In another life; `A snip at 500,000 guineas.' At Tattersalls' 1996 Yearling Sales, the punters wage a war of nerves, the spectators gawp, the thoroughbreds are nervous. Let the orgy of gambling begin ... Photograph by Nick Turpin
On Wednesday Mr Wafic Said, the widely respected Syrian philanthropist and friend to the stars, laid out a little loose change on a couple of new toys. That other people regard the price of a mansion in Wandsworth as loose change is sobering to contemplate but, then, war has been pretty profitable over the past decade and there's plenty of the old lucre to go around for those in the know. Mr Said's introductions of friends to friends may have led him to unsavoury places, but you don't get to be a major player in the racing world without making sacrifices.

The setting for these particular sacrifices was Newmarket, spiritual home of all thoroughbreds, and the scene was Tattersalls' 1996 Houghton Yearling Sales. Bidding through one Tim Bulwer-Long, Said bought a couple of colts: a son of Nashwan out of Music and Dance and the product of a tryst between Sadlers Wells and the American mare Impatiente. The first was a snip at 400,000 guineas; the second a very reasonable 500,000. Guineas, of course, add up: 500,000 guineas in real money is pounds 525,000. Whoops, better make another introduction.

It's been a good year for Tattersalls. In just over three hours' hard selling on Tuesday evening, pounds 7,136,850 changed hands. This was an increase of pounds 2,856,000 on the same night last year. Racing, like every other luxury occupation, has been hit hard by the recession, but those green shoots of recovery were twining themselves round everyone in the business this week. Fifty-three per cent of this cash was accounted for by Wafic Said, Sheikh Mohammed, John Magnier and Michael Tabor. Dealer Demi O'Byrne, bidding on behalf of Tabor and Magnier, scraped up 880,000 hard-earned guineas for a colt by Kingmambo. This staggering price was, in fact, only the equal 10th highest price ever achieved at the sales. Prices haven't gone into seven figures since 1988, when Classic Thoroughbreds handed over 2,400,000 guineas for a colt called Classic Music, brother of Sadlers Wells. The horse never raced, and died in 1993 after two seasons at stud. An excellent investment for anybody's money.

This orgy of gambling on a scale that puts Monte Carlo to shame takes place in the immaculate Park Paddocks, a faultlessly mown and pampered complex of loose boxes and sale rings belonging to the bloodstock auctioneers. The carpark is an education in itself: polished metal, taken off the drivers' hands and slotted into perfect rows by an army of men in maroon bomber jackets. If you're rich, you see, not only do you never have to change gear by hand, you never have to learn to reverse at all: there will always be someone to do it for you. Walking there from the station, a bit shop- soiled after half an hour on a train full of screaming schoolchildren, was good culture-shock training.

The first thing you notice about the crowd at the Houghton is that they're giving nothing away. This may be a serious spectator sport - on Tuesday there were probably 200 gawpers for every big player involved - but everyone gets into the swing of pretending they're there pitted against each other in a war of nerves. People in headscarves assumed poker faces, muttered to each other out of the corners of their mouths. This was no mean feat: if there's one thing you don't associate with horsey people it's soft- spokenness. Generations of making yourself heard across the windy Downs have bred a certain foghorn quality into the equestrian classes, and keeping your voice down if you're one of them is about as easy as keeping your pinkies off a pension fund if your name's Bob Maxwell.

The next thing you notice is how clean everything is. The place gleams. Lawns are cropped to within an inch of their lives, a peculiar Romanesque pagoda shines with a whiteness worthy of a Daz doorstep challenge, tarmac is black, black, black. The several hundred boxes are Creosoted into uniformity. Even the trees seem to have had their leaves stapled on for optimum coverage. The odd thing about this is that this is a place designed for horses, and horses, while being nice beasts with many excellent qualities such as nobility, loyalty, speed and enormous teeth, are not renowned for their cleanliness. There were 75 lots at the sale on Tuesday, and, being highly strung babies, they were jolly nervous. And yet one quickly realised that there was absolutely no need to watch one's step. The place was swarming with men in green coats. They came in pairs. One carried a broom, the other a massive pooper-scooper. The moment some descendant of the Godolphin Arabian expressed its distress, they pounced on the results. This must be one of the great showstoppers in the public bars of Newmarket. What do you do for a living, then?

In the Chifney Restaurant, tea was in full swing. Beneath a huge oil of men in frock coats and toppers leaning on canes at the original Tattersall at Hyde Park Corner (the firm was established in 1766), people in Barbours and quilted waistcoats chowed through sponge cake and Marlboros. You could tell the buyers from their advisers at a glance. The members of the horse world wore jeans and V-necked sweaters and those wonderfully ancient tweed jackets only the British can get away with. Those whom they were there to advise were fully kitted out in suits and top-pocket kerchiefs. Their womenfolk were seriously manicured. My mobile phone rang. The 30 people within earshot flung themselves on their handbags.

A group of Japanese went through the whole head-nodding routine. Earlier in the upper stableyard, I'd seen one of them inspecting a very sweet- looking chestnut filly. He had walked round her clockwise, then he walked widdershins. Then, standing as far as his arm would allow from the twitching mammal, he reached out and touched the very tippy-tips of his fingers to her neck. She jumped. He jumped higher, and retreated to the safety of his group. Bloodstock is business like anything else these days. You don't have to actually like horses to buy one.

By the upper sale paddock, knots of potential buyers and faux-buyers watched the yearlings being walked out. There was something a bit pathetic about the thought of all these babies, who have lived their lives so far at home with the people who bred them, plodding trustingly into pantechnicons to be bartered. I had a bonding session with Lot 28, a chestnut filly by the American stallion Lion Cavern out of a mare who, seriously folks, was called Bint Secreto. She had the kind, clever eye of a good eventer, and kept glancing at me as she went past. She sold later for 46,000 guineas.

Beside me, four men in blazers discussed deals in West Country accents. "She looks like she might be the right sort," said one. "Yes," said another, "but you have to ask why he's selling her now. You have to question his faith in her as a two-year-old."

Inside the sale ring, the auctioneer was warming to his task, dosie-dohing his way through six-figure sums like the leader of a Line-dancing session. He scarcely paused to draw breath as he forced the deadpan bidders to ever more extravagant heights, and his colour rose with the prices as oxygen starvation set in. The auctioneers swapped over every few lots: presumably they then collapsed off-stage, gasping like well-hooked pike. The main performer was surrounded by men in sober suits and Tattersalls ties who signalled to the bidders. I failed to identify a single one of these, so minuscule were their movements. A board behind the auctioneers' heads gave the price in pounds, French francs, marks, US dollars and yen.

The arena was filled with a constant buzz of low-level chat as the horse world went about its business. And over the top of it all, the echo of auction patter: "A right good goer she is at 30,000," cried the auctioneer. "Forty thousand. It's not his value, but he's on the market, I sell him." "At 60,000," he fixed a reluctant bidder with a practised eye, "DON'T STOP NOW!" The crowd seemed sanguine about these sums: a hush onlyfell when the price rose above the 200,000 level.

In less than half an hour, I watched pounds 1,243,200 change hands. After that I had to go out and get some fresh air and a reality check. By the paddock door, a blazer shook hands with a suit. "You after anything in particular?" asked the suit. "Well," replied the blazer, "there doesn't seem to be that much to buy. But I dare say we'll do some damage before the week's over."