These people are dealing in the realm of the unknown," said the Thoroughbred horseman in his busy Saratoga tack room last week. 'That is what yearling sales are all about—a bunch of rich, smart businessmen, and women, playing a numbers game in which the odds are always heavily stacked against them."
Racing is big business, very big. In 1967's 5,344 racing days, 41,853 starters competed for almost $140 million in purses. Nearly 47 million spectators watched this show and bet $3.5 billion. Yet, after all this, the 1967 starters averaged less than $3,500 in earnings, and fewer than 10% of all U.S. racing stables broke even or earned a profit.
The number of owners who can afford extensive breeding establishments of their own is very small, and mighty few are able to buy into a top stallion syndicate so that their own mares might qualify for service by such outstanding studs as Bold Ruler, Native Dancer, Ribot and Buckpasser. The eternal hope for many established owners, and would-be owners as well, is to buy something at a yearling sale, pay like the devil—and then pray like the devil.
Of approximately 21,500 foals of 1967, nearly 3,300 will be sold this year in yearling auctions. They will bring an average price of around $6,800. About 2,750 of them will be sold for under $10,000 and will average about $3,000. The other 550 or so will bring an average of $25,000. The potential buyers, starry eyed at the thought of selecting a bargain like Hoop, Jr. ($10,200), who would go on to win the Kentucky Derby, or Dark Mirage ($6,000), the current 3-year-old filly champion, rarely will be dismayed by their chances of success. Of all registered foals, 25% never start. While 56% do manage to win a race of one sort or another, only 2.64% of them ever win a stakes race. And the elementary mathematics of racing prove that to make the game pay—whether you are a small owner or a member of the Phipps-Wheatley empire—your racing stock must win the purses offered in stakes. Of the 41,853 starters in 1967, 41,135 did not win stakes.
To get at the potential stakes winner via the auction route, an owner's best chance is to attend one or both of the most important yearling sales in the U.S.—the annual summer Keeneland sales, held in late July, and the Fasig-Tipton Company sales at Saratoga during the second week of August. If he is a penny ante player not prepared to back up his optimism with a pocketful of certified checks, he had better plan to take a more economical holiday next July and August—e.g., hiring a yacht and cruising around the world. During eight sessions covering six days of the two sales just concluded, a total of 512 selected yearlings brought the staggering figure of $14,072,300, for an average price of $27,485. The bidders were looking for stakes winners, not just any old racehorse winners. And when two or more rich bidders get a hankering for the same yearling, that's when the fireworks go off, as they did at Keeneland.
A Norfolk, Va. food-store owner named Wendell P. Rosso had owned a string of cheap platers for a year or so, and as a racegoer he had long admired the champions of the past. His trainer, Bob Durso, got his start in the mid-'50s with some equally cheap castoffs acquired from Owner-trainer Jack Price. Rosso, whose 49 markets were selling a lot of bananas, went to Paris to watch Price and Carry Back in their unsuccessful invasion of Longchamp in 1962. Three years later he went back to root for Tom Rolfe who, after a mile an' a quarter of the Arc de Trion phe, looked like the winner. But as Rosso and thousands of others watched in amazement, a brilliant chestnut named Sea-Bird darted from the pack with electrifying acceleration and ran away from the field. That is when Wendell P. Rosso fell in love with Sea-Bird and promised himself that after he sold enough bananas he would buy some sons and daughters of this marvelous creature.
Last month at Keeneland Mr. Rosso bought four of the Sea-Birds offered. It co-t him $602,000. One of his purchases, Hip No. 226, also brought him immediate worldwide notice. Hip No. 226 was a Sea-Bird filly out of the Hyperion mare Libra. Now, Libra is no. ordinary broodmare. Three years ago a colt of hers was knocked down to Charles W. Engelhard for $35,000. He was named Ribocco and went on to win both the English St. Leger and Irish Derby. The following year Ribocco's full brother (their sire: two-time Arc winner Ribot) went to the sales at Keeneland, and this time Engelhard paid $50,000. He named this one Ribero, and last June Ribero won another Irish Derby, beating the heavily favored English Derby winner Sir Ivor. Thus it surprised nobody at Keeneland last month when Engelhard came back again to buy the half-sister of his two classic winners. What did surprise everybody, including Engelhard—whose game is precious metals, not bananas—was that Mr. Rosso wanted the Libra filly and was determined to buy her. Engelhard went to $400,000 and quit. Rosso got the filly for a world record $405,000.
It is not unusual for a first-year sire like Sea-Bird to bring the highest dollar. Breeders have long realized that the first three years of a sire's productivity is the time to push his yearlings—before anyone knows just how successful he will be. If the get of Citation, a great racehorse, had been offered in quantity during his first year, they would have brought record prices for the time. When Citation did not become a top sire, his offspring brought nothing more than average prices. In Sea-Bird's case, the chance for success is bright. A winner of both the English Derby and Arc de Triomphe, he was brought to the U.S. by John Galbreath to stand at his Darby Dan Farm alongside Ribot. With the aid of mares of the caliber of Libra, this son of Dan Cupid (by Native Dancer) and the Sicambre mare Sicalade is apt to be an instant success. New Yorker Herbert Palestine paid $60,000 for one of the three Sea-Birds sold at Saratoga. E. P. Taylor, whose own Northern Dancer looks as though he'll make it as a sire, paid $55,000 for another, and Anne McDonnell Ford went to a Saratoga-record $210,000 for still another.
In all, the eight Sea-Bird yearlings sold this summer brought $944,000, or an average of $118,000. Wendell P. Rosso may have led the pack of big spenders, but he was in pretty good company, at that.