(Hip 274 brings $4.1 million on Day 2 of the Keeneland September Sale / Photo Courtesy of Keeneland)
On Tuesday, Day 2 of this year’s annual Keeneland September Yearling Sale, a bidding bar broke out in the back of the the track’s historic Sales Pavilion that resembled a tennis match made at Wimbledon. Bid after bid sounded like a grunt, groan and volley exchange between Serena and her opponent.
Forehand smash equalled another $100,000 bid.
Backhand return to the corner meant another $100,000 bid.
Overhand rip to the baseline? Yep, another $100,000 bid.
On one side of the Keeneland backstage, er, arena was bloodstock agent Anthony Stroud, representing the interests of the power Godolphin stables and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
On the other side were the representatives of Coolmore / Ashford Stud, the home of such stallions as Triple Crown winners Justify and American Pharoah.
Caught right in the middle was a yearling colt by the grand stallion Curlin and out of the New Zealand champion sprinter and mare Bounding.
As you know by now, Sheikh Mohammed outlasted the Irish contingency, led by John Magnier’s representatives. At the end, it was Stroud signing the winning (to be determined later) ticket. It was Godolphin that had paid the highest price for a yearling since 2010.
But, for awhile on Tuesday, I had a serious flashback.
All the way to the hot, humid, steamy and torrid night of July 20, 1983.
At that time, Keeneland had one of the most amazing Sales of young Thoroughbreds ever invented. It was held in July. Right in the middle of the Summer. Right in the middle of the Horse Capital of the World. Right in the thick of the hottest time of the year.
At that time, I was a sportswriter for “The Lexington Herald-Leader,” and because noted equine writer Mary Jean Wall “refused” to cover the Sales, I got the assignment at the ripe, old age of 27.
My memories to share.
On this night, like most Kentucky July nights, it was steaming.
It was baking.
But unlike most Kentucky July nights, this was “Special.” It was going to be a throw down of epic proportions all wrapped up in glitter and gold.
It was pomp and circumstance. But with a dash of James Bond thriller, and John Wayne muscle.
After the morning and day session, there was a break in the action to allow the bidders to catch their breath and reload their wallets, only to return that evening wearing tuxedos, bow ties, and smiles.
And, on this night, there was to be a showdown at the OK Coral — better known as the Keeneland Sales Pavilion.
At stake was a colt by the great Northern Dancer — who had sired a record 96 Stakes winners at the time and whose sons had flourished on both sides of the great Atlantic. The yearling’s dam was named My Bupers, who was best known as the mother of My Juliet. She had raced from 1974 to 1976, and despite starting her race career at little Fonner Park in Grand Island, NE, she had sprinted to the top of all ranks — winning the Eclipse Award in 1975 as the Champion Sprinter.
The murmurs of this yearling had started before the sale.
The hype had only grown with the thermometer.
The crowd, most of whom had just come to watch the proceedings, filled the Pavilion to the absolute gills. Crammed, packed, squeezed into every square — and round — inch.
When it was time for the colt to make his way towards the sales ring, a group of us writers started negotiating, too. Just for a position. Just for a peek. Just for a view.
Some how, some way, I ended up rubbing elbows with a chap by the name of Richard Warden — a retired Colonel in the British Army, who developed a second career as the Thoroughbred consultant representing Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Defense Minister of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates at the time.
Some how, some way, I ended up rubbing shoulders with the Sheikh — himself.
Yep, I was caught right in-between the two gents.
I was caught right in the middle of the fray.
And, I caught one of the greatest and most epic battles in the history of the Keeneland Sales.
On the other side of the Pavilion was a group led by Robert Sangster and his bidding genius Vincent O’Brien. For the longest time, the group from Ireland dominated the Keeneland Sales. And, when there was a Northern Dancer to be had, they normally had the means to have.
In several notable matchups with Sheikh in the past, it was Sangster and company that walked way with both horse and sales ticket.
Earlier in the 1983 Sale, Sangster outbid the Sheikh on a son of Nijinskyh II at $4.25 million — which, at the time, tied the high water mark for a yearling at public auction.
On the same day, Sangster did it again — outbidding the Sheikh on a son of Northern Dancer at the same price.
But when Hip 308 — the son of Northern Dancer and My Bupers — walked right in-between the bidding combatants and into the ring, you could tell something epic was about to happen. You could sense it.
And, literally, I could smell it. The sweat on both Colonel Warden and the Sheikh dropped on my notepad and my jacket.
Little did anyone know, a third group — led by William S. Farish of Lane’s End Farm and Warner Jones of Churchill Downs fame — would take a swing, too.
The bidding started at $1 million.
It quickly escalated.
The crowd — which could not move — only moaned with each loud squeal of the bid spotters.
The bidding zoomed past the previous record of $4.25 million.
At $6.1 million, Farish and Jones faded.
The bidding was just kicking into overdrive.
At $7 million, Colonel Warden turned to me and said: “This is crazy isn’t it?”
I didn’t know what to say. I just grunted. After all, I was 27.
At $8 million, Colonel Warden turned to look at the Sheikh, who was stoic and as calm as a cucumber and standing on the other side of me. “What do you want to do?”
The Sheikh never acknowledged. He never moved. Not a muscle.
At $9 million, Colonel Warden turned his attention to me again. “What would you do,” he asked. Did I mention I was 27?
At $10 million, the Irish were in control. Sangster and O’Brien had the winning bid.
But not for long. The Colonel bid $10.2 million.
And, it was done.
The sales ticket came over, from a guy wearing a dark navy blue jacket. The Colonel signed it and handed it back, tucking the yellow slip into his catalogue.
The rush was on. Sheikh and entourage were being escorted away. In the wave, I was a surf board.
All the way to the front door of the Pavilion, where a black limo was waiting. For them. Not me.
Got a couple of quotes along the way.
Most of all, I got a lot of memories.
The most enduring, though, was the steel nerve in the Sheikh, throughout the entire wrestling match of dollars. He never made eye contact with the Colonel. He never flinched. He never wavered. He was absolute. And, to be honest, while the rest of us were sweating water buckets, I don’t think the man ever perspired. Not a drop.
Sheikh Mohammed wanted the best.
He was determined to have the best.
Since 1983, a lot of things in life and the Thoroughbred industry have changed. Dramatically.
There is not a July Sale any more.
There aren’t any more sons of Northern Dancer.
And, the pushing and shoving of the crowd now has given way to more mannerly behavior.
But on Tuesday, there was a group from Ireland on one side of the back sales ring. And, there was representatives from Godolphin on the other. And, there was a push and shove to buy the same horse.
And, for a brief period of time, it was 1983.