Don't pity the punter, trying to find a winner from a field of maybe 16 horses. The real trick is to beat far greater odds, much earlier. Yesterday at Doncaster, the great and the good of the racing and bloodstock businesses gathered for the start of the yearling auction sales season, a treadmill of talentspotting that will run through until early December. This week's task? To sort the champs from the chumps in a catalogue of 495 young potential athletes.
A year ago, trainer Richard Hannon and his buying team struck paydirt, in the form of Lot 146, a bay son of Tagula now known as Canford Cliffs, runaway winner of the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot and beaten only half-a-length in the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville on Sunday. As an 18-month-old, the colt had made a significant impact on Hannon's chief scout Peter Doyle.
"All I had written on his catalogue page was 'good sort, nice walker', which was high praise," said the Irish agent. "It meant there was no criticism of him physically, that I thought he was correct in his conformation. And I can remember that he had a real swing to his walk, that he looked like a racehorse." Others round the auction ring thought so too; the £50,000 made under the hammer by the young horse was the highest price of the year for one by his sire, a reliable progenitor but one not in the first flight of fashion.
Hannon and Doyle, and their respective sons Richard junior and Ross, were back at the scene of their gold strike yesterday, looking at a conveyor belt of bays and browns, chestnuts and greys. The initial elimination is carried out by the Doyles.
"We'll look at maybe 200 horses this week," said Hannon junior, "and some of those we like we'll be able to afford, and some we won't. If we go home with maybe 15 we'll have done well. Everyone's looking for the same thing – a racehorse – but luckily everyone's view of what makes one is slightly different. I can remember the first time I saw Canford Cliffs I thought him a lovely type of horse, and being struck by his bearing and demeanour. He seemed completely unflappable.
"But if we're the ones who find another like him this week we'll be lucky. There are nearly 500 horses in this catalogue and probably two of them will be exceptional."
The Doncaster auction, the first on the domestic yearling circuit, has a reputation for producing a high proportion of juvenile winners from its graduates, at all levels of the market. But only time will tell whether an Ad Valorem filly who made the minimum bid of £5,000 yesterday or a £120,000 Royal Applause colt is the better.
"You try to buy what you think are the nicest horses," added Hannon junior, "but you never really know. These here this week are just babies, and by the time they start cantering in January they may have developed into completely different individuals, some for better, some for worse."
Of those he secured yesterday for next year's sport, Hannon was particularly pleased with a well-related grey Mujadil colt with a £48,000 price tag. "He looks the part," he said, "but you can never tell what owners are looking for. Canford Cliffs was actually one of the last of the ones we bought on spec to find an owner; we showed him at two of our open days and he was the one no-one picked."
Last year's haul of yearlings from various auctions have already won 66 races and nearly £850,000 this year but to make sure none of this term's recruits are left on the shelf, the East Eversleigh marketing drive will include the innovation of virtual yearling parades. "We'll put them on our website," said Hannon, "then people who can't get down to the yard can look at them from the comfort of their offices and see if there's anything they fancy."
Hannon is confident that Canford Cliffs can bounce back from his surprise defeat on Sunday, which has been attributed to going firmer than ideal. "He was a bit sore afterwards," said Hannon. "He was probably feeling the ground, and a close third in a Group 1 under those circumstances was disappointing only in the context of his Royal Ascot win. He'll be bouncing again by the Middle Park Stakes, when the ground should be more to his liking."
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
She's In The Money (3.50 Catterick) Seems to have benefited from a switch of stables and, though bred to go further, won over today's trip at Newmarket, showing a good turn of foot, and can follow up.
Herecomethegirls (4.30 Warwick) Well supported on her debut after good homework but could not cope with heavy underfoot conditions. Worth another chance on better ground.
One to watch
Papgeno (John Jenkins) is no world-beater but the son of Piccolo produced an encouraging effort at Southwell on Monday on his first encounter with all-weather surface and looks capable of winning off his current handicap mark.
Where the money's going
Fame And Glory is now 10-11 favourite on Betfair for the Irish Champion Stakes as wet weather in Co Dublin continues to put his clash with Sea The Stars, who has drifted to 13-8 on the exchange, on Saturday week in doubt.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Marine Spirit (2.30 Warwick)