Racing: Sangster, revolutionary international breeder and champion owner, dies at 67

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The Independent Online

Robert Sangster, one of the truly influential racing figures of the modern era, has died at the age of 67. He lost a 10-month battle with pancreatic cancer on Wednesday evening at his London home. And Vincent O'Brien and Lester Piggott yesterday led the many and heartfelt tributes to their long-time friend and comrade-in-arms.

Though Merseyside-born Sangster was the most successful British-based owner of the past 30 years, five-times champion with victories in most of Europe's major races, including two Derbys and three Arcs, his pioneering legacy came behind the scenes. He was the first man to treat the bloodstock industry as a commodity market, investing large sums in colts with the potential to be developed on the racecourse as stallions. The result was the Ballydoyle-Coolmore phenomenon.

After inheriting the Vernons pools business from his father, Sangster proved an exception to the rule that states that the only way to make a small fortune in racing is to start out with a large one. He teamed up in the Seventies with O'Brien and his son-in-law John Magnier, owner of Coolmore Stud, to raid the Kentucky markets for choicely-bred youngsters.

The policy reaped instant dividends; from the first vintage came The Minstrel, who took the 1977 Derby, and Alleged, winner of two Arcs. Other O'Brien-trained top-class performers to race in the blue, green and white silks that became so familiar at the top level all over the world included Golden Fleece, El Gran Senor and the home-bred Sadler's Wells, who took his 13th sires' championship last year.

Perhaps unusually for such a shrewd mover and shaker, Sangster, kind, generous and ever-helpful, was as well-liked as he was successful. And his enthusiasm for the buzz of the sport and industry never waned. "We were deeply saddened to learn of Robert's death," said 86-year-old O'Brien. "He was a great friend, a wonderful owner and part of our family, young and old, for many years. Trusting and uncomplaining, with an excellent sense of humour, he was a joy with whom to share good times; he was enthusiastic and always grateful, even for small victories. Magnanimous in defeat, he was a superb loser and did not waste time dwelling on what might have been. I appreciated, more than I can ever say, Robert's trust and confidence that I, as trainer and partner, would do the best for him and the horses."

It was the American racing revolution of the late Sixties that provided the inspiration for Sangster's success. When US-bred horses like Sir Ivor and Nijinsky began to sweep all before them, they were evidence of a well of excellence untapped on this side of the Atlantic. Sangster saw the opportunity and developed a strategy that involved, for sure, a substantial gamble, but for potentially huge profit. He had the wisdom to minimise his risk by taking one of Europe's outstanding horsemen on board.

The Minstrel was, like Nijinsky, a son of Northern Dancer, but like him in neither size nor colour. Sangster saw through the smallness and flashiness and the little chestnut, a $200,000 (£100,900) yearling, rewarded him with not only the Derby but the King George and was traded back to the States for stud duty for $9 million. His contemporary Alleged, a $175,000 auction purchase, was re-sold for $16 million. Not everything always went entirely to plan though; the ordinary runner Seattle Dancer cost the triumvirate a still world record $13.1m.

"Robert was a true visionary," added O'Brien, "whose large-scale investment in the best American-bred yearlings in the Seventies was one of the principal factors in establishing Ireland and Coolmore as major forces in the bloodstock world. He was a wonderful character who enjoyed life to the full, he will be sorely missed by everyone who was fortunate enough to have known him."

It is arguable that no-one but Piggott could have forced The Minstrel to the neck victory at Epsom that helped change the course of racing's development. "I'd known Robert since the Sixties and we had great days and so many great horses," he said. "He was a great friend and a marvellous person to ride for. This is a very sad day and the end of an era." Those sentiments were echoed by Pat Eddery, who replaced Piggott as Ballydoyle stable jockey at the end of 1980. "He was one of the nicest people I've ever met," he said. "And he did so much for racing. I was very fortunate that I rode for him for many years and he was always a gentleman to ride for, and became a great friend." The advent of the Arabs, and the Maktoum family in particular, with their apparently unlimited auction funds, during the Eighties, made Sangster a casualty of his own enterprise and his prominence on the track waned. But he still wielded wide influence and he was one of the instigators of the concept of dual-hemisphere covering for stallions (so-called shuttling). And he always had an eye for a deal; for instance, he sold Sheikh Mohammed his first Classic winner in the Godolphin blue, Balanchine, and later Cape Verdi.

Sangster's British training base was Manton, most notably with Peter Chapple-Hyam, and later John Gosden, the present incumbent, at the helm. "Robert was the foremost international owner and breeder of his era," said Gosden. "For a time he controlled the most powerful stables in England, Ireland, France, the United States and Australia." Sangster's funeral service will be at St Pauls in Knightsbridge on 19 April. Appropriately, his last winner, home-bred two-year-old Russian Blue at the Curragh 18 days ago, emerged from Ballydoyle.

Robert Sangster Classic Victories And Other Big Race Winners


Year Winner Trainer Jockey

1977 The Minstrel V O'Brien L Piggott

1982 Golden Fleece V O'Brien P Eddery


1983 Lomond V O'Brien P Eddery

1984 El Gran Senor V O'Brien P Eddery

1992 Rodrigo de Triano P Chapple-Hyam L Piggott


1994 Las Meninas T Stack J Reid


1983 Solford V O'Brien P Eddery

1984 Sadler's Wells V O'Brien P Eddery


1979 Thatching V O'Brien L Piggott

King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes

1977 The Minstrel V O'Brien L Piggott


1978 Jaazeiro V O'Brien L Piggott


1978 Hawaiian Sound B Hills L Piggott

1982 Assert D O'Brien P Eddery

1983 Caerleon V O'Brien P Eddery

1992 Rodrigo de Triano P Chapple-Hyam L Piggott


1976 The Minstrel V O'Brien L Piggott

1977 Try My Best V O'Brien L Piggott

1979 Monteverdi V O'Brien L Piggott

1980 Storm Bird V O'Brien P Eddery

1983 El Gran Senor V O'Brien P Eddery


1992 Rodrigo de Triano P Chapple-Hyam L Piggott

Racing Post Trophy

1998 Commander Collins P Chapple-Hyam J Fortune


1984 Gildoran B Hills S Cauthen

1985 Gildoran B Hills B Thomson


1984 Committed D Weld B Thomson

1988 Handsome Sailor B Hills M Hills


1987 Gallic League B Hills S Cauthen


1984 Sadler's Wells V O'Brien G McGrath

1988 Prince Of Birds V O'Brien D Gillespie

1992 Rodrigo de Triano P Chapple-Hyam L Piggott

1994 Turtle Island P Chapple-Hyam J Reid


1977 The Minstrel V O'Brien L Piggott

1982 Assert D O'Brien C Roche

1984 El Gran Senor V O'Brien P Eddery


1984 Sadler's Wells V O'Brien P Eddery


1980 Gonzales V O'Brien R Carroll

1985 Leading Counsel V O'Brien P Eddery


1982 Assert D O'Brien C Roche

1983 Caerleon V O'Brien P Eddery


1982 River Lady F Boutin L Piggott

1986 Baiser Vole C Head G Guignard

Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe

1977 Alleged V O'Brien L Piggott

1978 Alleged V O'Brien L Piggott

1980 Detroit O Douieb P Eddery


1984 Committed D Weld S Cauthen

1986 Double Schwartz C Nelson P Eddery

1988 Handsome Sailor B Hills M Hills

1997 Carmine Lake P Chapple-Hyam J Reid


1984 Royal Heroine J Gosden F Toro


1980 Beldale Ball C Hayes J Letts


1999 Blackfriars P Hayes G Childs


1992 Nomadic Way B Hills J Osborne