In the crescent-shaped sales pavilion of the Keeneland Race Course at Lexington, Ky., auctioneer Tom Caldwell fingered his gavel. Into the sales ring below came a stylish-looking yearling colt—a son of the fine stallion Hoist the Flag from the broodmare Royal Dowry. The colt gazed at the hundreds of American and foreign breeders gathered before him, lifting his head and looking quite pleased with himself. His handler leading, he turned in slow circles in the ring, as if modeling his gorgeous seal-brown coat, buffed to a shine for the occasion. He pricked his ears as Caldwell went into his spiel. Right off, the auctioneer asked for $200,000.
"Gimme 200 to start...200...200...200! Now 250...250...250...250! Now 300...300! 350...350! Now 400...400...400...400! Now 450...500...550!...600!...700!"
The gallery was buzzing. Breeder Tom Gentry sat in the audience, clapping his hands, his eyes growing wider as the numbers mounted. He had bred the colt and had expected perhaps $600,000 for him, tops. But the price had gone beyond that in less than a minute and was soaring toward $1 million.
Gentry was wearing a flamboyant plaid sports coat—a street map of royal blues and flaming reds and greens—and he was drawing as much attention as the colt he was selling. Bouncing in his seat, he threw his right fist in the air, for the bidding had developed into a duel, one of many that were making last week's Keeneland yearling sale the richest in history. It is traditionally the market for the most attractive and royally bred yearlings in the world, and it had been setting records almost from the start on July 23, the day before, when two million-dollar yearlings were gaveled down. By the next night the numbers had grown so outrageous that many prospective buyers were shut out. "I can't even get my hand up," New York trainer Joe Cantey complained.
And of all the yearlings offered, none was fought over like the son of Hoist the Flag, the Kentucky Derby favorite in 1971 until he shattered a hind leg in a training accident.
As the price neared $1 million, only two bidding groups remained. One consisted of Kazuo Nakamura and Yorozu Sugawara of Japan. The syndicate of Robert Sangster, the British soccer-pool mogul, was matching the Japanese bid for bid. Urged on by bid-spotter J. L. (Jay) Teater, Sangster's agent, Tom Cooper, had gone to $950,000. Now spotter Vernon Martin was holding up one finger, beseeching Nakamura for more. Nakamura nodded.
"One million!" bellowed Caldwell.
The price board flashed the figure and applause rippled through the pavilion. "Good God almighty!" said Gentry.
Caldwell's chant went on, asking for, and getting, $1,050,000. And so it went, on up to $1.5 million. The Hoist the Flag colt had tied the world record set three years ago when a son of Secretariat, Canadian Bound, brought $1.5 million at Keeneland. (He has never won a race.) Caldwell asked for more. "Anything from here on out, as long as it's a yes, will break the record," he shouted.
Although one member of the Japanese contingent shook his head, Nakamura overruled him with a nod to bring the bidding to an end.