Keeneland Sales Legends: Stavros Niarchos

by | 09.14.2013 | 9:50am
Stavros Niarchos

There are certain names that are oft-revered at the Keeneland sales as legendary buyers and horsemen: Engelhard, Sangster, Niarchos, etc. But how many of us know much about them?

Today, we continue a series recalling the lives of four men whose influence in the Thoroughbred world still resonates today.

Starvros Niarchos, known to many as the “Golden Greek,” definitely had the Midas touch when it came to business and bloodstock.

Born in Greece in 1909 and a graduate of the University of Athens law school, Niarchos started his career working for his family's grain business. In 1939, it occurred to him that shipping might be a more lucrative endeavor, and he set up the Niarchos Group shipping company. Although many of his first ships were taken over by the Allied Forces and sunk during the second World War, Niarchos used the insurance money to rebuild his fleet, building the world's first supertankers, which were capable of carrying large amounts of oil. The 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal increased the demand and by 1992, Niarchos was worth an estimated $5 billion.

Like many wealthy men of his day, Niarchos delved into the Thoroughbred world in the 1950s, picking up his first stakes winner in 1956 when Pipe of Peace won the Middle Park Stakes and became a leading 2-year-old in England. For reasons that are unclear, Niarchos walked away from the business in the 1950s but returned in the 1970s with a splash.

Upon his return, Niarchos began making purchases with the help of Sir Philip Payne-Gallwey. Payne-Gallwey, part of the British baronetage, lucked into the job as Niarchos' agent. He was working for the British Bloodstock Association when Niarchos requested the help of his colleague, Robin Hastings, to purchase yearlings. Hastings was ill at the time, so Payne-Gallwey took the job and the rest, as they say, was history.

In 1978, Niarchos paid $1.3 million at the Keeneland July yearling sale for the son of Northern Dancer and Forli mare Special and named him for the Russian ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev. At the time, the price was the second-highest ever paid for a yearling.

The equine Nureyev shipped to France, where he won his debut in the Prix Thomas Bryon and came back at age three for a win in the Prix Djebel. He was considered a strong contender for the 2,000 Guineas and crossed the line first but was disqualified for interference. Nureyev came up with a virus and never ran again. He initially retired to Niarchos' 740-acre Haras de Fresnay-le-Buffard farm in Normandy before being syndicated for $14 million and transferring to Walmac-Warnerton Farm in Lexington, Ky.

The dividends didn't stop there. In addition to producing Theatrical, Stravinsky, and Unusual Heat, Nureyev sired Miesque, who twice won the champion turf female title in the U.S. Trained by Francois Boutin, Miesque was also the winner of seven championships in France and the United Kingdom and won the Breeders' Cup Mile in both 1987 and 1988. (She was also a great return on investment—Payne-Gallwey selected her dam, Pasadoble, for purchase as a yearling from the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky sale for a bargain $45,000.) Upon her retirement, she produced Kingmambo, winner of Group 1s in France and Britain, and who continues to be an influential name on the racetrack and in the auction ring today.

Niarchos was the leading owner in France in 1983 and 1984 and topped the breeders' list in 1989, 1993, and 1994.

Despite Niarchos' spending habits, Payne-Gallwey said the budget was never limitless.

“One does not have a limitless pot of gold to bid with,” he once said. “The old man is very careful. We don't just go on bidding regardless.”

However calculated or extravagant his spending, Niarchos raced (either under his name or under Flaxman Holdings Ltd) such notable runners as Group/Grade 1 winners L'Emigrant, Seattle Song, Six Perfections, Northern Trick, Shanghai, Law Society, and Exit to Nowhere.

Niarchos' personal life was not as consistent as his horses were—the press made much of the fact that he was married five times to five different socialites, including a brief union with Charlotte Ford, great-granddaughter of the founder of Ford Motor Company. Niarchos had five children (three sons and two daughters).

A few years before his death in 1996, Niarchos' horses totaled over 100 and were worth “several hundred million dollars” according to a feature about him in a 1992 issue of Vanity Fair. As his health declined, daughter Maria Niarchos-Gouaze took over the bloodstock empire, and in 1997, the Cartier/Daily Telegraph presented an award of merit to the family. Ten years later, winners of 121 Group/Grade 1 races had been owned or bred by the family.

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