Much water has passed under the bridge since the sale of Seattle Dancer for $13.1 million at the 1985 Keeneland July Sale. Clashes between the Maktoum family and Sangster triumvirate, particularly when it came to the progeny of Northern Dancer, were commonplace at that time, and led to some eye-watering figures. Two years before, Sheikh Mohammed had come away from Keeneland with the $10.2 million Northern Dancer – My Bupers colt, later named Snaafi Dancer and unraced for John Dunlop. Sangster’s team were underbidder that day but the roles were reversed when Seattle Dancer, a Northern Dancer half-brother to Seattle Slew and Lomond, came up for auction, with the BBA coming out on top for a partnership comprising John Magnier, Robert Sangster, Vincent O’Brien, Stavros Niarchos and Danny Schwartz.

The top end of the market isn’t quite as explosive today as it was back then. However, as we saw at Goffs last November when various jewels belonging to the Niarchos family went through the ring, breakout valuations still happen. And in Australia last month, the magic was there for the stars to align as the first foal out of the iconic Australian mare Winx, a filly by Coolmore’s leading sire Pierro, came under the hammer at the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale.

Collectors items like this are rarely sent to auction. Winx, as the winner of 25 Group 1 races including four Cox Plates, is one of the modern greats. The daughter of Street Cry lost her first foal and so the Pierro filly was her first live produce for breeder Woppitt Bloodstock.

Naturally her place as part of Coolmore’s sizeable draft sparked much discussion, something that went into overdrive when American buyer John Stewart, a new and vocal player to the game, announced via X his plans to strike. “I am committed to do whatever it takes to buy this filly unless I get the impression I am being bid up and in that case someone could get stuck with paying a big number,” he wrote.

Stewart was good on his word, bidding up to A$9 million on the filly from his home in Kentucky through Inglis managing director Mark Webster. Yet remarkably that wasn’t enough, with co-breeder Debbie Kepitis firing back a jaw-dropping winning bid of $10 million (£5.174 million). The figure soared past the previous Australian record for a yearling filly of $2.6 million and made her the most expensive yearling filly ever sold. It was also exactly double the previous record for an Australian yearling, when BC3 Thoroughbreds went to $5 million for the ill-fated Redoute’s Choice half-brother to Black Caviar at the 2013 Easter Sale.

The auctioneer entrusted with selling such a collectors item was Jonathan D’Arcy, Inglis General Manager of Bloodstock Operations. Darcy has been in the industry for 40 years and admits that the filly blew all expectations out of the water.

“I haven’t seen a build up like it to an individual horse being sold,” he says. “When you look at Winx and the following that she garnered during her career, she really transcended the sport and drew in a new group of casual observers. That interest seemed to fall onto her daughter as the sale date drew closer and once again, the man and woman in the street who would not normally have any interest in a thoroughbred sale were suddenly talking about the filly around the proverbial water cooler.

“The biggest difference in selling this particular filly was the length of build up. Most years you will see the horses in the weeks leading up to the sale and in the days prior to lots going under the hammer, one or two will look likely to be sale-toppers.

She was on the front page more than Donald Trump!

“In the case of the Winx filly, there was media interest from October last year when it was announced she was to be offered. Once the catalogue was released in January there was mainstream coverage across most of the media outlets in Australia. In the weeks leading up to her sale, there were two full press conferences where major TV networks sent film crews to capture her parading at Coolmore and Riverside [sales grounds] and showed that footage on the evening news. There were interviews with her trainer, jockey, owners and handlers. She was on the front page more than Donald Trump.”

Footage shows a well-proportioned filly with seemingly several similarities to her dam.

“When I first saw the filly at Coolmore Stud three weeks prior to the sale I was very impressed,” says D’Arcy. “Sebastian Hutch, our CEO of Bloodstock, had always been glowing in his reports on her, but it was still great to see that she had grown into a very nice filly, well above average in my opinion. Those people who were close to Winx growing up like Chris Waller and Peter O’Brien pointed to her head, shoulders and girth as being very similar to her famous mum. Where they all agreed this filly was different was her strength behind the saddle as a young horse. She has a great length of hip and plenty of strength through her hocks.”

