John Ryan parked his car and began walking towards the sales complex. The grey horse was one of the earliest lots in the catalogue and he hoped that most bidders would be keeping their powder dry. As luck should have it, a lot of people seemed to have been held up at the racecourse, where the last race had been delayed. The place still seemed pretty deserted.
Such are the narrow interstices between luck and judgement where he was already accustomed to plying his trade. It was April, the start of his fourth season as a trainer. Ryan and his wife had already decided that it might have to be his last. "Last autumn we sat down and said that if things didn't pick up this year, we'd have to fold the business," he remembered this week. "What was the point of banging your head against a brick wall? We didn't want to get into a position where we'd be endangering house and home."
As he neared the sales ring, he noticed a screen updating bids. He gasped. They were already on to the grey horse. Evidently there had been several withdrawals. Ryan broke into a sprint and burst into the ring as though his career depended on it. (That is the cruelty of his vocation. Every time, this could be the one. Almost invariably, it is not.) The gavel was raised. The colt by Haafhd, 10,000 guineas, last call. Ryan frantically waved his catalogue at the auctioneer. Five minutes later, he was signing a chit for the last bid, 16,000gns. "I'd shown a right turn of foot from the car park," he grins now. "Obviously it was one of those things that are meant to be."
That was only the end of the beginning. He still had to tell his wife, as casually as he could dare. "Oh, by the way, I bought that grey horse." And, critically, he had to find somebody to pick up the bill – small as it was, by the deranged standards of the bloodstock market. It was plenty big enough for Ryan, 41. At the yearling sales, last autumn, he had told his wife that he was just popping into the gents. When he returned, he sheepishly explained that he had just bought a colt, with no pedigree to speak of, for a grand. That was little more than the value of its carcass to an abattoir. "They obviously decided it would turn out cheaper to let him go than take him home," he said. "But when things are tight, and there isn't a grand to spend on a horse without an owner, it was enough."
Why should these punts prove any less pathetic than those made by so many other trainers led astray by dreams, folly, or sheer bad fortune? Well, at least Ryan had pedigree on his side. His father, Mick, trained a number of good horses, not least an Irish 1,000 Guineas winner in Katies, and in his heyday landed some enormous gambles for the flamboyant Terry Ramsden. Mick's father had in turn been a horseman of the old school, working at Lord Derby's stud.
Even so, just look where these young colts ended up, crammed into a quaint backyard, a tiny nook behind an alley in Newmarket, where some studs and stables are maintained as extravagantly as palaces. Ryan has just 10 horses in training here. Last week, however, he took the grey horse across town to the July Course and won one of the most prestigious juvenile races of the season. Silver Grecian had already cruised home in his first two starts, and now here he was, impudently sweeping from last to first.
Ryan had found three patrons to share the colt. One had won the Scoop6. "He had been given one of those outsized cheques," he said. "We were coming out of the Thai restaurant on the high street when he came walking past carrying this thing. 'Here,' I said. 'I could help you spend some of that.'"
The big question now is whether these gentlemen will be able to resist the offers already coming in from bigger operators. "So far, they've been offers we can refuse," Ryan said. "I believe, if they did get one big enough, that they would reinvest. Of course, the chance of coming across another one like this is a million-to-one. But they're human. They'd have to think about it."
And what of the yearling, the one snaffled for a grand? Iver Bridge Lad has won his last two races, latterly a Listed race at Sandown. This looks suspiciously more like judgement than luck.
"I've no right to succeed in any shape or form," Ryan said. "It's only through bloody-mindedness. Something makes you believe that every day when you get up, and it's still dark and pissing down, what we're doing, we're doing for a reason. There's only a handful of us, and it's down to all the extra things they put in – cutting up carrots when a horse is off its feed, that kind of thing.
"I can't be flash the way some people are, with brand new jackets and bridles every spring. But you see these huge strings walking down the heath, and you know that a lot of them never even make it on to the track. And you think: 'Let me give those ones a chance in life.' Only decide which ones, before you ever put a saddle on them. Because if they're not quite ready, and get thrown in the deep end, life is bloody hard. In our little club, they're going to get looked after."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Roker Park (7.55 Hamilton) On a roll since being fitted with cheekpieces, and the decisive way he settled the issue at Newcastle last time suggests he remains fairly treated off a 4lb higher mark. Could soon be promoted out of handicaps.
Ashram (4.55 Newbury) Back to form and this looks an ideal opening for a colt good enough to be beaten only two lengths in the Dewhurst Stakes last autumn.
One to watch
Treaty Flyer (Alison Thorpe) has been improving at a modest level and has not finished yet, to judge by the way she got her rivals in trouble before stopping in her tracks three out at Stratford on Sunday.
Where the money's going
Coral shortened the Sir Michael Stoute pair, Conduit and Tartan Bearer, to 2-1 and 4-1 respectively after news that Youmzain misses the King George VI Stakes and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot next week.