Bloodstock South Africa's National Yearling Sale: where romance meets the rand
James Thomas takes in the delights of Johannesburg's three-day auction
Wherever you go in the world, the premise of yearling sales is roughly the same. It is where romance meets business, with buyers dreaming of unearthing the next big name and sellers aiming to bring in enough returns to fund the next generation of young thoroughbreds.
But if the premise is the same the world over, that is not to say that each sale has an identical identity, and in the case of Bloodstock South Africa's (BSA) National Yearling Sale in Johannesburg, personality is in rich supply.
On first inspection, the sales ground appears functional enough. The auctioneer's rostrum is perched high above a big screen overlooking the ring, while the auditorium in the sales house is well presented, with a ring of reserved dining tables overlooking the seating area and agent's offices lining the back wall.
Similar comments apply to the stable yard that is comprised of orderly red brick barns, not dissimilar to something you might see on an estate of new-build homes, separated by narrow passageways.
But once the complex was filled with around 500 of South Africa's best-bred yearlings and some of the biggest names from the global racing and breeding industry, this humble sales ground took on an altogether more lively persona.
As seems customary for Southern Hemisphere auctions, the 2018 National Yearling Sale took place under blue skies and in baking heat, a luxury that is far from guaranteed in Europe.
As lot one entered the ring, the major players took their seats at the reserved tables and the bid board began to tick over. It didn't take long for the first seven-figure yearling to grace the ring, with Hartley South Africa going to R1.1 million for a Silvano filly named Royal Fantasy.
The Bloodstock South Africa National Yearling Sale is up and running as lot 16, a filly by Silvano offered by Ascot Stud, fetches R1.1 million pic.twitter.com/98fka5iX70— RP Bloodstock (@rpbloodstock) April 24, 2018
The lot with the '1' sticker on its rear may have signalled the start of the National Yearling Sale, but Royal Fantasy's turn in the ring felt like the moment proceedings began in earnest.
The daughter of Silvano received a somewhat tentative applause as she left the ring, but uncertainty has been the prevailing mood in South Africa of late, with the local industry left rocked by the fall out from the scandal surrounding Markus Jooste, for so long a dominating force in the country.
Would that filly be the last seven-figure price witnessed in Johannesburg this year? Had the sale peaked too soon? No one seemed sure at the time, but any anxiety was soon proved to be unfounded.
A further 19 yearlings fetched one million rand or more over the three days, including a son of Dynasty who set a National Sale record when bringing a winning bid of R5.2m (£299,440/€342,370) from leading buyer, Jehan Malherbe of Form Bloodstock.
"The atmosphere has been fantastic, I certainly didn't anticipate it being this positive," said Malherbe. "It's been strong financially, and obviously that makes it easier for people to enjoy themselves."
Each millionaire seemed to lift spirits that bit higher, and the greater the price the more enthusiastic the reception, particularly from those in the Jet Master Arms, the bar named after one of the nation's most significant horses that overlooks the ring.
The feel-good factor generated by the sale really was something out of the ordinary.
But for all the huge prices, the biggest reception was reserved for a filly who cost just R500,000, with the team behind the superbly named Takingthepeace - namely Murray Makepeace, Mathew de Kock and Michael Shea - letting rip with some raucous celebrations after landing the winning bid.
"We went a bit over budget, but when you like something you've got to go for it. We're pretty excited," Makepeace told the media after the docket had been signed. Those who witnessed all the wooping and fist pumping may have felt that his comments to camera were something of an understatement.
The trio of auctioneers also did their bit to add to the spectacle, with Steve Davis in particularly good form.
"Go one more, that might just give you the psychological advantage," he encouraged with a distinctive Australasian twang. And when that one more was swiftly and inevitably bettered, Davis remained underterred.
"Ok that didn't work, but the next one might just do it!"
The strength of trade was undoubtedly the driving force behind the buzz, but the layout of the BSA sales house is conducive to a vibrant atmosphere, with visitors to the sale ushered directly to the ring, where they inevitably waited to see who would buy the next big lot.
However, the action in the ring was not the only draw at the National Yearling Sale.
The value of bloodstock in South Africa may not be quite as high as in Europe, the US and Australasia, but anywhere in the world would do well to match the level of hospitality on offer in Johannesburg.
Almost every buyer, seller or sales house employee wasted no time in offering all within earshot a drink. Even those covering the sale for a daily racing newspaper were offered everything from a Bloody Mary to a Bourbon and Coke, all of which were politely declined, of course.
Most were decked out in the stud's respective colours, and served up everything from posh coffee to branded baseball caps.
Who served up the best fare was a hotly contested heat, but there had been plenty of talk about the barbeque - or braai, as it is known colloquially - served up by Moutonshoek, and on Wednesday evening Dr Bennie van der Merwe and Chris Gerber's operation proved that the hype was fully justified.
Moreover, the braai and a few fully loaded cooler boxes were not the only strings to Moutonshoek's bow, as when the sun went down and a few cold ones had been cracked open, out came the karaoke machine.
There may be a few sales veterans out there who would argue that a karaoke machine has no place at a yearling auction, but the sight of some prominent names from the training, breeding and veterinary ranks belting out everything from Nirvana's Come As You Are to Frank Sinatra's My Way would surely have convinced even the most world-wearied curmudgeon.
But for all the frivolity, van der Merwe made no secret that the festivities also provide an important platform to conduct business. With seemingly all comers welcome, buyers and sellers alike were able to compare notes and trade ideas, when they weren't required to take charge of the microphone, of course.
It would have been nigh on impossible to keep track of how many beers were drunk and how many chicken wings were served up during the Moutonshoek knees up, but the totals no doubt helped contribute to the 17 yearlings they sold for an aggregate of R4.185m.
By the time trade drew to a close on the third and final session of the National Sale, 387 yearlings had been sold for turnover of R140.345m (£8,137,205/£9,236,325). That's big business by anyone's standards.
And it is, of course, only right that sales should be judged against previous year's results, and by that measure this year's renewal scored undeniably highly.
But those at the National Sale, both buyers and sellers, seem conscious that racing doesn't exist because of the business, it exists because of something altogether less tangible; the enjoyment factor.
It speaks volumes about the passion and skill of those within the South African industry that, despite arriving at a turbulent time in the country, this year's National Sale was thoroughly enjoyed by just about all. And it is for that reason that the sale will live long in the memory.
The hopeless romantics out there will always believe that racing is about dreams, and nowhere are those dreams more alive than at the yearling sales.
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