The scene was set therefore for something special to happen, but with the previous record for a filly sitting at $2.6 million, where did the team at Inglis see her falling?

“I certainly didn’t envisage her making $10 million,” says D’Arcy. “While there were the social media comments from John Stewart, there are always opinions flying around at sales about what money certain horses can make. This was certainly a once in a lifetime offering and my thoughts heading into the sale were that she could make between $3 to $5 million. If we achieved the top end of that range it would be a very successful result.”

He adds: “I do admit that I practiced selling her as I drove home some nights – but she never made more than $5 million as I drove down the M5 in Sydney!”

Not surprisingly, a large crowd made their way to the Riverside auditorium to watch the filly, led up  by the man who foaled her on October 7 2022 in Paddy Sheehan. In the event itself, the action was rapid and predictably made for great theatre.

Audible gasp

“What I didn’t realise was that the majority of the staff working for the various consignors at the sale had also made their way up to the pre-parade ring and the atmosphere was reaching fever pitch,” recalls D’Arcy. “What struck me was the incredible silence that fell over the audience when the filly walked into the ring – you could have heard a pin drop.

“When I called for the opening bid, I hoped someone would start her at $1 million. As it was, we had an opening bid of $2 million followed by $2.5 million and then $3 million. Several people were trying to bid at $3.5 million and $4 million but John Stewart blew them all out of the water with his call of $5 million.

“In most auctions, you would anticipate that such a bid would stand for at least 30 seconds if not proved the winning move. However, Debbie Kepitis was not to be bluffed. She countered with a $6 million bid. Almost straight away John Stewart, acting through Mark Webster, countered with a call of $7.5 million.

“There was an audible gasp from the crowd watching on. But once again Debbie was not stopping to contemplate her next offer – she came straight back with a bid of $8 million. I had prepared a couple of lines to use should the bidding slow but these two buyers were not hanging around.

“John Stewart came straight back at $9 million as he had promised on social media in the lead up to the sale. Almost straight away Debbie responded with what would turn out to be the winning bid of $10 million. It was something like midnight in Lexington, Kentucky, and I saw Mark Webster hang up the phone and signal that his buyer was out of play. I called for any further bids but unsurprisingly there was no further offer. The rest is written in history as the hammer came down on the most expensive yearling filly ever sold in the world.”

Kepitis raced Winx in partnership with Peter and Patty Tighe’s Magic Bloodstock and the late Richard Treweeke.

“I didn’t come here to buy this horse originally,” said an emotional Debbie Kepitis afterwards. “We put her up for auction and then in the past few weeks, all of the family, we started to miss our ‘daughter/granddaughter’ so we just decided as best we could, if we could get her, we would.

“She’s Australian forever and she’s going to be just fabulous. Thank you to everybody around the world who has taken this on board, it’s been thrilling to watch it and we’re lucky enough that we came out winners.’’

As for Stewart, he may have not won the ultimate jewel but he didn’t come away empty-handed. By all accounts, he enjoyed a productive trip to Australia, where according to one of his posts on X, he was treated to a kangaroo excursion, a trip to the Golden Slipper Stakes and a harbour cruise all courtesy of Coolmore. In that same tweet, he added: “Tom Magnier had his brother @mvmagnier “help” me narrow my list of horses down to all the “best” horses who turned out to be the ones he showed me on the farm while convincing me others on my list “were great prospects, but just not right for my programme”. I had no intention of buying horses when I headed down under and two weeks later we bought six and narrowly avoided buying another for $9 million!”

Among Stewart’s buys was Coolmore’s I Am Invincible filly out of Group 1 winner Booker bought for $3 million.

The limelight, however, belongs to the Pierro – Winx filly. She will join trainer Chris Waller, who handled her dam with such success, and hopefully will be able to provide some reward to those who showed such faith in her.

“As with everything Winx did on the racetrack, she again created her own records,” says D’Arcy. “We can only hope that the filly has inherited some of her mother’s incredible will to win and the legacy of the champion Winx can continue for another generation.”