The Big Battles

It takes two to tango. And nowhere is that more true than at an auction.

Admittedly, that is nothing new, but some incontrovertible proof of its truth was entered into evidence Sept. 11 and 12 in the Keeneland sale pavilion. Actually, behind the sale ring, where Sheikh Mohammed and John Magnier, the two most powerful men in the Thoroughbred industry, went toe-to-toe -- maybe bid-to-bid would be more appropriate -- for what they perceived to be the best of the select yearlings sold at the biggest sale of its kind in the world.

Many famous bidding wars have taken place at Keeneland, but never has the competition been as fierce as that between the ruler of Dubai, and the master of Ireland-based Coolmore Stud.

That the two men should fancy the same few horses is no surprise, nor is it a shock they would bid with such conviction. This year, Sheikh Mohammed and his agent, John Ferguson, seemed particularly determined, and in fact won every major battle between themselves and Magnier and his usual front man, Demi O'Byrne.

When a seller sends any horse into the auction ring, his hope is two major buyers are interested. Everyone who has ever sold a horse has had the more likely scenario occur, where there are two bidders, but those two are the seller and the auction stand. But when your horse is led into the ring and you see Ferguson and O'Byrne, it is hard not to have the feeling something special might happen.

It happened several times during the two select sessions of the 14-day sale, each time the feeling more electric than the time before. These are two determined buyers. And, let's face it: these battles are not about the value of the horses. They are about winning the battle.

But the battles can be costly.

In 1981, Robert Sangster got tired of fighting the battles so he worked out a deal with Stavros Niarchos to together purchase and race the horses they both liked. Both men are deceased now, but the legacy of Sangster, formerly co-owner of Coolmore, continues through Magnier.

In 1984, Sangster and Sheikh Mohammed also made a deal to not bid against each other for the yearlings they desired. There was considerable concern among breeders prior to the 1986 Keeneland July sale, where bidding had reached dizzying levels in the previous few years. What if besides not bidding against each other the men cut way back on their spending? After all, they had purchased so many yearlings they had large racing stables, enormous broodmare bands, and fully-stocked farms of their own.

Well, that thinking proved to be folly because no top breeder can ever have enough.

Because of their accord, the top of the market suffered in 1986, though it didn't stop the men from spending plenty on yearlings. Sheikh Mohammed was the leading buyer at the auction, followed by his brothers, Sheikh Maktoum and Sheikh Hamdan. Collectively they spent $40 million (38.4% of the $104,174,000 gross).

"Thank God for the Maktoums," Keeneland's Ted Bassett said at the time.

Thank God indeed.

Though the gross dropped sharply as the market (sales and stud fees) went through a correction, the Maktoums and Coolmore remained constant players in the market.

Now, the two rivals are spending freely as they battle for supremacy in the Thoroughbred world. And despite apparently not buying young horses by each other's stallions, they are finding plenty of yearlings over which to battle.

Of the hundreds of yearlings in the select sessions, only a handful led to these protracted battles to spend such gaudy amounts as $11.7 million. But those few hips help everyone, showing enthusiasm and confidence in both the industry and the product. Why, if they spend that much, maybe my $100,000 yearling becomes worth $120,000, or $150,000.

In racing, the best horse doesn't always win. At an auction, we only know who wins the battle to buy the horse, not who will have the best runner. But, should one of the entrants in this match race scratch, leaving a walkover, the marketplace would change dramatically overnight.

With the parties involved, it is hard to see that happening.

Breeders, quoting Bassett, are all saying, "Thank God."