The five most expensive auction horses of 2017
Martin Stevens runs the rule over the priciest purchases of the last 12 months
Godolphin selecting untried young stock by Coolmore stallions at auction for the first time in more than a decade under the guidance of a rejuvenated buying team; Coolmore's pursuit of top-class mares, especially sprinters and milers, to match with their phenomenal sire Galileo; new, deep-pocketed purchasers playing in the premier league; and an exceptional array of fillies and mares coming on the market: all were among the circumstances that conspired to push prices for elite thoroughbreds through the roof in 2017.
The biggest sum splashed out at the sales this year, the $9.5 million paid for brilliant US filly Songbird, was the fourth largest for a broodmare or breeding prospect behind Better Than Honour ($14m in 2008), Playful Act ($10.5m in 2007) and Havre De Grace ($10m in 2012).
When Songbird was sold by Fox Hill Farm to Mandy Pope's Whisper Hill Farm for that price – just one or two bids shy of that rare thing, an eight-figure sum on the bid board – at Fasig-Tipton in November, she became the most expensive horse sold under the hammer since Havre De Grace, offered by the same owner, was knocked down to the same buyer at the same venue five years earlier.
In Europe, meanwhile, the upper tiers of trade were awash with money. Every fixture staged by Tattersalls this year posted record turnover, with a scarcely believable £107m spent on yearlings during Book 1 of the October Yearling Sale. Bidding duels between Coolmore and Godolphin resulted in a new top price for a thoroughbred at auction in Europe, when the Irish operation outlasted Sheikh Mohammed's squad in an epic battle for dual Group 1-winning sprinter Marsha at 6,000,000gns, and also a second-best sum for a yearling in Europe, when the royal blue corner triumphed for the Galileo filly out of Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf heroine Dank at 4,000,000gns.
All the high drama distracted a little from ongoing issues in the bloodstock marketplace, with many vendors further down the food chain struggling. Clearance rates increased in many cases from some depressing returns in 2016, but that was attributable to trimmed catalogue sizes and those statistics still did not improve enough to keep pace with larger crop sizes of recent seasons anyway.
Nevertheless, the following five horses were the main players in some thrilling pieces of theatre.
Pedigree 4yo dkb/br f Medaglia D'Oro-Ivanavinalot (West Acre)
Sale Fasig-Tipton November
Consignor Taylor Made Sales Agency, agent for Fox Hill Farm
Purchaser Whisper Hill Farm
American breeder Mandy Pope's family business Variety Wholesalers may own a chain of discount retail stores for those on a shoestring, but she has been shopping for designer-label broodmares at the most exclusive auctions.
She has now spent upwards of $50m at the Kentucky breeding-stock sales over the last five years alone, forking out eye-watering sums of $10m for Horse of the Year Havre De Grace; $5.2m and $3.9m for the well-bred Galileo mares Betterbetterbetter and Aloof; $4.2m for Kentucky Oaks heroine Plum Pretty; $3.8m for Unrivaled Belle, a Breeders' Cup winner and the dam of Tuesday's Grade 1 La Brea Stakes scorer Unique Bella; and $3.1m for the superlative sprinter Groupie Doll.
Pope now has another jewel for her treasury of top-class mares in Songbird. The four-year-old landed nine top-level races, all by at least a length and many by huge margins, and was beaten just a nose by Beholder in the Breeders' Cup Distaff of 2016.
Unlike Havre De Grace, who beat Flat Out to take the Woodward Stakes, Songbird was never asked to take on colts, which perhaps meant her price did not quite match that given for her new colleague in Pope's Whisper Hill Farm broodmare band.
On the other hand, it did Songbird's value no harm that her appointment with the auctioneer at Fasig-Tipton came two days after the brilliance of her sire Medaglia D'Oro was showcased at the Breeders' Cup with two big winners – Bar Of Gold in the Filly & Mare Sprint and Talismanic in the Turf – and a third placing courtesy of Bolt D'Oro, already a dual Grade 1 winner, in the Juvenile.
Pedigree 4yo b f Acclamation-Marlinka (Marju)
Sale Tattersalls December
Consignor Elite Racing Club from Heath House Stables
Buyer MV Magnier
Ever since Frankel – whose dam Kind was a Listed winner over five and six furlongs – proved himself to be such an exceptional talent, it has been the in-thing for breeders to attempt to emulate that mating by sending their own sprinters to the unbeaten world champion's sire Galileo.
The approach appears to have paid off, with 2017 Group 1 winners Churchill, Happily, Hydrangea and Winter all being by Galileo out of speedy mares, although the likes of Capri (out of extended 12 furlong winner Dialafara) and Ulysses (whose dam is Oaks heroine Light Shift) showed that this extraordinary sire seems to click with mares from all walks of life.
Either way, the present orthodoxy appears to be that Galileo plus sprinter equals top-class runner, not least with his owners at Coolmore who have been buying up many fast fillies and mares to match with him in recent years, such as Margot Did, Mecca's Angel and Tiggy Wiggy. So when one of the best sprint fillies of all came on the market at Tattersalls in December – the Elite Racing Club's homebred Marsha, winner of the Prix de l'Abbaye in 2016 and conqueror of Lady Aurelia in this year's Nunthorpe – Coolmore were not going to be denied and went into uncharted territory to get her.
