How much money does it cost to buy a good racehorse? Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and the world's leading thoroughbred owner, seemed to be testing the limits of that question, opting for quantity as well as quality, on Monday at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in Lexington, Kentucky.
The sheikh spent spent nearly $14.5m (£8m) on 19 young animals with 13 days of the sale to go.
The two-week September sale is the world's largest public auction of thoroughbred yearlings defined as unraced, unbroken horses who will all have their second birthday next January 1, as decreed by the Jockey Club, the sport's ruling body. While completely untested in racing ability, the September horses, particularly those sold on the first four “select” days, represent a genetic gold mine, much of which has been forming in the fertile Bluegrass country of central Kentucky over the last century.
Buyers and their agents from around the world flock to Keeneland, site of a prestigious racecourse as well as the auction grounds which have hosted yearling sales since 1944 every September. This year they will peruse 4,891 horses whose pedigrees are contained in seven separate catalogues, hoping to find the telltale sparkle that might someday bring them the thrill of victory, perhaps with wealth and fame to follow.
The mood is jovial but underneath the business is deadly serious. Following a down-home barbecue complete with country and western band that played a rousing rendition of “God Bless the USA” the night before the auction, vendors and buyers began trading racehorses. Smiles became tighter and the hum, like an approaching swarm of bees, grew louder as the first of the 219 horses to go through the ring on Monday were paraded outside.
Buyers crowded around the “update boards” inside the pavilion television screens carrying the latest information on family accomplishments for the yearlings, some of whose illustrious relatives won races at the weekend. Consignors rushed around with coloured stickers bearing similar information to be pasted on to the relevant catalogue page, for a win in the family can translate into a rise in the yearling's value. Sheikh Mohammed has seen all this many times before. So has his arch-rival in the sales ring John Magnier, whose Coolmore racing and breeding empire is probably the only one in the world that can offer Sheikh Mohammed's team a run for its money.
The titans first clashed in the mid-1980s, when their boundless appetite for the most fashionable bloodlines led to huge prices at Keeneland. The record price for a yearling, $13.1m, was set in 1985 by Magnier's organisation. The bubble then burst in the late 1980s and many breeders literally lost the farm.
But plus ça change, as they say. Keeneland still needs a good dose of Maktoum and Magnier to fuel its market, which astonishingly seems to be heating up again after setting some new records last year.
Sheikh Mohammed contributed nearly $21m to the pot last year, and he looks well on his way to beating that figure this time. His biggest purchase on Monday was a $3.1m colt by the Kentucky sire AP Indy, whose stud fee is $300,000. Not a bad return on their investment for the breeders, Stonerside Stable.
The colt's dam, incidentally, was offered at a Keeneland yearling sale in 1998, where she failed to meet her reserve and was bought back for $1.45m. A risky gamble, but it paid off in spades on Monday.
Rachel Pagones is bloodstock editor of Racing Post