Blood and bone and major bucks

Racehorses: An average price of $581,932 is a record at the Keeneland yearling sale in Kentucky.

July 25, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The hammer fell ... $3 million ... $2.8 million ... $2.5 million. Twenty times the auctioneer's hammer fell at $1 million or more in the annual high-stakes, high-risk drama known as the Keeneland July Selected Yearling Sale.

During nine intoxicating hours Monday and Tuesday in a swank pavilion here in the heart of horse country, a sheik, a prince and the wealthiest of sportsmen engaged in a spectacle of ego fulfillment, business investment and romantic adventure.

In the process they established a world record for what might be sport's ultimate gamble: trying to pick a future Kentucky Derby winner from horses barely a year old, horses that have never run on a track or even experienced a human on their back.

"It's like trying to find Michael Jordan in the eighth grade," said D. Wayne Lukas, a leading trainer who seldom left the side of his lavishly rich client, computer mogul Satish Sanan.

Such a long-shot proposition seemed merely to energize the buyers who descended upon Lexington during one of its hottest, driest spells this century.

Driven by a roaring economy, particularly in the United States, and gleeful optimism about the future of horse racing, they paid $76.82 million for 132 of this country's finest-bred yearlings (horses born last year).

That's an average of $581,932 per horse.

No auction of yearlings had ever produced an average so high. It surpassed the previous mark of $544,681 set here in 1984 during the heady days of two-fisted spending by Arabs -- namely, the four Maktoum brothers from the royal family of Dubai, a tiny, oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf.

The Maktoums dominated the sale during the 1980s as they built Godolphin Racing Inc. into the most powerful racing stable in the world. In 1989 alone they bought 67 yearlings for $44.12 million, or 44 percent of total sales.

In recent years they've bought fewer yearlings simply because they don't need as many.

Only one brother attended this week's auction, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. He is crown prince of Dubai and defense minister of the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is part.

He is also a respected horseman and the mastermind of Godolphin Racing.

Sheik Mohammed swooped into Blue Grass Airport on the family 747 with its exotic Arabic lettering. In the past the pilot occasionally parked the plane along Versailles Road in full view of everyone turning into Keeneland Race Course on their way to the sales pavilion. If that wasn't intimidating enough, the unrelenting bids were.

Private rooms

Keeneland officials stationed the Maktoums and their large entourage in a private room at the racetrack, which stands adjacent to the sales pavilion. The Maktoums had their own closed-circuit TV for monitoring the auction and their own spotter for relaying bids to the auctioneer.

That hasn't changed. Mohammed, with a smaller entourage of five or six, bid from the same private room. But in the days preceding the sale the bearded sheik, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, strolled through the Keeneland barns examining horses in the same public manner as other buyers.

His bloodstock adviser asked to see a certain horse, and a fresh-faced worker in khaki pants and knit shirt dutifully led the horse out of its stall. The adviser motioned for the worker to walk the horse.

Mohammed watched intently. Then he held his right hand next to one of the horse's nostrils and squeezed under the horse's throat, presumably checking the airway, before slapping the horse twice on the neck and bidding it a temporary adieu. They would meet again in the auction ring.

Mohammed bought 13 yearlings for $9,07. million. They ranged in price from $200,000 to $1.4 million. No one was allowed to approach him to ask about the purchases, about whether they would race in Europe or the United States.

Try and try again

Godolphin has won most of the world's top races and only last year set its sights on the U.S. classics for 3-year-olds: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. It failed miserably this year after preparing the horses in Dubai and shipping them at the last minute to the United States.

The sheik had said that if this method didn't work, he would try another and another until he found one that carried him into the winner's circles at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park. No one was allowed to ask him about that, either.

"He doesn't like to be hassled," an aide told reporters.

The Maktoums' rapid ascent in the racing world -- their petro-dollars clearing the way -- followed the economic maxim that has long governed the so-called sport of kings and its premier auctions.

"One of the general truths throughout the 20th century has been: Whichever country has the most money has accumulated the best thoroughbred bloodstock," said David L. Heckerman, senior editor of Blood-Horse magazine.

Highlight of the summer

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