September. It’s the month I used to anticipate with mixed feelings – the start of a period when I would become happily reacquainted with friends whom I hadn’t seen for months, but also the onset of a spell when I would be a stranger to my own home. It launched me on a journey lasting upwards of three months that would always prove fascinating, but would ultimately leave me utterly exhausted, welcoming, relishing its end.
I refer to the bloodstock sales season, on which I first embarked 50 autumns ago and which occupied a quarter of my every year until I finally threw in the towel at the end of 1997. Initially in the service of the Press Association, then for The Sporting Life, and latterly for the Racing Post, I endured – sometimes enjoyed – travelling back and forth to report on auctions at Doncaster (three times), and Newmarket (four times), with a couple of visits to Ireland and monthly one-dayers at Ascot in between. Moving to Newmarket in 1987, so that part of the ordeal could be faced on home territory, was probably the reason why I kept going so long.
Of course, there were sales to be covered earlier in the year as well, and I attended plenty of them, most memorably Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton in July, and Saratoga once, but before September those occasions tended to be spaced well apart and fatigue never seemed to be a factor. I even did stints at auctions in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand that made no special demands on my stamina.
Sales are not like race meetings, which can be exciting and are all over in three hours; they last all (expletive deleted) day
Why did I spend such a large chunk of my life watching well-heeled folk shopping for luxury goods? It started because I ignored the advice of well-meaning colleagues shortly after my arrival in Fleet Street as an incredibly naive teenager who had somehow conceived and developed a passion for the thoroughbred after buying a cheap racing annual from a station bookstall. Those senior chaps gave me the benefit of their acquired wisdom: “Whatever you do, never volunteer to cover a bloodstock sale. Sales are not like race meetings, which can be exciting and are all over in three hours; they last all (expletive deleted) day, they’re dull and incredibly boring, and you discover that all horses look alike anyway.”
The first sale I attended did not come about because I had volunteered for it; I was sent, and it was before I’d been in the job a month. It was a minor event at Doncaster, as it happened, and I didn’t find it boring. It was something new to me, and rather interesting. And although I made a glaring error in my report on the proceedings, duly emphasised in the headline over the piece in The Sporting Life the following day, I wasn’t averse to the idea of having another go. But it was over two years before I answered the call for a volunteer, and the boss evidently assumed that I was volunteering for a lifetime. I got every sales assignment after that.
I could understand why some people would find such occasions dull and boring, but I had cultivated an interest in pedigrees at school, and that was obviously a factor in determining the value particularly of young stock. I would have my own ideas about valuations, and so what if I was generally wrong? The buyers were frequently wrong themselves, and I soon got used to seeing experienced horsemen make expensive mistakes. ‘Nothing can make a fool of a man like a horse’ ran the oldest adage in the business, and its truth was evident all the time.
The best advice I never took
I don’t think there was ever a time when I regretted ignoring the advice of my senior colleagues, who had been so cynical about coverage of bloodstock sales. Instead, I wondered why they had never mentioned what I soon found to be a marvellous positive, particularly at sales of yearlings. As a cub reporter, eager to learn from his elders and betters, I learned that things happened too quickly on the racecourse. That was all about swift interviews, getting on the phone and transmitting one’s story. Nobody had time for extended conversations.
Sales were different. Just as I was trapped for long sessions, so were the horsemen whose knowledge, expertise and experience I needed to tap into. They had time on their hands, as I had, and I had the chance to learn from them. I was meeting them regularly during the sales season, passing the time of day with them, and once I became accepted as a permanent fixture on the scene, acquaintanceships developed into friendships which would, in many cases, last decades, even lifetimes.
I got to know folks who had 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ more experience of the industry than I had, and I found that, if I succeeded in showing I wasn’t a complete idiot, they would give me their time and benefit of the wisdom they had accumulated. While some senior trainers and agents proved harder to get to know than others, they were the ones who often became my most valued contacts and special friends. And it was all down to my presence in our common environment, the bloodstock sales scene.
Which auctions stirred me most? I suppose it was generally those for yearlings, as they tended to involve the people I had come to know best, and they related most closely to racing, the shop window for thoroughbred production, the reason for it all. But the December breeding stock sales were special, too, affording me opportunities to meet horsemen from a host of foreign nations who flocked to Newmarket for that one week in the year. And, of course, it was in December that I witnessed the single most memorable of the tens of thousands of transactions I saw – the one in which Vaguely Noble changed hands for the fabulous sum of 136,000gns in 1967. His price was exceeded countless times afterwards, but the occasion was never matched.
When I began my stint the record price for a yearling in these islands was 28,000gns, set by Sayajirao in 1945
Inevitably, many of those who contributed to my education are now long dead, and I’ve progressed from neophyte to veteran all too quickly, still conscious that for all I learned, it could never be enough. I dare say I’m currently forgetting it at a rapid rate of knots.
Of my 52 years in the business, 33 were spent with sales reporting as a significant part of my workload, and I quit – coincidentally on the day that Sheikh Mohammed sold the Racing Post for £1 – rather reluctantly, fearing a further bout of back surgery, which indeed duly did come to pass. When I began my stint the record price for a yearling in these islands was 28,000gns, set by Sayajirao in 1945; I witnessed umpteen advances over the years, until seven-figure transactions became regular occurrences, not even earning the status of a nine-days’ wonder.
It is now nearly 18 years since I covered a bloodstock sale, and I can’t say that I miss what was for so long almost my raison d’être. There are so few of my contemporaries still active in the business that I feel out of place when I make a rare appearance at what used to serve as my second home, though I’m delighted to learn that many grandsons and granddaughters of old friends are maintaining the family connection.
I have been the happy recipient of much good advice from senior figures in both journalism and the horse industry in the course of my career, but I have no doubt that one of the smartest decisions I ever made was to ignore the well-meant counsel of my PA colleagues all those years ago. Bloodstock sales served as the university education I never had.