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Every now and again, a horse sale hits national headlines and the non-racing public have good reason to drop their jaws. Nobody in their right mind would buy an under-grown equine for several million, but people don’t buy horses at Tattersalls, they buy dreams. ‘Tatts’, as it’s known, is older than carbonated water, the United States, and tin cans. At least, selling racehorses at Tattersalls in Hyde Park Corner is that old. We’ve got to wait for lightbulbs and typewriters before ‘Europe’s Leading Bloodstock Auctioneers’ move to Newmarket, where the story takes place today.
At first light, the colts are glossy and electric, snorting their eager “Good mornings” to the fillies. The fillies take no notice. Their big eyes take in the dawn and then blink at you to ask why they’re not at home. I’m leading up a chestnut filly at the yearling sales, a quiet character with good breeding that would sell nicely if she had a bit more race in her. It’s my job to walk her up and down in front of trainers and bloodstock agents, and get her legs organised when she stands still: the nearside (left) foreleg slightly in front of the offside one, and the nearside hind leg slightly behind. The viewer needs to see all four legs at once. Sometimes the filly nibbles my hand when I stand her up for a buyer, her right ear trained on me whilst her left swivels around to the man feeling her knees, forelegs, pasterns. She bows her neck to sniff him, soft billows of breath swirling around his cold ears.
“Thank you,” he says to me as he stands up.
That’s my cue to take her back to her stable.
What magic moves in the buyer’s touch, their eye? The renowned trainer Henry Cecil said he liked a racehorse to walk like a woman, swinging its hips, whilst others look for an animal that moves like a panther. A ‘good head’, a ‘genuine’ eye, big ears, even, and a spark that speaks determination: all clues to who this horse will be and how it will run. Because, it has never run. It hasn’t even lost its baby teeth. The horse’s confirmation and character are still in development; all it has is blood.
History and hope run in the blood of a yearling. It’s all in the hallowed pages of The Catalogue: navy blue, with the wafer thin pages of pocket Bibles. They’re in the stout hands of every buyer and the slender hands of every assistant, held close to the chest to guard the scribbles of genius and hubris. The next Frankel could be hiding in the folds of those silky pages, but so too could the next Snaafi Dancer, the first yearling ever to fetch more than $10 million, who was ‘so slow in training that it would have been embarrassing to run him in public.’
For those of us working the sales, choosing your ‘pick’ is a bit of fun. People gather around a catalogue in the tack room and check out what the horse next door looks like on paper.
“Huh, his sister won a Group race!”
“Mm. Shame he’s got such short legs.”
“You know what though – go back a page – there you are. I reckon that one’s got a heart in him.”
“Which one’s that? The black one?” The catalogue doesn’t have pictures in it.
“That’s your man. I know he’s not got much in the way of black type but when you look at the chest on him. What d’ya reckon?”
It was a while before I got my eye and my ear trained to this new set of codes. Only high-level races are highlighted in bold in the catalogue, aka black type. Yearlings don’t have names yet, so they’re known by their sires as they go through the sales; ‘the Zoffany filly’ and so on. It makes no sense, given that a stallion will have hundreds of offspring every year and a mare will only have one. The consignor I was working for had at least two horses by Zoffany and another two by Galileo Gold. But, for the same reason, sires’ names are better known and hence better advertising. The iconic Northern Dancer, for example, sired 635 foals, and of the 80 percent that started in races, 80 percent were winners. How many people remember the name of every dam?
The lads working the sales play The Sire Game between shows: Tony reads out the sire of every horse for sale, and Dave recounts that sire’s sire from memory – for as many generations as he can. In two catalogues and more than 1,000 lots, Dave only got three sires wrong. I asked him if he’d studied it, like a party trick.
“Nah,” he shrugged, “I just watch a lot of racing.”
The stable staff are the one constant in this fast-paced world. Veterans of Newmarket are quick to point how many lads cycle through yard after yard – gifted with their hands and heels but not so much with reliability – but I’m struck by the lads’ loyalty to the sport. Weathered or fresh faced, the response to “How long have you worked in racing?” is always the same: “Too long.” Sometimes the younger lads kick the dirt when they answer, with the face of someone who’s about to spit, but the older men and women chuckle and look away, shaking their heads, and, after a moment, repeating, “Too long.”
