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As the yearling sale opened last week in the crowded pavilion at Keeneland Race Course, here was Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate whose wealth is reputed to be almost as great as that of his late brother-in-law, Aristotle Onassis. And over there was an eight-man Arab contingent, led by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai. And lurking just outside the arena was Robert Sangster, the British soccer pool baron who had been the big spender at Keeneland for the past several years.
The breeders of the bluegrass had embraced the wealthy foreigners with smiles on their faces and uncertainty in their hearts. Even as the Kentucky folks wined and dined their visitors, even as they shoved drinks in hands and slapped backs, the breeders were looking for clues that would tell them what bloodlines intrigued the buyers most.
John Sosby, a lifelong Kentuckian, is the manager of one of the biggest blue-grass operations—Claiborne Farm. His boss, Seth Hancock, is a son of the late A.B. (Bull) Hancock, the man given credit for building the Kentucky breeding industry into the giant it has become. But even for a farm of Claiborne's stature, a yearling sale is a test of wisdom, patience, skill and luck.
"You hope you got the horse they're looking for," said Sosby. "It's a game where right now Seth is wondering what they're going to be looking for two years from now. You come here; you prepare; you try to do everything right. Maybe you got two or three years tied up in the finished product, from the time you plan the mating till the time you get a colt or filly in the ring. Then, in a matter of two minutes, it's all over."
The unpredictability of the American dollar, along with the success of American-bred horses in Europe, has turned U.S. thoroughbred auctions into a bonanza for the breeders. The Keeneland Selected Yearling Sale, to give it its formal name, is the biggest and best of them all; it might be regarded as America's answer to OPEC and the almighty yen. At Keeneland, the foreigners pay dearly for their hopes and dreams.
Even before the sale began, it was obvious that the bidding would be prodigious. The Arab contingent arrived in Lexington in a private Boeing 727 that was parked directly across the road from the main gate to Keeneland. It was a way of announcing the Arabs' presence, of throwing down the gauntlet to Sangster and Niarchos. When Sangster retaliated by bringing in a Goodyear blimp and parking it so that it obscured the Arabs' jet, everyone knew that the world-record price for a yearling—$1.7 million—was in jeopardy. That's what Niarchos paid last year for Lichine, a son of Lyphard.
Considering that no thoroughbred has ever earned more than $2.8 million on the racetrack—indeed, that there is no guarantee a horse will even get to the races—it would seem foolish to invest so much in one yearling. Americans such as trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owner Bert Firestone have preferred to take a more conservative approach than, say, Niarchos and Sangster, by spreading their money among several well-bred yearlings instead of going after the million-dollar babies. Yet the Americans also understand the philosophy that motivates the foreigners to take the big plunge.
"It works like this," said Lukas. "The pedigrees of these horses are such that, if they do hit, they've got a big syndication possibility and they're off and running again. It's kind of like the difference between playing blackjack or craps at Vegas. You can play blackjack for $50 or $60 a hand all night, or you can throw it all down on one roll at the craps table. You come over here and pay all that money, and one horse in every eight or 10, like Alleged [sold for $34,000 in 1975] wins the Arc de Triomphe. You syndicate him for $20 million or so and now you're rolling."
While all the breeders expected to see the world's first $2 million yearling at Keeneland, given the international high rollers in attendance, there was disagreement over which would appeal most. Since the foreigners have come to dominate the buying, the Kentucky breeders have been trying to develop bloodlines to suit their tastes. One of the first breeders to foresee the future was Gainesway Farm's John Gaines, whose family became wealthy in the dog-food business. Back in the late '60s, he syndicated the colt Vaguely Noble. In 1968 Vaguely Noble won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Jackpot.
"We felt that a great deal of strength in the bloodstock market would come from overseas," Gaines says. "The dynamics of the marketplace would become international and not parochial in nature. We felt this was going to happen, and it did. In 1978, 26 Vaguely Nobles averaged $250,000. The international marketplace made this work. But no one could tell me when I started out that this market would be what it is."