Off to the sales in search of a Sham rather than a dud

RACING: The favourite for tomorrow's big race at Ascot is living proof that the dreams of the auction ring can turn into reality; Sue Montgomery on the hopes that drive Europe's top yearling auction
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However she fares in tomorrow's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, Bosra Sham has already proved the exception to a rather expensive rule. When the chestnut filly took the 1,000 Guineas back in May, she became the first "top lot" at Europe's swankiest yearling auction, the Houghton Sale in Newmarket, to win a Classic for nigh on half a century.

Her predecessor was Sayajirao, hero of the 1947 St Leger, who cost the fabulously wealthy Maharaja of Baroda a then-unprecedented 28,000 guineas. He was worth every penny; so, at 530,000 guineas, was Bosra Sham. But along the way - as the accompanying table shows - there have been some mighty costly blunders.

The honour of fetching the highest price of the sale has traditionally been a dubious one, akin to a kiss of death as far as future performance is concerned. But Bosra Sham's comeback to the track could hardly have been better timed as far as Tattersalls, the Newmarket auctioneers, are concerned, serving as a reminder that half-a-million plus can be money well spent just three days before the 1996 Houghton Sale opens.

At 5.15 on Tuesday evening, the sales company chairman, Edmond Mahony, will take the rostrum in the handsome domed auction ring to open the bidding on a son of Cadeaux Genereux, the first of 284 catalogued yearlings which represent, on paper at least, the cream of the commercial crop.

By the end of proceedings at about nine o'clock on Thursday night, some of the world's richest men and women will have blued pounds 20m on goods that come straight from the factory, untested and with no guarantees that they will not break the first time they are used.

But when there is the chance of buying a Bosra Sham, a Sayajirao, or even a Relkino or a Hot Spark, all that guff about merchantable quality goes out the window. The players in this market have to have as much optimism as wealth, and it has been so ever since yearling auctions came into vogue around 170 years ago.

The first four-figure transaction was over the subsequently all but useless Glenlivat (1,010 guineas in 1837) and it was not until the coming of La Fleche (5,500 guineas in 1890) and Sceptre (10,000 guineas in 1900) that the top of the market acquired credibility. That pair won seven Classic between them.

Nowadays, a sale like the Houghton represents an industry at work at the highest level. The vendors are breeders, who nurture their potential gold mines from conception onwards, and pinhookers, bold speculators whose commodity is foals bought specifically to trade on. The buyers are those searching for success on the racecourse; next week's yearlings will be the Classic generation of 1998.

The bloodstock market is at present undergoing a revival, and the auction figures recorded elsewhere in the world this year bode well for next week's proceedings.

In the weeks leading up to the sale vendors, and the consignors who prepare their horses on a commission basis, scan racing results with almost paranoid intensity. Being related to a big or promising winner can put tens of thousands on a youngster's value, and the progress this year of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe prospects Pilsudski and Darazari, and two-year-olds Fiji and One So Wonderful will have done no harm to the sale prospects of their young siblings. And the Irishman who paid 115,000 guineas for a Fairy King colt-foal last December will be delighted that the stallion is responsible for the Arc favourite, Helissio.

To highlight the fate of the sales-toppers is more a curiosity than a condemnation of the judgement of the so-called experts, for it is in the nature of horses that there will be more duds than champions.

Plenty of good horses are bought at auction (although, statistically, home-breds still lead the way in the Derby) and at all levels of the market. Of Group One winners this year, Lady Carla, who gave Bosra Sham's owner, Wafic Said, a double Classic whammy, cost 220,000 guineas, Soviet Line 185,000, Iktamal 75,000, Pentire 54,000 and Bahamian Bounty 45,000.

All the potential in the world will parade before willing buyers next week, and who is to say that Bosra Sham has not set a trend, for Entrepreneur, who made the joint top-price of 600,000 guineas last year, looked full of talent when he brought his score to two out of three at Chester on Wednesday. And the dream he represents is what keeps this industry going.