Keeneland sales director Geoffrey Russell said the action during the select sessions of the September yearling sale was "like theater, the best theater anybody's seen in a long time."
He was right. It was theater, and it was very high drama. Much like the Keeneland July sale of 1984.
During the first night session 21 years ago--the sale consisted of two afternoon and two evening sessions--the second hip through the ring brought $2 million, the next $1.1 million, and then the real fireworks began.
The fifth horse offered, the first of a dozen by Northern Dancer to be paraded in the sale ring, was hammered down for $8,250,000.
Robert Sangster, who bought the colt through BBA (England), probably said the same things heard at Keeneland Sept. 12-13: athletic, good pedigree, good mover. He was, after all, a half-brother to champions Devil's Bag and Glorious Song.
The late Sangster was the first to try and corner the Northern Dancer market, something the big buyers of today, namely the Maktoum brothers and the Coolmore Stud team, are still trying to do through his sons, grandsons, and now, great-grandsons.
Ten hips later, Col. Dick Warden bought a Seattle Slew colt for Sheikh Mohammed's Darley operation for $6.5 million. Just a few minutes later, a world record was set for a yearling filly, when John Leat, bidding for Sheikh Mohammed, outbid D. Wayne Lukas at $3,750,000 for a Slew filly. The filly's breeder, Carla Matthews, provided one of the most memorable scenes of the sale when she later ran up and kissed the sheikh on the cheek.
By the time the night was over, other Northern Dancer colts had brought $5.4 million and $5.1 million, a Northern Dancer filly reached $2 million, a Mr. Prospector colt sold for $3 million, and a Lyphard filly fetched $1.6 million.
If Carla Matthews provided a true sale moment, consignor Bruce Hundley did as well the following afternoon--running to the auction stand when a Northern Dancer colt he was selling for Ralph Wilson reached $4.5 million. Keeneland had failed to announce the colt was a cribber, possible grounds for returning a horse after its sale. The bidding began again, and the colt, out of French group winner Fabuleux Jane, was purchased by Darley for $7.1 million.
The 12 Northern Dancer yearlings averaged $3,446,667. Northern Dancer was 23 when those yearlings were sold. Six months later, a no-guarantee season to Northern Dancer was sold for $1 million, the ultimate height of lunacy in this business.
This year, Storm Cat is 22 years old and buyers were after his offspring much like they were that of his grandfather, Northern Dancer, in the 1980s. The 22 Storm Cat yearlings sold Sept. 12-13 averaged $2,028,409, led by the third-highest-priced yearling ever sold, a $9.7-million colt purchased by Sheikh Mohammed. Two other sires averaged seven figures, Mr. Greeley, who was aided by one big horse, and A.P. Indy, the leading son of Slew at stud.
In the remodeled pavilion unveiled at Keeneland this month, a tiny watering hole has been named the Northern Dancer Bar. Robert Sangster would have loved that. It is where he and others celebrated their fantastic purchases over the years. It is a testament to his thirst for Northern Dancer blood that still exists today with others.
Some things have changed in 21 years. At the night sessions then, the men wore suits and the bid spotters tuxedos. Today there are no night sessions, no July sale, the bid spotters wear jackets and ties, and the leading buyer in the world wears jeans and a white T-shirt.
Some things have not changed. The buyers at the very top of the market are still willing to pay dearly for the very best prospects. With their bidding, they bring electricity and drama to the arena. Sheikh Mohammed and John Magnier bidding themselves for a $9.7-million colt excites everyone in the game, even those in book seven who need to get $30,000 for a yearling in order to stay in the business for another breeding season.
There will always be a top, middle, and bottom to the market. The drama is at the top, but that drama is necessary to help the middle and the bottom, where the majority of breeders make their living.
The lights don't dim on the theater until the last horse leaves the ring.