As one era ended here, the hopes and dreams of a clutch of new ones flickered into life. At 5.56 yesterday evening, the beech gavel of auctioneer Edmond Mahony fell as Lot 2242, the heavily pregnant six-year-old Angara, waddled sedately from the Tattersalls auction ring to mark the break-up of the broodmare band collected by the late Robert Sangster over three decades. As is customary with significant dispersals of breeding stock, the great and the good of the bloodstock world stood shoulder to shoulder in homage.
Sangster's influence on this business cannot be overstated. His vision, shared with trainer Vincent O'Brien during the Seventies, changed the face of racing in Europe as they introduced a smug domestic industry, so certain about the superiority of its horses, to faster US bloodlines.
Sangster's greatest legacy has been Sadler's Wells, who carried his colours to three Group One victories before attaining legendary status the 26-year-old patriarch has been champion sire a record 14 times at Coolmore Stud.
But the genetic excellence built up among the females under his Swettenham Stud banner is a highly desirable commodity, and last night 10 mares commanded a total of 8.5 million guineas and are now bound for nurseries all over the world.
Chief among them was Ocean Silk, acquired by Sheikh Mohammed for 3.2m guineas. The beautiful brown seven-year-old ran second in the Yorkshire Oaks four years ago, is out of a sister to top-class Divine Proportions, and is expecting a Pivotal foal in February. The Sheikh also acquired Playful Act, the star of the Sangster consignment at a Kentucky sale last month, for a world broodmare record of $10.5m.
Last night his racing manager, John Ferguson, who outbid the rival Coolmore camp after a prolonged battle, doffed his cap on behalf of the Sheikh to Sangster. "Robert was an amazing contributor to the industry as a whole and the Sheikh had the highest respect for him both as a man, and a lover of our sport."
In the past two months, the Sangster family have been selling mares, yearlings and foals, reducing 200 head of horses worldwide to a number small enough to suit those who want to carry on their father's work. Among the remaining nucleus, of course, is Classic prospect City Leader.
Angara, whose relatives include Cape Verdi, Arcangues and Aquarelliste, is due to Montjeu next month and will foal at the Roths childs' stud in Buckinghamshire after changing hands for 3m guineas.
"My father would have loved all this," said Sangster's son Ben. "He was at heart a horse trader and would have enjoyed this situation very much."
For a few years now elite fillies and mares have been regarded as a blue-chip commodity not only by the major established private and commercial breeding operations but by newcomers, businessmen and City boys with disposable income. "If anything is recession-proof," said leading agent Charlie Gordon-Watson, "then a top-class pedigree is. And the real A-list pedigrees don't come on the market that often."
Buying to breed and sell may have more investment appeal than buying to race ("Who can blame anyone," said London-based Gordon-Watson, "when the sums involved in keeping a horse in training are so imbalanced.") but this week has produced notable examples of runners being traded back for frightening profit.
The European auction record for a filly fell twice within an hour, firstly when Sander Camillo, who failed to train on at three this year but was a top-class juvenile, made 3.2m guineas and then when Group One winner Satwa Queen realised 3.4m, both bought by Sheikh Mohammed as broodmare prospects; after all, he has a portfolio of new stallions, including Authorized and Manduro, to support.
But the good times cannot roll forever in a volatile, high-risk business and this autumn life has been difficult down the food chain. With record foal crops in Britain and Ireland for the past four years, more than 17,000 each time, supply is outstripping demand. More horses means more bad horses and breeders are now reaping the whirlwind of the folly of reckless, indiscriminate production.