Two years in business, two October Sales – and the top lot at both
Chris McGrath meets a man getting huge results from an eye on little things
Liam and Jenny Norris have been consigning under their own banner for just two years. To have produced one Tattersalls October sale-topper in that time may be regarded as fortunate; to have both, however, looks decidedly on the witting side. In fact, the only concern now might be how they are supposed to come back next year and meet the standards they have set themselves.
In 2016, they raised 2.6 million guineas for the Dubawi colt – bred by Philippa Cooper's Normandie Stud – since named Glorious Journey and successful in both starts. This time round, they left even that price far behind as a Galileo filly, the first foal of James Wigan's Breeders' Cup winner Dank, became the second most expensive yearling filly ever sold at auction at four million guineas.
On Saturday Liam Norris was back on the mundane, sole-thinning beat round the barns, prospecting Book 2 yearlings in the agency he shares with William Huntingdon. But he took a quick break to reflect on Thursday's giddy sale.
"It was unbelievable," Norris said. "But d'you know, I didn't feel nervous at all, with her. Because she was so special, and I knew we'd got her absolutely the best we could have her. She has the most wonderful temperament. Sometimes, you might bring a colt to the ring and it gets on its toes, or colty, or grinds its teeth. But this filly just took everything in her stride.
"You can just tell sometimes, when they've got that little bit of edge, something others don't have. The Dubawi last year was the same. So even before she went into the auditorium, you knew you had something pretty special. You never know who might buy her, or for what sort of figure, but you know you've done your job - and you know you've got the real deal.
"Yes, you get vibes: who comes to see them, how many times they come back, if they have her vetted. I think she had five vets whereas the Dubawi had more than ten. So you come up thinking: 'Hmm, I'd have liked another vet or two. But hopefully the right people like her.' And they did. So it was a good day at the office."
As with Glorious Journey, the buyer was Godolphin. Until this month, of course, Sheikh Mohammed's team had been declining to bid for yearlings by Coolmore's champion sire. But if it took detente between rival superpowers to drive this filly's price to such heights, then the fact is that the people who matter are plainly unanimous in their admiration for the bespoke Norris operation at Granham Farm, Marlborough.
And that is the ultimate measure of the quiet increments by which all consignors go about their work. Give the same yearling to a dozen different handlers, and only the page will remain the same. What comes off the farm will be an aggregation of daily adjustments to feed, exercise and environment. As Norris says himself, you can even teach them to walk "better than they want to."
Pondering the cardinal asset of his vocation, he becomes almost apologetic – but if the answer is the same you hear from so many other horsemen, then there are good reasons for that. "Attention to detail," he shrugged. "Exactly that. Everything has to be precise. From the shoes on the horse, to the person leading it, to the horse's coat. It's about bringing that horse to the sale to produce to people, and for it to be produced perfectly: fit and looking the part. I don't want to say it has to be its best day, because its best day is going to be on the racecourse. But without being pushed too hard, it has to peak at just the right time."
If the dividends so far have been fairly mind-boggling, the fact is that a strategy of focusing on quality over quantity owes everything to precisely this emphasis on detail.
"We do a lot of hand-walking, a lot of exercise in hand, a lot of lunging, sometimes loose," Norris explained. "We try to get it absolutely precise, how we want each horse every day. The temperament of some will be different to others. Some would boil over, if you gave them too much on the lunge. So it's very precise with each horse, and that is something we particularly try to get right.
"I would really like not to go too big. As soon as you get so big you're having to ask other people to do certain things for you – well, if you want something done right then you have to do it yourself. When you bring the horses here, you want it to be special. You know each one is very important."
With horses, of course, there is never a single answer. Highclere, for instance, achieves consistently high dividends at this sale from much greater volume. But Norris ran that farm for 12 years for Lord Carnarvon and is comfortable with what suits his own methods best. Fifteen horses to send to auction last year; 20 this time: no more, that is, than can sustain the most literally "hands-on" of approaches.
As a boy, Norris would hold yearlings for his father to brush out even as he waited for the school bus. His father had been stallion man at Sandringham, looking after the likes of Winston Churchill's Colonist II, the St Leger winner Ribero and Eclipse winner Canisbay; and then spent 38 years managing the Queen's yearlings at Polhampton. In other words, Norris was bred for the job.
"I'd like to say I'm a stockman," Norris said. "You can learn it all on paper, but going out and feeding 50 horses in the morning and again in the evening, you just have to have an eye for it. Again, attention to detail. You can't miss a thing."
That eye had already realised impressive dividends, even before Norris and his wife had set up their own stall, for patrons both on the track and in the sales ring. During three years developing Clairemont Stud in Hampshire, they prepped Oaks winner Dancing Rain – bought by Norris/Huntingdon for €200,000 at Goffs – for her sale at Tattersalls December, in foal to Frankel, for 4,000,000gns. At the same sale, moreover, Norris/Huntingdon picked out a 100,000gns son of Invincible Spirit to pinhook: he became the champion juvenile Shalaa.
It was as a stockman, then, that Norris had himself daily walked Dank's daughter in hand. Becoming so intimate with her star quality, he developed a great personal stake in ensuring she did herself justice.
"You don't sleep quite so well at night," he laughed. "You turn the phone on, you look at the camera in the box and make sure she's okay, and she's probably the first one you feed in the morning probably, looking at legs."
Both sale-toppers, after all, had represented a heavy responsibility. "You're talking about smallish breeders," Norris said. "They've got the dam, they've built up a band of broodmares over 20 years. James and Philippa both [tend to] race their fillies, so to be trusted with their offspring… well, we know how important it is. Dank has had another filly since, a full sister, and they wanted it to be grown and looking the part before agreeing to sell the yearling.
"Obviously Glorious Journey looks a very useful horse. And that's key to us. If they can be the best they can be, on the day, and go on and be racehorses, then I hope that's where our reputation will be."