They brought the colt into the ring in the sudden hush of a host of lungs holding back their breath all at once, and the light gleamed on the walking gem, and he did in truth look like a prince who could sire a dynasty. he walking gem in the first stall of Barn One North at the Fasig-Tipton sales complex this week will never sire a dynasty. She's a filly, "hip number 94" in the catalogue and one of 292 offspring by the highly regarded stud Raja Baba.
Nevertheless, she is expected to fetch a princely sum in the ring at this week's 62nd annual Saratoga yearling sales of thoroughbred racehorses. Her breeding is impeccable, her conformation is classic and her owners, Susan and Wayne Chatfield-Taylor of Front Royal, Va., are anxious with just two days before their turn at auction.
"She has expressive ears, doesn't she," asks Susan, 33, standing off to the side as a potential buyer studies the bay filly that has consumed the couple's attention over the last three years.
"That's right, three years," says Wayne, a 35-year-old architect. "It's the year before with your mare and you're trying to get a suitable stallion. Then a year with the mare in foal and another year with a live foal to develop for the yearling sale."
The Chatfield-Taylors live on a 370-acre farm bordering the Shenandoah River. They have 14 brood mares. "We'd just like to eventually have a self-sustaining horse business," says Wayne. They are partners on this particular horse with a Kentucky veterinarian, Dr. Thomas Johnson, who is an old friend of the family's. This is their first fling at the Saratoga sale, one of the most prestigious in the business.
There are 260 horses listed in the catalogue, each one handpicked by a member of the Fasig-Tipton selection committee with an eye to the same sort of breeding and background necessary for a child to matriculate at Miss Porter's.
"We looked at 2,850 between our two sales this year and at Keeneland in Kentucky and we accepted 750," said John M. S. Finney, president of Fasig-Tipton, founded by his father, Humphrey. "Sure people get upset if they don't get in. You can say anything about his brother, his wife or his kid. But don't say anything bad about his yearling."
The sale started Tuesday night and will continue through tonight. There is big money at stake here. Last year, the average yearling sold for $160,000. This year, Finney estimates it will be in the $200,000 range. In 1972, the average was $29,000.
Two years ago, Conquistador Cielo was sold for $150,000. Since then, he has won the Belmont Stakes, is heavily favored to win Saratoga's glamor race, the Travers, in two weeks, and this week was syndicated for a record $36.4 million.
Everyone here is talking about The Conquistador. Sellers with a horse in the sale even vaguely related to him are using his name in their trade advertising and promotions. On Tuesday night, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai paid $375,000 for a colt named Sam M., by Mr. Prospector, the same sire as Conquistador Cielo's.
That was a bargain compared with what it would have cost the sheik two weeks ago at the Keeneland sale, when he was the underbidder on a record-breaking $4.25 million colt that went to Robert Sangster, the British soccer pool magnate.
Once these sales were the province of old-line eastern-establishment money -- the Vanderbilts, Whitneys and Wideners. Now, Sangster and the Arabs are dominating the bidding for the most desired yearlings. "If Sangster and an Arab like your horse, you name your own ticket," says Tommy Lee Jones of Warrenton, Va., who helps show horses to prospective buyers.
"The Arabs," says Finney, "jumped in with both feet in the late '70s. With them, peer-group respect is gained by not showing restraint. Ostentation is the order of the day. They like to spend money."
The hype began Sunday night with an invitation-only cocktail party thrown by Fasig-Tipton in the walking ring behind the sales pavilion. The green-and-white-striped canopy, a staple at any Saratoga social event during the racing season, only covered the outside portion of the party area in the showing ring. A steady drizzle forced the 400 guests to huddle under the canvas, and more than one soggy silk dress headed for valet parking when the party ended.
Out in the barn area all around the pavilion, there was little time to party for the small army of grooms, handlers and caretakers assigned to watch over the precious walking gems in their stalls. Some handlers in fact spend their nights sleeping in bunk beds above the barns, with 5 a.m. wakeup calls from horses hungering for their morning oats.
All week during the sale, activity around the barns is focused on showing the yearlings to potential buyers. Each seller or agent has an assigned barn area. They color-coordinate the clothing of all their personnel and stall cards announcing the pedigree of the yearling. Even the stable accouterments, right down to the pitchforks and pots for the geraniums hanging overhead, use the same colors.
At the Pegasus Stud area, a foreman approaches with a printed card listing the horses being sold by this Lexington, Ky., firm. The looker checks off the number of the horse he wants to see. Instantly, the horse is brushed and his hooves painted with special oils. He is then led into a quiet area under a group of trees. A waiter in a white coat is in the wings serving drinks.
