Bids race ahead in horse auction in English town

November 06, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of the Sun

Newmarket, England -- The sleek bay colt prances around the Tattersalls sales ring like a ballet dancer in a solo choreographed to the rhythm of money changing hands.

Bidding for this haughty, handsome, well-bred yearling racehorse -- still known only as Lot No. 11 -- starts at 20,000 guineas.

At the 268-year-old Tattersalls bloodstock auction, horses are sold by the guinea, an old-fashioned gold coin once worth 21 shillings. On this day, 20,000 guineas equal $33,180.

Tradition -- and modern marketing -- prevails at Tattersalls auction sales and throughout Newmarket, a town devoted to racehorses, their breeding, training, racing and, right now, their sale.

Newmarket has been horse country since the early 17th century, when James I of Scotland stopped here on a trip south and found the chalk-based soil produced turf ideal for horse racing.

In Newmarket, that remains the inherited truth. Thoroughbreds in Britain still race mainly on turf -- that is, on grass tracks. Newmarket Heath, England's premier training ground, about 2,800 acres of grassland around the town, has remained unplowed and essentially unaltered for at least 330 years.

"It's said we run the biggest lawn in the world," says Peter Amos, general manager of Jockey Club Estates Ltd. Jockey Club members, now numbering 112, have owned the training grounds for 200 years.

"During the height of the growing season," Mr. Amos says, "eight men on tractors do nothing else for 16 hours a day but cut grass."

Charles II, James' grandson and King of England after the Restoration in 1660, brought his court here during the racing season, virtually ruled from the royal enclosure and established Newmarket as the center of British racing.

The royal family has trained horses hereabout on and off ever since. About 70 trainers work 2,000 to 3,000 horses at Newmarket. The town is surrounded by more than 30 stud farms. Thirty-six veterinarians practice here. The Jockey Club is so powerful Mr. Amos even approves building permits.

Two of the English classic races, the 2,000 and the 1,000 Guineas, have been run at Newmarket since the early 1800s.

Eclipse, the regal progenitor of virtually all thoroughbreds, survives as a skeleton in the Museum of Horse Racing. Somewhere in No. 11's DNA no doubt lurks a hint of Eclipse.

At Tattersalls, bidding for the yearling rises rapidly in 5,000-guinea advances, instantly translated into four different currencies on a light board: lira, marks, francs and dollars, but not yet yen, even though Japanese are becoming more and more important as bloodstock buyers. sheiks, indispensable to British racing, spend dollars or pounds.

As the bidding for No. 11 passes 100,000 guineas, a muted excitement flows through the sales ring, the focus of a spacious pavilion decorated in patrician tones of gray-green accented with blond wood.

Throughout Newmarket, from breeding farms to training gallops to the two race courses, all is as immaculately groomed and tailored as a City of London stockbroker lunching at the hallowed and rigorously exclusive Jockey Club Rooms.

Flowers abound. Grass is clipped. Stables are clean and freshly painted, masonry pointed and tidy, tack in order, hedges clipped, manure invisible.

Yearlings in the walking rings and paddocks at Tattersalls glisten with the pampered haute- couture sheen of fashion models on a Paris runway.

The auctioneer reigns like a Roman tribune from a dais above the walking circle. He registers bids with the cultured tones of an Oxford poet reciting verse in an equestrian meter.

No. 11 snorts and whinnies and neighs. His lineage is as good as most of the bidders', probably better. His sire is Sadler's Wells, the French champion 3-year-old miler in 1984 and Europe's champion sire for the past three years. His stud fee is $150,000, give or take a few pence.

Sadler's Wells' daddy was the late Northern Dancer, that grand old gent who "stood," as they say in racing, at Windfields Farm in Chesapeake City, in northeastern Maryland.

The youngster's dam is Passamaquoddy, a mare who won seven races in the United States, including two good ones at Keystone in Pennsylvania.

He sells finally for 120,000 guineas, or $199,080, the first of the big prices at this two-day sale. Thirty-eight of the 280 yearlings sold fetch more than 100,000 guineas, including another Sadler's Wells colt who sells for $846,600. The average is 60,893 guineas, or $101,021.

All together, horsemen bought, and breeders and Tattersalls earned, $28,303,168. Not like the great days of the 1980s when one colt brought more than $3.6 million, but enough to provide a lot of smiles, steaks and pudding around Newmarket.

Horse racing in Britain started the 1990s in a slump, with the bloodstock industry, the breeding and selling of horses, leading the way down.

"In 1992," says Jimmy George, Tattersalls marketing manager, "the market hit the deck. It really collapsed with a thud."

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