By all accounts, Robert Sangster lived life to the fullest, with beautiful women and fast horses among the things he savored most. But the international horseman, who revolutionized Thoroughbred racing, breeding, and the bloodstock markets with bold strokes of genius in the 1970s and '80s, had many other qualities that endeared him to people throughout the world.
Sangster, who died April 7 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 67, was remembered by friends and associates at a memorial service at Keeneland April 19 as caring, loyal, and completely accessible to anyone.
"You didn't have to be a wealthy person to be at his table," said John T.L. Jones Jr. of Walmac International. "My father told me that there's 'givers' and 'takers' in the world and that it's better to be a giver. Someone must have emphasized that to Robert. He was always ready to give."
John Gaines, whose Gainesway Farm shared Sangster's international vision for the Thoroughbred industry, said of Sangster: "He walked with kings but had the common touch."
"He was completely approachable," said Terence Collier of Fasig-Tipton.
I can attest to that.
Working as a reporter at my first Keeneland July yearling sale in 1988, I thought I'd try to grab a quick quote or two from Sangster while he was relaxing in the small room known as the "Irish bar." I nervously approached and asked what he thought of the sale so far. Instead of getting run off for asking a stupid question or being given the standard answer of "good horses bring a lot of money," Sangster began talking about how the July sale might soon be a thing of the past. "It's too far to come for so few horses, and it's just too hot and humid this time of year," he said. "I don't think this sale will be around much longer."
It seemed unthinkable back then not to have a Keeneland July sale, but Sangster was a man ahead of his time. The July sale was not conducted in 2003 and is not being held this year, either.
Sangster was not only forward-thinking, he was universal in his approach to the business. "He appreciated the fact we were all one world," said Keeneland president Nick Nicholson. "He changed the way we conducted business, making it more global," said Collier.
"Whether racing in America, Ireland, England, France, or Australia, he was one of the first to see racing as one world and one sport," said Gaines.
Gaines said Sangster was "the entrepreneur sportsman par excellence; grateful in victory, graceful in defeat, but always the innovator and strategic thinker who played to win.
"He had the instincts of a riverboat gambler and the DNA of a Wall Street speculator. He had the foresight and intelligence to organize one of the greatest teams in the history of racing: Vincent O'Brien, Lester Piggott, John Magnier, Tom Cooper, Barry Hills, and the irrepressible Billy McDonald."
"He did everything in style," said Jackie Ramos of Ashleigh Stud, who also said Sangster helped many young people get their start in the business. "There was a flair and style, and I'd like to see that back again."
"When Robert walked into a room, it was as if a light had been turned on," said Arthur Hancock III. "The light has gone out. Our friend is gone."
"He lived life at full throttle," said Collier. "He was a man who drank deeply from the cup of life."
But what a Thoroughbred legacy he has left behind.
"Together with his partners, he changed the face of international racing and breeding," said Dermot Ryan of Coolmore, who spoke on behalf of the Sangster family.
"Opinions die, but the record lives," said Gaines. "The record will show that Robert Edmund Sangster, simply stated, was the most influential horseman of his generation and one of racing's truest and most passionate friends."E-mail Ray Paulick