Racing: Lots of hope on the hoof: Jamie Reid reports from Co Kildare on the sale that stirred the breeding world's blood

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ALL the yearling had to do was walk around the ring without falling over. There could be no room for nerves. Not in the resplendent bidding theatre of the Goffs sales complex at Kill in County Kildare. This was the Irish National Yearling Sale and Lot No 169, a handsome son of the elite stallion Sadler's Wells and a full brother to 1990's champion three-year-old filly, Salsabil, was about to get his chance to lift the spirits of the bloodstock community worldwide.

The colt's list of illustrious relatives stared out of the catalogue in thumping black type. All day and all the previous day the word in the bars and barns had been that Lot 169 would be the star of the show. So on a close, wet October evening upwards of 1,000 people were packed into the arena. Just before seven o'clock a hush descended and the yearling walked in calmly.

Goffs' managing director, Philip Myerscough, the circus ringmaster for the occasion, stoked the atmosphere up gradually, taking a full five or six minutes to elucidate the yearling's merits. Then the bidding opened at 200,000 guineas. And a buzz of excitement ran around the crowd when they realised that the first shot had been fired by the charismatic bloodstock agent Billy McDonald, the man who bought Alleged as a two-year-old for Robert Sangster in 1976, along with many other famous and infamous horses, but who seemed to have gone walkabout for the past decade.

If McDonald was here, back in the big time, then surely he had to be bidding for them. And sure enough standing a few feet away from him was the man himself, the patron saint of Irish racing, Dr Michael Vincent O'Brien.

The bidding went up quickly - 100,000 gns a time - and McDonald's first rival was the Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd Salman, owner of the 1991 Derby winner, Generous. Then at 400,000 gns another player entered the game, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, the owner of Salsabil and the man thought most likely to want her brother at any price. In a matter of minutes the duelling saw the bidding pass the million-guinea mark.

Myerscough then slowed it down artfully, allowing the contestants a brief pause before the final push. The Sheikh offered 1.4m. Salman had dropped out by now. McDonald went to 1.45m. The Sheikh went to 1.475. Then McDonald played his trump card - 1.5m gns. The Sheikh hesitated, folded and threw in his hand. McDonald had got his horse and it had just become the most valuable yearling to be sold anywhere in the world in 1993 and the first in over five years to be sold in Europe for more than pounds 1m.

Lot 169 left the ring to spontaneous applause. Everyone congratulated the breeder, Pat O'Kelly of the Kilcarn Stud in County Meath, for her luck, skill and expertise. And within minutes the equally satisfied buyer, the 49-year-old McDonald, whose enthusiasm for the fast lane once led fellow members of 'Sangster's Gangsters' to open a book on his possible life expectancy, was confirming that he had indeed been bidding for Vincent O'Brien.

The other breeders and vendors gathered in the auditorium were ecstatic. They could all sniff the delicious scent of serious money once again. Prices were up throughout the week with a remarkable 83 per cent increase on the 1992 aggregate. Everybody was praising the quality on offer and all the best trainers from Britain and Ireland were on hand to pay realistic prices for anything that looked like it might make a racehorse. Only two years ago you would have said that pretty soon the only things being exchanged at Goffs and at the Houghton sale in Newmarket would have been bankruptcy writs. But now with the British government belatedly lifting the VAT threat against the domestic industry and the Irish continuing enthusiastically to support theirs the threat of ruination seems to have lifted.

But, hold on a minute, the cynics may reasonably object. Haven't we been down this enticing but often calamitous path before? We all remember the great Ballydoyle classic winners from The Minstrel to Golden Fleece and El Gran Senor, but they and the Arabs have had plenty of million-dollar flops, too. So why should this latest purchase be any different? Is it really a glorious reaffirmation that the man who Sangster has always said will 'die with his boots on' is still capable of taking on the best in the biggest leagues? Or is it a final folie de grandeur by a team whose best days and better judgement are behind them? We will probably have to wait until at least next year's Dewhurst Stakes to find out.

Of course not everybody's ante-post wager is on quite the same scale as the big shots. But Goffs, being a quintessentially Irish and informal market place, naturally had a betting office in one of the outside barns. The punters packed inside it last Thursday afternoon reckoned that Champagne Night was a good thing in the 3.30 at Punchestown. It finished last. But an hour later another tip, Devil's Den, romped home by 12 lengths at York. The smiles returned to the punters' faces. The spirit of recovery was beginning to embrace them, too. The true gambler is always an optimist.

(Photograph omitted)