“She's going to Galileo” was the first thing Coolmore's MV Magnier told reporters after signing the docket for her at the record price of 6,000,000gns. It would be no surprise if Quiet Reflection and Different League, other talented sprinters for whom Magnier jointly signed for at the same sale for 2,100,000gns and 1,500,000gns, are covered by Galileo at the end of their racing careers as well.
As with Songbird, pedigree played its part in Marsha's premium price-tag. She is by Acclamation, who enjoyed a banner year, from the immediate family of Elite Racing Club's magnificent racemare Soviet Song.
Pedigree 6yo b m Bernstein-Life Happened (Stravinsky)
Sale Fasig-Tipton November
Consignor Elite, agent for Robert Masterson
Buyer MV Magnier
Another top-class talent on the track bought by Coolmore and likely to be covered by Galileo next year. She may not conform to the sprinter theory, as a mile was her metier, but it is not difficult to see what attracted 'the lads' to this American mare and made them stretch to $8m to buy her.
Tepin's key selling point was her outstanding ability, as she started to hit her peak at four when she notched victories against other females in two Grade 1s – the Just A Game Stakes and First Lady Stakes – before taking on the best milers in the world of either sex at the Breeders' Cup and winning by more than two lengths with the likes of Mondialiste, Make Believe and Esoterique left trailing in her wake.
If we in Britain and Ireland thought Tepin had benefited from home advantage in that race we were soon put right after she came to Royal Ascot for the Queen Anne Stakes the following June and convincingly beat Lockinge Stakes winner Belardo into second, without the application of Lasix or her usual nasal strips.
Again, her pedigree no doubt helped convince Coolmore to dig so deep. She is by the operation's former Railway Stakes winner Bernstein, a son of Storm Cat, and is a half-sister to Grade 2 winner Vyjack out of a mare by Stravinsky, another one-time top-notcher for Coolmore.
Tepin was sold in foal to Curlin, so we might perhaps be treated to a rare runner by the dual horse of the year in Europe in the care of Aidan O'Brien in the coming years.
Pedigree 5yo ch m Curlin-Evening Star (Malibu Moon)
Sale Keeneland November
Consignor Lane's End, agent
Buyer MV Magnier
Stellar Wind was yet another big-money auction acquisition by Magnier for Coolmore this year, topping the Keeneland November Breeding-Stock Sale at $6m, but this dirt diva is bound for a first date with Triple Crown laureate American Pharoah, who stands at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Kentucky, rather than Galileo.
The daughter of Curlin recorded six Grade 1 victories, treating racing fans to some particularly memorable tussles with Beholder, beating that great mare to take the Clement L Hirsch Stakes and Zenyatta Stakes but finding that rival too good when second in the Vanity Mile.
Coolmore sending Stellar Wind to American Pharoah is an important vote of confidence in their young sire, whose first foals went through the ring this year. Those debut offerings appeared to find favour with buyers, achieving an average price of $445,500 – the best for any first-crop foal sire in North America since Bernardini posted a figure around $10,000 higher in 2008, according to the Bloodhorse.
American Pharoah's yearlings come under the hammer in 2018 and it will be intriguing to see how the market reacts, and whether Coolmore extend their support to putting a handful of the dirt supremo's runners with Aidan O'Brien to advertise him to a European audience.
Pedigree yearling b f Galileo-Dank (Dansili)
Sale Tattersalls October Book 1
Consignor Norris Bloodstock
Not the most expensive horse sold this year, but the one that sent the most shockwaves around the bloodstock industry. Godolphin and Coolmore went head to head in a battle the like of which we had not seen for years, with Sheikh Mohammed's team, led by John Gosden, triumphing for a yearling by Galileo in a historic shift in policy, having avoided buying into the world's greatest sire at source in an apparent self-imposed boycott.
Rumours that the new Godolphin buying bench taking the place of former chief executive John Ferguson, comprising David Loder and Anthony Stroud, would make a bold statement by purchasing a pricey Galileo yearling started to circulate at Arqana in August, and although it did not transpire in Deauville, it did several weeks later at the Goffs Orby sale, when a Galileo filly out of Group 2 winner L'Amour De Ma Vie was bought for €1.2m.
That proved to be an appetiser for an extravagant main course, as Godolphin landed the Galileo filly who is the first foal out of Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf heroine Dank for 4,000,000gns at Tattersalls. In all, Godolphin bought five yearlings by the perennial champion sire as well as progeny of other Coolmore sires.
Looking ahead . . .
So we enter 2018 with a resetting of the relationship between the two superpowers of the breeding industry, with Godolphin set to send mares to Galileo and the possibility of Coolmore reciprocating by patronising Sheikh Mohammed's stallions.
The new dynamic promises to enliven the action on the track in the next 12 months and further in the future.