Don't pity the punter, who has merely a dozen or so horses from which to make a life-changing selection. If you want to imagine how difficult it is to pick a winner, put yourself instead in the shoes of a trainer or agent. For the past three days the industry's professionals have been appraising nearly 500 embryonic racehorses at the first yearling auction of the domestic season. Only time will tell whether their judgement reveals a champ or a chump.
The St Leger sale at Doncaster is the opening pitstop on a long autumn haul and its rituals remain unchanged. Look quizzically at the young, unbroken horse standing there, from the side, front and rear (and, if you are John Gosden, probably from the top as well). Watch him walk up and down; that's as fast as he'll go under these circumstances. Run a hand down a foreleg. Look at his pedigree laid out on the catalogue page. Try to relate the phenotype before you to the genotype in print. And cross your fingers.
For only a tiny proportion of horses ever win even an egg-and-spoon race, let alone achieve respectability as athletes. But the time-wearied analysis from one of this week's vendors – "Mostly the same old shit, just a different year" - was perhaps a little harsh. Sure, the Doncaster ring's reputation has been as a reliable supplier of precocious juvenile talent in quantity rather than quality and its prices do not begin to approach the seven-figure glamour of Tattersalls or Keeneland, but this year has been something of a revelation.
The first three in the 2,000 Guineas, Cockney Rebel, Vital Equine and Dutch Art, were graduates from the 2005 edition of the sale. So was St James's Palace Stakes winner Excellent Art. Last year's auction has produced Winker Watson, Myboycharlie and Kingsgate Native.
The sales complex at Doncaster is old and unlovely, and by next year the auction house will have moved to brand-new premises. But results beget custom and the high rollers more immediately associated with the glitzier arenas have taken note. This week's biggest spenders have been Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan, whose collective haul has included colts by Acclamation for 185,000gns and Rahy, sire of top Godolphin two-year-old Rio De La Plata, for 175,000gns.
The Doncaster bargains named above, though, came from the basement. None cost (in bloodstock terms) a fortune. The dearest was Excellent Art at 76,000gns, the cheapest Dutch Art at 16,000gns. Winker Watson and Myboycharlie, who will meet in the National Stakes at the Curragh, cost 56,000gns and 54,000gns respectively, and Kingsgate Native, who trounced his elders in the Nunthorpe Stakes, 20,000gns.
Geoff Huffer, who found 30,000gns Cockney Rebel, was trying his luck again, and snapped up a colt by the same unfashionable sire, Val Royal, at 60,000gns. "I think I've got another cracker," he said. "He's got just the same look to him."
Horsetrading, of course, is not merely about buying. The bloodstock market has been bullish in recent years and the signs at Doncaster, and Deauville the previous week, was that the good times for sellers with the right-looking product are set to continue.
"It's early days and we haven't completely uncrossed our fingers," said Yorkshire-based Mark Dwyer, the former jump jockey who now makes a living in the marketplace and consigned Winker Watson last year, "but the week has gone well. A horse like Winker Watson gives us a platform for repeat business. In fact, three of the five we sold last year have won."
The nursery whose wares have been the best advertisement is Ireland's Tally-Ho Stud. The Co Westmeath operation sold both Myboycharlie and Kingsgate Native and this year all its 14 offerings bar one found new homes, for a profitable aggregate of nearly 550,000gns. "It's very sweet when horses we've spotted do well," said the stud's Roger O'Callaghan. "It's great to be seen to be able to do it."
Pinhooking – buying to trade on – is an integral, but risky, part of the business. Myboycharlie landed a touch for his vendors, having cost just ¿13,000 (£9,100) as a foal. But Kingsgate Native, a ¿28,000 (£19,600) foal, showed the other side of the coin.
This week a 14,000-guinea speculation turned into 130,000gns for Clare Blaskey, based at Matlock, Derbyshire, who last year took a chance on a colt-foal by the then-unproven sire Acclamation, whose first crop of runners have far exceeded expectations. Her second-time-around gold-strike will race next year in Sheikh Hamdan's colours.
NB: Cactus Rose
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