At the L. Clay Camp barns close by, six young girls stand in front of the stalls offering refreshments. They are all wearing various bright pastel Lilly Pulitzer dresses and multicolored Pappagallo shoes.
Yet, there is no hard sell here. The agents, who get 5 percent of the purchase price, are available for consultation, but this is no used-car lot. Buyers can run their hands over the horses' legs, then watch the horses walk away and back, led by handlers earning $100 to $150 a day. The only way to predict a yearling's running ability is to study the pedigree and the conformation.
There is a lot of talk at these sales of "black type"--the boldface section in the catalogue that describes the heritage of each yearling. Black type translates into stakes winners, which in turn translates into more pounds, riyals or dollars in the sales ring, depending on the racetrack success of the yearling's sire and dam.
Most of the buyers or their representatives come around the sales area in the morning, before the Saratoga races begin at 1:30 across the street. Diana and Bert Firestone of Waterford, Va., owners of 1980 Kentucky Derby winner Genuine Risk, come by often, he wearing a sports shirt and khaki pants, she in blue ballooning knickers and matching running shoes. Trainers John Veitch and Leroy Jolley are frequent visitors. So is former Orioles owner Jerry Hoffberger. Even Frank Perdue has stopped to squawk and gawk.
Sangster and several members of his permanent entourage mingle among the onlookers, each with a blue pen hung on a string around his neck. Sangster wears a yellow-and-white-striped polo shirt, sans the ever-present Polo logo.
Sangster looks at the horses only briefly, leaving technical assessments to his lieutenants. He concerns himself mostly with the black type of bloodlines, and after endless meetings on the day preceding the sales, he and his men decide which horses they will go after. On the night of the auction, they go to their assigned places in the pavilion, often branching out to bid in order to confuse the competition.
On auction night, Finney, who also serves as the sale announcer, sits high above the sales ring next to an auctioneer. They look out at a circular two-level 800-seat amphitheater filled to standing-room-only capacity, with admission on the inside limited to privileged pass holders.
Outside in the paddock area, the proceedings are shown on closed-circuit television, and buyers can take one last look at the horses on parade just before they enter the sales ring.
Inside, spotters in black tie scan the crowd for the subtle twitch of a finger or the raising of an eyebrow signaling a bid. The horse is led around a tight roped-off circle under the podium by a white-coated handler.
The crowd is rather animated even while the bidding goes on. Years ago, it was black tie and evening gowns, but today, kelly green pants and navy blazers for the men and linen skirts, silk blouses and gold jewelry for the women suffice. Sangster is dressed in a dark business suit. Jimmy the Greek is in shirt sleeves. Faces in the crowd include sports entrepreneur Sonny Werblin; Washington's Samuel Lehrman, of the Giant Food family; former ambassador to Switzerland True Davis; artist Jamie Wyeth; trainers John Campo and Henry Clark; and Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of the New York Racing Association.
The whole selling process takes only a few minutes per yearling. "Three years' work and it's all over in three minutes," says Wayne Chatfield-Taylor. "It's like a horse race itself, a very high-stakes horse race."
On Wednesday night, it took only a minute and 45 seconds to sell hip number 94, the bay filly by Raja Baba. It began a few minutes before 10 p.m. The Chatfield-Taylors sat in the very last row next to their agent, tuxedoed Tyson Gilpin of Boyce, Va., as their yearling was led into the ring.
The bidding opened at $30,000. And then the numbers began rolling up. "$40,000 . . . yep . . . 45 . . . yep . . . 50 . . . 60 . . . 70 . . . 75 . . . 80 . . . 90 . . . 100."
At that moment there was a slight pause and then it began again. "105 . . . yep . . . 110 . . . yep . . . 115 . . . 120 . . . 125 . . . 135 . . . 150 . . . 160 . . . 175 . . . 185 . . . 200."
Now Susan was bouncing giddily in her seat. A few seconds later it was over. A final bid of $240,000, a singular knock of the hammer--"sold"--handshakes, hugs and kisses all around and a quick dash to the cashier's office outside in the paddock area to learn the identity of the new owners.
"My heart is still thumping," Susan said 10 minutes later, moments after learning their filly would soon fly off to England to be a part of the Aston Upthorpe stable owned by Sheik Maktoum of Dubai.
"We're very pleased; she brought a fair price," Wayne said. "She went to a very good place. We know she'll be well taken care of."
It's the only way to treat a walking gem.