the same volatile situation as is the case in Britain.”
That makes the international buyer even more important to the Irish industry, and Donohoe believes that could change one very noticeable trend that has developed in the last decade.
“The markets will always dictate what breeders breed for and at the moment, they’re mostly looking for precocious, fast two-year-olds, but I think that could change,” he says. “I’ve noticed at the sales that the desire for a mile or mile-and-a- quarter horse, the late two-year-old, three-year-old type, has come back up, mostly due to the Australian market which is really on the up and they’re buying more horses here.
“Like, there is very little sprint racing in the Middle East as well. I think breeders are going to have to adjust and start breeding more horses for middle-distance racing. I think it’s starting to turn a little bit to be honest with you. I think it might be a case of supply and demand, because there’s a shortage of those type of horses at the sales, whereas before it was 50-50, whereas now it’s 70-30, faster types to mile-plus types.
“Europe and particularly Ireland, we’ve always been known as breeders of milers and good proper staying horses. I know there’s a whole debate about the distance of the Irish Derby. I for one don’t think it should be changed, which is contrary to some of my colleagues’ opinions.
“I think there is a change coming at the sales. I’d watch this space.”
In the meantime, this period of the year is one of the slight letdown time for Donohoe, who admits he doesn’t travel as much as he used to, with a young family to spend time with at home in Kilkenny.
It won’t be long until the big yearling sales come around again and that is probably the most exciting time of the year for any agent. Donohoe is as optimistic as ever that business will be good at the big Irish sales.
He says the best part of being an agent is the cases of vindication when you back your own judgement and that feeling of satisfaction when you deliver for your client, the joy and happiness that racing can provide its stakeholders.
In the case of Magical Lagoon and Lucky Vega, Donohoe has delivered in spades for Zhang Yuesheng. There should be plenty more to come, just watch this space.