“A sales yearling is like a shiny new car with one important difference.”
(Photo : Ricardo Christian)
Emperors Palace National Yearling Sale
TBA Sales Complex, Germiston, South Africa
27 - 29 April 2012
There’s a good buzz at the TBA’s sales grounds at the moment. There should be: the bulk of the nation’s best bloodstock from the 2010 foal crop is assembled at Gosforth Park; the complex has undergone an impressive makeover, and the buyers are gathering a little earlier than usual. Besides, South African-breds represent the best value in the world, considering their international achievements.
But there’s something about a racehorse auction that you find nowhere else. Not at Sotheby’s nor Christie’s; nowhere. By the nature of the beast, a racehorse evokes a far greater passion, considerably more ego, and there’s nothing a rich man wants more than something another rich man wants. Badly.
At a yearling sale some years ago in America’s Thoroughbred heartland, Kentucky, two groups of very rich men staged a duel one expert witness called “confrontational”. Understand, this was the heavyweight championship of the world, the battle for dominance of the international market for the elite racehorse. They were jousting for a bay Northern Dancer colt the vets and laboratory types couldn’t fault. One group included the horse trader Robert Sangster, and the famous Irish trainer, Vincent O’Brien. The other was led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, then the Crown Prince (now the ruler) of Dubai.
The bidding quickly raced to $4,5million, surpassing the record for a horse sold at public auction. But this one wasn’t sold yet. When the price reached $8million, a member of the Sheikh’s entourage lent across to the Sangster huddle, and confided “You’re never going to beat us. Why try?”
They didn’t know Sangster. Mortal he may have been, but he was still there at $10million. And that’s when his mortality came home to him. The electric bidding board couldn’t handle the Sheikh’s final $200,000 bid; it only ran to seven digits. The story flashed around the world and put racing on the front pages; even the Wall Street Journal was impressed. Ten million dollars for an untried horse. The only higher bid, according to one William Shakespeare, was made by King Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, when he offered his kingdom for a horse. Fortunately, the auctioneer missed the wave of his catalogue, otherwise England may have belonged to someone else these days, and there’d have been no Princes William or Harry.
The Sheikh, who’d watched the bidding with a “magnetic glare”, left the pavilion at once for the Lexington airport, where his Boeing 747 was parked, much as the locals might park a Chevvie pick-up. Within the hour, he was winging it home. The contest had been about muscle and desire, about power and collision, with just a hint of avarice. It is often the way at the top end of the racehorse market. That’s what it takes for one rich man to beat another, and it’s no longer a matter of what you pay. It’s what you get that matters. In its many guises, it’s what you find at yearling auctions and it makes for riveting theatre, particularly when they show up with their treasure chests.
The lesson here is that at a sale like this, where the cream is supposed to be concentrated, the trainer with limited money to spend, with perhaps one or two modest sponsors, is at a disadvantage. But this may not be as severe as it looks at first blush, and it certainly doesn’t eliminate him from the game. Poverty imposes discipline. Ask us, we’ve been there. You don’t engage in games of vanity and bluster. You don’t turn up at the sales ring with an entourage. You go out and look at the yearlings in the paddock before they are tizzied up for the sales. You casually ask the stud manager for some clues. You don’t look for the ideal pedigree or the perfect conformation, because you can’t afford it. You compromise. You sometimes surrender to intuition, because when it comes to horses, it can be better than reason. Small faults, such as a slightly offset knee, can be forgiven. When the yearling is presented, you look for its good points first, rather than the defects. You do everything you can to shorten the odds in your favour, because it can be a bit of a lottery as it is, and you can’t have too many losing tickets.
That’s how Gary Alexander found Pierre Jourdan, it’s the way Paul Matchett unravelled Mannequin. Ronnie Napier discovered Imbongi through trust and a lifetime of intuition; Peter Fabricius leant on integrity when he bought Hear The Drums. Sean Tarry drew on his street-smartness with Extra Zero, and Tyrone Zackey on his gut-feel for Smanjemanje. The lesson, we guess, is that if the disadvantage exists, it’s not as severe as it looks.
As someone once said, a sales yearling is like a shiny new car with one important difference. You can admire the duco and the upholstery, but you can’t see the motor. That is in a sealed compartment, and your hope is, it’s not just a few rubber bands. That’s where upbringing counts. We all know that some people come up the hard way. They know what it is to be stoic and tough, and they know what it takes to make things happen. It’s no different in the horse world. So if you look at the performance logs, you’ll find the clues. Some farms have a habit of finding themselves at the top, year after year. And a few, very few, you’ll find only when you reach the summit.
We’ll be at Block A. All week.