I worked with a white-haired Irishman called Beetle who, at 5 foot 3-and-a-half, had all the heart of a racehorse, none of the speed, and magnitudes more wisdom. His big brown eyes twinkle in his slack, square face, and he’s the only lad at the sales allowed to play music out loud while we muck out the stables at 5:30 am. He plays techno.
Usually us ‘leaders-up’ showing horses are paid no more attention than a coat hanger showing coats. Not Beetle. He’d pull his horse out, and it was always, “Hi Beetle how you doing? What do you think of this one?” The buyer would actually take their eyes off the horse to look into Beetle’s well-known face, and they’d listen to his answer. He blinks and glances between the horse and the other stables while he talks. The easy tone of crisp Irish accent give his words a pleasant off-handedness; some humility in front of the dear, fickle game of finding champions. I made a note of Beetle’s ‘picks’ in the four sales we’ve worked together (including Horses in Training, and a yearling sale in Doncaster). It’ll be two years before they’ve a chance at the Derby.
I bet Beetle was who you imagined to work at the sales. Me too. But there’s all sorts; the common question amongst the lads is “What do you do when you’re not working the sales?” Plenty work in yards or at studs, but there’s also John, a lanky Norwich man who works in insurance, and Lily, who, at 22, already has a maths MA and has spent a year in cyber-security, sweeping buildings for ‘bugs’. Ciara works in racing to pay the bills while she studies to be a marine biologist. She was reading in the tack room on a slow day, and her face lit up when I asked about the diagram in her book: the family tree of the swordfish. This is the same girl whose colt decided to do a horny bronc impression whilst ‘parading’ around the sacred sales ring. She came back sweating, “so overrugged”, as she put it, that she had to strip down to her underwear in the tack room to cool off. Tattersalls epitomizes the sublime and the ridiculous, every moment of every day.
Inside the sales ring, the ceiling is high, airy and glittering with little spotlights, an enormous chandelier hangs above a perfect oval of golden straw, and a legion of straight-backed men in pin-striped suits wait quite silently, ready to dispose of the poo. Naturally the horses must match such grandeur, so their hooves are oiled, their coats are lacquered, and their stockings are shampooed (an activity quite alarming to non-horse folk). Even their nostrils are polished, and, for colts, filled with Vix Vaporub so they can’t smell the tantalising fillies. When they enter the ring, the lights and the thrill sparkle in their young eyes and they pass over some spectral threshold. They become racehorses: watched, admired, and gambled upon for the very first time.
The auctioneer leans forward with both hands on the lectern. Before he speaks, the only sound, the only motion, is the gentle clattering rhythm of the horse’s shoes. It’s stiller than ever in the ‘distanced’ hall, but the air is tight with anticipation. The auctioneer begins pouring out the horses’ breeding, loud and nasal, the numbers roll off his tongue, a hand flickers somewhere in the stands, somebody nods, the auctioneer never stops to breathe, another bid, they quicken now; the figures stack up and the hammer comes down. Sold.
The sales have held up remarkably well during covid, with the dire UK prize money more to blame for dwindling ownership than the pandemic. Several records were broken at the October yearling sales; outstanding horses were sold for more money than ever before, and a record number of horses passed the 300,000 mark during Book 2 (the second-rate yearling sale, after Book 1). Anecdotally, I’ve been told by a few trainers that the changes are most felt at the bottom end of the scale. When a racehorse can’t win back it’s training fees, it can at least pay for itself in fun. Except during a pandemic. So, it’s the smaller owners who are downsizing, no longer able to justify owning a horse that they can’t even cheer on while it loses their money. Alongside the death of the high-street and the rise of screen-dependence, covid has proven a catalyst for yet another wretched process. But, thankfully for the industry, some people see buying horses like buying stocks, an investment. Die-hard owners would hate to miss their annual shot at finding the bargain wonder-horse. By the time these horses debut on the racetrack, all this should be over. Or so we hope.
The filly I took through the ring went to a trainer in Spain, which felt happily circular in a way; she’d be near my home. It’s an absurd attachment, a one-way summer romance that lasted only three days, but, to me, that’s the best way to get into horse racing. You have to put your heart in a horse, maybe you met it once, maybe you know it’s trainer, maybe you simply recognise its name or its colours from another race, it doesn’t matter. To enjoy racing you have to care who wins, and for me, working at the sales meant finding another handful of horses to cheer on, even if I have to wait a year to do so.
[All the names of people in this piece have been changed]
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