After his $3.3 million colt Shareef Dancer won the Irish Derby this year, Sheik Maktoum al Maktoum was interviewed on television and asked about his philosophy of buying horses.
He said that it was simple: he wanted to buy only the best.
The interviewer knew it was not so simple; selecting yearlings who will develop into champion race-horses is complex and risky business. How do you know what the best is?
"The most expensive is the best," the sheik explained.
When John Finney heard Sheik Maktoum's sentiment, he could only say, "God bless him!"
Finney is the president of the Fasig-Tipton Company, which conducts the Saratoga Yearling Sales, and those sales--like the whole thoroughbred industry--have been irrevocably altered by the Arabs' participation.
At the spectacular Keeneland Yearling Sale last month, Arabs bought more than $50 million worth of horseflesh. The Maktoum brothers of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, accounted for most of the purchases, including the record-shattering $10.2 million colt. Their participation is expected to make this week's sale the biggest in Saratoga history, driving the price for the average yearling beyond $200,000.
It is not the Arabs' sheer wealth that has convulsed the yearling market. Many fabulously wealthy men have played this game before them, from Paul Mellon and Charles (the Platinum King) Engelhard in the 1960s to Stavros Niarchos and Robert Sangster in the modern era. But these men brought to the auction ring the same prudence and business judgment that helped make them wealthy in other areas. None of them wanted to pay more for a commodity than they thought it was worth; none of them wanted to look rash or foolish in front of his peers.
These concerns don't faze the Arabs; they are more worried about losing face by losing a bidding duel. When they decide they want something, the price doesn't matter. Before the Maktoums bid against Sangster for the $10.2 million yearling, one of their advisors told a member of the Sangster group matter-of-factly, "There's no use in your bidding, actually. We're going to get the colt."
This is the way they operate regularly. At the Fasig-Tipton sale in Kentucky last month, James Delahooke, who runs the racing operation of Khaled Abdullah, told the Saudi prince that he especially loved a colt by the stallion Forli. Buy him, the prince said.
As the auction progressed, the prince was sitting in the lounge of the sales pavilion with some Arab sheiks when a yearling was passed through the auction ring and was sold for $1.75 million--a Fasig-Tipton record. The prince asked a member of his entourage if he knew who had bought the horse.
"You did, your highness," the aide said. The prince was pleased.
In view of their willingness to spend money, it should be no surprise that everyone in the horse business rolls out the red carpet for the Arabs. Here in Saratoga Springs there is an elegant old house that a prominent racing family donated to a Catholic order that uses it as a retreat for its seminarians. This week, however, the Fasig-Tipton Co. is renting the house for the use of Prince Abdullah and his entourage, and for days the company has had people cleaning and scrubbing to make sure the place is perfect for his arrival.
"I don't even do this for my own family," Finney grumbled to his wife.
Mrs. Finney understood. "Your family doesn't buy $2 million yearlings," she said. In the yearling business, money talks, and the Arabs' money talks loudest of all.