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Industry figures recall when they cut their teeth as bid spotters

Bunking off university and practical jokes - all is revealed

Bid spotting is a rite of passage for many leading industry figures
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First published in February 2014

Johnny McKeever, bloodstock agent

I was a student at Trinity College, Dublin when Jonathan Irwin asked if I’d like to bid spot American style for the inaugural Cartier Millions Sale.

I was rather nervous but thought that through my family background (my father Peter was managing director of the Curragh Bloodstock Agency) I’d know everyone and I knew people waved catalogues if they were interested.

I was placed by the bidders’ enclosure and the first yearling into the ring seemed to attract bids from everywhere except my area. I was wondering what I was missing. I didn’t recognise a single face in the crowd. The auctioneer David Nagle kept saying: “Find me a man Johnny”.

I slowly noticed a tall fellow who seemed to keep winking at me. Friendly or weird? Hesitantly I asked him: “Can I help you sir?”

“I’m bidding, you bloody fool,” he shouted so loud everyone looked round. It was none other than legendary French trainer Francois Boutin. I blurted out the biggest “Yo” I could muster.

I never forgot him or the strange way some people communicate their bids. I’ve loved the drama of the sales ring ever since.

Ed Harper, Whitsbury Manor Stud

By the time of the foal sales in 2002 I had been bid spotting at Tattersalls throughout all the preceding sales season.

I therefore thought I had a decent handle on who the main players in the industry were and from where they preferred to bid. But when the star foal of the week came up for sale everyone was caught by surprise.

The chestnut filly by Giant’s Causeway out of Urban Sea had filled the ring to standing room only and the bidding quickly raced to 1,700,000gns, with two of the usual protagonists battling it out.

The ring fell silent expecting the hammer to fall, but when an unfamiliar face in the middle of the seats in front of me gave a polite wave with his hand I immediately stuck my arm in the air as obviously as possible.

After attracting everyone’s attention it occurred to me nobody really ever bid from the seats for the top lots and he could just have been gesturing to a friend. Thankfully, after a couple of very long and painful seconds, the auctioneer had taken his bid and the filly was sold at the world record price of 1.8 million gns.

The bidder turned out to be bloodstock consultant Michael Youngs, acting on behalf of Live Oak Stud.

Olly Stevens, assistant trainer

I was working at Tattersalls in 1998 and had the privilege of spotting when Coolmore and Darley were going up against each other, on what seemed like every other lot.

I was positioned under the bidding when the sale-topper, a 3,000,000gns son of Nureyev, sold to Darley. It was such an exhilarating buzz to be in the ring when the big-priced lots went through, but you also felt under pressure not to miss any of the bidders.

The funny thing is I should have been studying at university at the time, doing a degree in law, but that was the last thing on my mind. I just kept finding excuses to go to work at Tattersalls.

Bid spotting there also gave me the opportunity to meet a number of great people who have become good friends and who have gone on to be successful.

Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland

I remember the first Goffs sale I worked at, way back in the early 1980s, when I teamed up with John O’Kelly, who’s now an auctioneer at Tattersalls.

We were in the same section as Juddmonte Farms, and it was very exciting watching Mr Abdullah bid on a horse – and very successful he was that day too!

I did a season at Goffs, then worked at Coolmore for the following breeding season, and I went back to the States in 1982 and I’ve been here ever since.

But what really got me into wanting to be involved in the auction business was back when Sir Philip Payne-Gallwey bought a sister to Shirley Heights at Goffs. His final bid was a very demonstrative head nod, which I thought was absolutely fantastic – just the theatre he had of knowing that it was firstly, very expensive, and secondly, very final, made me think this is something I can do.

Nick Nugent, Goffs

As I have recounted before, my first sale at Goffs was the 1987 Cartier Million when I happily called a bid in the hundreds of thousands only to realise the bidder, a client of Paul Kelleway's, was busy fanning away the cigar smoke from the seat in front.

A few sales later, at a less international event, I witnessed the most amazing sale ring sight ever, an elderly gentleman removing his shoe and sock and then attempting to bite off his toenail!

In the late 1980s buyers were, by some way, the second biggest overseas market after British-based buyers. In the pre-euro days there were several occasions when they misread the zeros on the Italian lira on the bid board and bid 50,000 when they only had 5,000.

One leading Newmarket trainer had a reputation for telling the balcony spotter to keep bidding on the lot but was, on no account, to stop or turn around until the trainer told him to do so.

We all dreaded that request for fear he would be halfway to Dublin before we realised.

Andrew Elliott, Brightwells

Back in the early 1990s a young David Redvers – now racing manager to Qatar Racing – and I were employed by Terry Court to assist him in building Brightwells’ fledgling bloodstock sales held at Malvern. On sale day our role meant spending many hours in the ring acting as bid spotters – with very few comfort breaks.

Though David and I were good pals, it didn’t stop either of us from trying to pull the rug from underneath each other if we ever saw an opportunity.

To this day I remain very proud of the occasion at the Malvern May Sale in 1994 when I had continually primed an unwitting Redvers with laxative chewing gum leading up to our long day in service.

The rest I’ll leave to your imagination, but I can confirm that David showed how particularly fleet of foot he can be, and that he was forever thankful the conveniences were not too far from the sale ring.


I witnessed the most amazing sale ring sight ever, an elderly gentleman removing his shoe and sock and then attempting to bite off his toenail
E.W. Terms
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