Yesterday the yearling sales season got under way with a £17m spending spree.
What do Attraction, Haafhd, North Light, Ouija Board, Bago, Warrsan, Doyen, Azamour, Quiff, Bachelor Duke, Soviet Song, Oratorio, Dubawi and Divine Proportions have in common, apart from the fact that they are all European Group 1 winners this season? The answer is that they were, as are the overwhelming majority of top-class horses, bred by their owners. Ergo, proportionately few élite performers are bought at public auction. Yet that does not stop people going shopping for horses and here yesterday the yearling sales season got under way with a £17m spending spree.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that Tattersalls, the country's premier equine auction house, does, of course, provide a highly effective conduit between seller and buyer, at all levels of the market and subsequent performance. The firm's recent graduates have included such as High Chaparral, Milan, Mozart, Russian Rhythm, Punctilious, Papineau and, among this season's youngest generation, Magical Romance, Suez, Shamardal, Etlaala and Diktatorial. The rarified world of international horse-trading is not one that normally impinges on the consciousness of ordinary folk. But those interested in the barometer of celebrity lifestyle may be interested to know that a baby racehorse, which may be the ultimate in luxury spending, cost an average price of £160,000 here yesterday.
The bloodstock industry is one where gambles start long before any horse sets foot on a course. The sale of 110 unnamed, untried, yearling colts and fillies, straight from the factory floor with no guarantees that they won't break the first time they are tested, was just the first day of an intensive fortnight's business here in the arena with the high-domed roof that dominates the skyline of the Suffolk town that is the sport's self-styled headquarters.
Trading started at 11.30am yesterday and lasted nearly eight hours. In a continuous carousel of desire, horse after horse, bays, browns, chestnuts, greys, their high-gloss coats shimmering under the bright lights, paraded right-handed below the seated banks of covetous goggle-eyes. Five individual auctioneers kept up their spiel, sometimes monotonous, occasionally arcane, without a break. What will you give me for this fine colt? Here's a lovely filly, a charming filly. Now here's something really special. He looks a racehorse, doesn't he. Sixty thousand, sixty thousand got, do I have sixty-five?
This is a business built on dreams and watching them in the embryonic stage can be an exotic, even glamorous spectacle. But this stage of the proceedings, before the shop window of the track, is just that, a business. All the global movers and shakers were ringside as the currency board flickered in guineas, euros, yen, dollars (US, Hong Kong and Australian) and dirhams. The men and women involved are powerful and acquisitive in their own fields and nothing changes when they enter the realms of a business that is also their pleasure.
The bloodstock industry has had its share of dodgy-dealing scandals in recent years and this year Tattersalls produced a booklet containing advice for purchasers, mostly about how not to get fleeced. Of course, most in the industry deal honestly, if hard-headedly. But some of the others, you'd check you had all your fingers after shaking their hand.
People buy horses for a variety of reasons - to race, to trade back, to promote a given stallion - but sell them usually for just one: profit. The pick yesterday was a colt by the late Danehill, who is lamented by many but by none more than John Magnier, boss of the Coolmore Stud empire. The past weekend alone, the stallion has been represented with distinction by Oratorio, North Light, Westerner, Cacique and Grey Lilas.
The bay half-brother to top-class performer Grandera may, in time, prove his successor and Magnier paid 1,150,000 guineas yesterday, outbidding a leading Japanese trainer for the privilege of finding out. It was thus rather a good afternoon for the colt's American breeder, who paid some £200,000 for the covering that produced him. Magnier rather monopolised the Danehills on offer, including four of the five top lots, which may prove to be sound business sense if one follows in North Light's hoofprints at Epsom.
And if the quest for a star stallion is one prime directive, then so is the search for the filly who may found a dynasty. Owner-breeders have to acquire seed-corn somewhere, after all. Cheveley Park Stud added Russian Rhythm to its broodmare band at a cost of 440,000 guineas three years ago and yesterday secured two other blue-bloods for the same ultimate purpose. The chestnut from Galileo's first crop out of Doncaster Cup heroine Alleluia, a close relative of Alborada, Albanova and Yesterday, cost 415,000gns and the daughter of King's Best and Warrsan's half-sister Cloud Castle, 310,000gns.
"These good families are so hard to buy into," said Chris Richardson, the Newmarket nursery's managing director, "and we were delighted to be able to afford to do so. Sometimes you can't, you run into the big boys." Talking of whom Sheikh Mohammed, for once, kept a relatively low profile, if buying 11 horses for 2.2 million guineas counts as that.
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