Ringmaster of the high rollers

It's gavel-wielding time, and the racehorse auctioneer is confident that quality will sell despite fears of recession
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For an auctioneer in the thoroughbred business, stepping up to the rostrum at Tattersalls in Newmarket during the Houghton Yearling Sale is the equivalent of opening the batting for England at Lord's, emerging from the tunnel at the Wembley of old on Cup Final day or walking out on to Centre Court on the first Sunday in July. In other words, as good as it gets.

And to continue the analogy, the auction house, with upwards of £30 million turnover in three days at stake, plus the fortunes of buyers and sellers, need their top team on the park. Tattersalls are Europe's leading racehorse exchange and the Houghton sale, source of more top-class performers than any other fixture, their showcase.

Starting on Tuesday, 190 impeccably bred colts and fillies from the best commercial stud farms in Britain and Ireland will go under the hammer, an irresistible temptation to the game's high rollers. The occasion is the hard-core business behind the sport of racing. But it also has a certain theatrical quality; the auction is held in a magnificent domed arena with superb acoustics, and has produced moments of sheer drama.

For John O'Kelly, one of Tattersalls' senior men, the responsibility of wielding the gavel is still a thrill after 20 years. "It frightens the life out of me every time," he said, "but it gives me enormous pleasure and professional satisfaction and I regard it as a privilege." The Dublin-born O'Kelly, 42, who lives in Ostend with his Belgian wife, Magali, and their two children, started his career in Ireland, joined Tattersalls eight years ago and has international caps from stints with firms in New Zealand, Germany, France, Australia, Dubai, Norway and South Africa.

Seven years ago he sold the top-priced horse at the Houghton, a chestnut filly who made 530,000 guineas (the arcane currency is still an equine auction tradition) and was subsequently known as Bosra Sham. Last year her first baby, a Rainbow Quest colt, became the tall Irishman's first one-million-guinea yearling when he made the round figure, and early on Tuesday evening he will continue the family thread when he sells the mare's second son, by Sadler's Wells. The colt is tipped as one of the stars of this year's extravaganza.

O'Kelly's job is to extract the best possible price for each horse he sells, on behalf of both the vendor and the auctioneering firm which, of course, take a commission. He is loath to take particular credit for any spectacular gains, but there is little doubt that his articulate, personable, apparently effortless style makes it easy to spend money. It also belies the hours of homework put in beforehand.

"I learn the pedigrees and will have seen the horses beforehand; I spend three months in the summer spotting yearlings on the farms," he said. "I wander around the sales complex and see who is looking at what and get a feel for the sort of horse a given person will want to buy. You can't demand money from people, but you try to tease and cajole and encourage them, just by perhaps saying the right thing at the right moment.

"Although you know many of the people involved, you can't get too personal and chummy from the rostrum. There's a fine line to be drawn and you have to stay the right side of it, asking, probing. Timing is everything, and if you get it right you can have the ring in the palm of your hand.

"And while there is a buzz from selling a horse for huge money it's equally satisfying to sell one for less if it's more than you or the vendor expected to get."

Trading at last year's Houghton sale reached an all-time high as the two juggernauts of the business, Sheikh Mohammed and John Magnier, met head to head for the choicest lots. Whether the Sheikh will, in view of the current political crisis, be present this week, and whether the market will hold at last year's extraordinary level with a global recession forecast remains to be seen, but the performances this year of Houghton graduates such as St Leger winner Milan (650,000gns) and champion sprinter Mozart (340,000gns) might encourage buyers to stick around. This week's catalogue includes a Desert Prince half-brother to Derby winner Oath and 27 sons and daughters of Sadler's Wells.

O'Kelly is sanguine about prospects for the week, despite the fall in trade at a low-grade Irish auction last week. "I think that was as much about overproduction as a recession," he said, "but quality will always sell. And the market made such huge increases last year that maintaining that level would have perhaps been difficult under any circumstances." In the Tattersalls ring in July, buyers were slow to get started when the high-class handicapper Mastermind went through the ring and O'Kelly, frustrated, opened the bidding for the talented horse himself at 2,000gns. His unorthodox kickstart proved highly effective; the horse made 380,000gns, a record for a gelding.

Selling a dream is easy if there is a wizard weaving the spell.