If September of 2000 felt a lot like July of 1984, Sheikh Mohammed was largely responsible for the déjà vu.
Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai has been a major market influence since his first purchase at a North American yearling sale 20 years ago. Competing for the world's finest bloodstock, first with Robert Sangster and Stavros Niarchos and more recently with John Magnier and Satish Sanan, he is unflinching in his resolve to get what he wants. His bidding battles of the early 1980s sent the bloodstock market soaring. Making his first appearance at Keeneland in July 1980, the sheikh bought eight yearlings for $2.4 million, and average prices jumped 25%. The next year Sheikh Mohammed spent $6.5 million for eight yearlings, and the average gained nearly 30%. In 1982, his Aston Upthorpe Stud was leading buyer in July, with 19 purchases for $12.7 million. Keeneland's July average increased 33%. The next year, Sheikh Mohammed reached deep down into the oil reserves of Dubai that made his family's fortune, spending an unprecedented $10.2 million for a Northern Dancer colt, later named Snaafi Dancer, a gigantic failure who never raced. That year, Sheikh Mohammed spent $28.7 million for 21 Keeneland July yearlings as the sale's leading buyer. The average price, meanwhile, reached $526,179, an increase of 53% from the previous year. In 1984, now buying in the name of Darley Stud Management, Sheikh Mohammed upped the ante to $41.5 million for 29 yearlings, but the sale average increased by only 14%. The following year, Sheikh Mohammed's investment fell sharply, to $13.6 million for 16 yearlings. That bump some consignors felt in 1984 were their heads hitting the ceiling. July prices in 1985 fell 10%, but that was only the beginning. They dropped 23.3% in 1986, despite Sheikh Mohammed spending $20.4 million for 29 head; 9% in 1987, with 20 bought for $18.7 million; and 1% in 1988 with Darley spending $14.5 million for 23 yearlings. Prices inched upward in 1989, with Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers the dominant players, accounting for nearly 40% of the sale's gross receipts. Darley led the way with 32 purchases for $20.6 million. The 1990s began on a down note, with the July sale falling by 12% to its lowest level in nine years. Sheikh Mohammed's spending dipped to $7.9 million for 14 yearlings. He increased his outlays in 1991, to $18 million for 35 yearlings, but the sale's average price was down another 9%. The average plunged 19% in 1992, and the bottom of the market was in sight. Sheikh Mohammed was leading buyer, but he "only" spent $7.3 million on 21 yearlings. Darley, with 13 purchases for $4.4 million, was leading buyer again in 1993, but average prices in July were down 9%. They fell another 1% in 1994, when spending from the entire Maktoum family was just $3 million, its lowest participation level since 1980. As the July sale stabilized in 1995 and '96, Sheikh Mohammed was not a major participant. Not until his Godolphin operation was up and running at full speed did Sheikh Mohammed up his auction spending, as he did in each of the past two years at the Keeneland July sale, paying nearly $10 million each in 1999 and 2000 through bloodstock agent John Ferguson. That top-level participation didn't hurt the average, which climbed more than 20% in 1999 and 7% this past July. The Sheikh Mohammed of old made an appearance at the Keeneland September sale's select sessions, which featured the kind of fireworks not seen in a Thoroughbred auction ring in more than a decade. He didn't get every top yearling offered, but he got 31 of them and spent $27.7 million to do it. As underbidder on the $6.8-million Storm Cat--Hum Along colt and several others, he forced other buying groups to dig deeper into their pockets, too.