Racing: Maktoums avert a Kentucky collapse: Paul Hayward on a return to reality as recession bites into the prices at the world's biggest bloodstock market

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HENRY CECIL, the trainer, once recalled turning to his most powerful patron, Sheikh Mohammed, at the Keeneland horse sales and saying, after a yearling colt had been sold for dollars 4m: 'The man who bought that must be mad.' The Sheikh, Cecil remembers, replied without apparent annoyance: 'It was me.'

There has been little in the way of madness at Keeneland this week. A few Lear-like rages from ruined breeders, perhaps, but for the most part something resembling sanity has settled over the falling prices, the depressed figures. When statistics from the select July Yearling Sale were collated in Kentucky yesterday, the average selling price was shown to be 19 per cent down on last year and at its lowest level since 1981.

World recession is biting chunks out of the international bloodstock market and has brought to an end the funny money days of the mid- 1980s when fees rose at Weimaresque speed. 'Everything has its price. There is no horse born that is priceless,' Sheikh Mohammed said at that time, but when he showed himself willing to pay dollars 10.2m ( pounds 5.3m) for a yearling called Snaafi Dancer, the horse-rearers of America's Blue Grass state were entitled to doubt that sentiment. Snaafi Dancer never raced, and was infertile at stud.

British racing's claims to poverty have always sat uncomfortably alongside the extravagance of the world's leading owners, and at first sight an average price of dollars 258,634 ( pounds 135,410) for the 183 yearlings sold at Keeneland is hardly reason to call in the receivers. However, as recently as 1984 that average was dollars 544,681, and while 33 youngsters sold for dollars 1m- plus in that year, just three have have breached the six-figure barrier this week.

The gold-rush luck of breeders has evaporated just as surely as many of them have failed to register the change. While possibly the most perverse spectacle at Keeneland this year was a member of the Maktoum family bidding dollars 2,150,000 for a colt by Danzig, only to discover that the horse carried a reserve of dollars 2,250,000.

Even after scaling down their involvement in auctions, the Maktoums are holding up the international sales trade, and this year rescued Keeneland from financial calamity by significantly increasing their outlay on the second and final day. Doubtless the attractiveness of lower prices encouraged this late intervention, but philanthropy, too, may have played no small part.

Khalid Abdullah, No. 2 to the Maktoums, has all but withdrawn from the bidding game as his own breeding operation has become increasingly extensive and successful. The expected influx of Japanese money has stalled as problems reach even the world's most proficient economy.

There are, though, hidden factors which have pumped air into the lifebelts of breeders. For each of the last five seasons, Sheikh Mohammed has bought more and more young horses privately - before they reach the sales ring - as his preference for one-to-one deals has grown. Some estimates place the number of yearlings spotted early by the Sheikh's talent scouts as high as 250.

If this is accurate, it represents an ominous signal for the sales companies and sets the self-pity of breeders in an even more unfavourable light. As the Maktoums' team of mares grows ever larger, though, the brothers are likely to pay diminishing attention to the meat markets of Keeneland and beyond.

In the fever of delusion that characterised the bloodstock trade in the last decade, the highest mark on the thermometer is still the dollars 13.1m paid by Robert Sangster for a horse called Seattle Dancer. 'We will probably never see that figure reached again in our lifetimes,' Sangster later predicted.

Put another way, racing may never again sink so low.

(Photograph omitted)