Although attendees likely didn't know it at the time, the 1985 Keeneland July Sale was the beginning of one era and the end of another. The bullish numbers sellers enjoyed in the early part of the 1980s were over, but they went out with a bang as a bidding war resulted in a record sale price.
Robert Sangster paid a record $13.1 million for a yearling colt by Nijinsky out of My Charmer, purchasing the half-brother to Seattle Slew and Lomond for a partnership that included Coolmore, Stavros Niarchos, and Daniel Schwartz. Consignor Warner Jones had brought the horse to sale along with breeders Will Farish and W.S. Kilroy. Seven-figure horses were common that year (24 horses sold for $1 million or higher, and 33 horses had passed the same mark in 1984), but this one was a world record that still stands for yearlings today.
Sangster, notoriously media-shy, was a cool customer after signing the tremendous sale ticket, claiming his budget for the colt had been as high as $15 million. One outlet quoted Sangster as saying that with the colt's conformation and pedigree, the price wasn't a gamble (although another reported Sangster said it was a gamble).
Either way, it was a giant sum of money. The Blood-Horse's Kent Hollingsworth noted the $13.1 million figure was more than all 2,244 yearlings sold in North America in all of 1962, more than twice John Henry's earnings, and more than three times all the purse money in Ireland.
“I thought anything like that [price] was crazy,” said Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stables. “You can't even come close to justifying it, and there's no way you can explain it.”
Campbell remembers being asked by sales agent Warner Jones to bid up to $9 million or $10 million to coax along the colt's price, but early bidding on the horse escalated so fast, it didn't need his help.
“In those days, sellers were asked to manufacture their own reserves,” said Campbell. “Warner Jones asked me to go to $10 million. I said, 'Warner, suppose I get him.' And he said, 'You won't.'”
If anything about the sale gave Sangster pause, it was his opposition in the pavilion. Sangster and his crew bid from the back ring. While the opposing bids after the $10.1 million mark came from the main pavilion, they were not, as he assumed, from representatives of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.
The rivalry between the Sheikh and Coolmore had risen to a boil at recent sales, with competition between the two most notably costing the Sheikh $10.2 million for the Northern Dancer colt Snaafi Dancer in 1983. (Snaafi Dancer not only failed to make it to the track, he had fertility problems that all but prevented him from having a stud career.) Reports circulated in 1985 that the two entities had reached a truce, and representatives of each could be observed consulting with each other at various points during the July sale, allegedly to divide up their short lists and avoid bidding on the same horses.
Rather, it was trainer D. Wayne Lukas who kept raising Sangster from his seat beside Mel Hatley, Bob French, and Gene Klein. Lukas later said French wanted to keep bidding but Lukas advised against it.
“It's always more difficult when you've gone that far, but you make a judgment call and live with it. But after the hammer falls, there's a little remorse,” Lukas told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “I think if they opened the bidding back up, we'd be right back in in it.
“He has a residual backup of about $10 million, if he went to hell in a handbasket (never runs a race),” Lukas added. “When you spend that much for a horse, after his race career you have to be able to pick up the phone and say this horse goes for $600,000, $700,000 a share and have takers. You've got to have that backup.”
It's hard to say whether Seattle Dancer held up to that standard. He was exported to Ireland, where he joined the barn of trainer Vincent O'Brien. A virus swept through the yard in his 2-year-old season, delaying his arrival at the races. Once he got going, however, he won the Group 3 Gallinule Stakes, the G2 Derby Trial at Leopardstown and finished second in the G1 Grand Prix de Paris. As a stallion, Seattle Dancer became a world traveler, standing at various times at Ashford Stud in Kentucky, Japan, and Germany. By the time of his death in 2007, Seattle Dancer had sired 37 stakes winners, including G1 Kentucky Oaks winner Pike Place Dancer, dual classic winner Que Belle, and G1 winners Seattle Rhyme and Caffe Latte.
A feature published by the Racing Post in 2005 looked back on Seattle Dancer's career and revisited Sangster's feelings about the price he paid.
“I suppose, looking back on it now, it might appear crazy to have paid that much money for a yearling when you had no certainty how it would turn out,” Sangster said. “We will probably never see that figure reached again in our lifetimes.”
Sangster was wrong, of course. The very next year in 2006, a bidding war between Irish agent Demi O'Byrne and Sheikh Mohammed resulted in a $16 million bid for a 2-year-old Forestry colt at the Fasig-Tipton select sale—a new world record. He was named The Green Monkey, and despite his auction price, he never won a race in three starts, earning $10,440.
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