Home of the million-dollar babies
Edward Whitaker goes behind the scenes at Tattersalls
The autumn equinox has passed and, as the days shorten, the focus in Flat racing is on the end-of-season championship races. But as today's champions are crowned, the bloodstock experts have their sights focused on acquiring the stars of the future.
This entails buying young stock at Europe's top yearling sales, including Book 1 of the Tattersalls October Sale, which took place over three days in Newmarket this week. A total of 349 horses went under the hammer between Tuesday and Thursday – records were smashed and over 100 million guineas was spent (one guinea is equivalent to £1.05), including a record 17 horses breaking the seven-figure barrier.
Like so many institutions in the sport of kings, there is a rich and varied history behind 'Tatts', and last year the company celebrated its 250th anniversary. Marketing director Jimmy George was happy to give me the lowdown on its history and his outlook and hopes for the future.
We meet in the boardroom of the Newmarket base, a room flanked by rows of red leather-bound ledgers dating back centuries – a rich visual reminder of its long existence. They are overlooked by a portrait of Richard Tattersall, who founded the auctioneers in 1766. George is very keen to show me the 1967 ledger outlining the world record sale of Vaguely Noble, and recounts the extraordinary story behind the sale.
"The one that stands out for those even older than me is without doubt the sale of Vaguely Noble at the 1967 December Sale," he says. "Trained by Walter Wharton for Brook Holliday, Vaguely Noble had won the Observer Gold Cup, now the Racing Post Trophy, by 12 lengths prior to coming to the December Sale. It is pretty extraordinary to think that a two-year-old colt of that calibre was to be sold at public auction and not even remotely surprising that he sold for a world record price of 136,000gns.
"By all accounts the sales ring – only then recently built in 1965 – was absolutely packed. There was barely even standing room as officially the second-highest rated two-year-old in the country strode into the ring.
"Apparently as the bidding reached 125,000gns, auctioneer and then Tattersalls chairman Ken Watt declared 'he could still be cheap' and – remarkably for a horse who became the highest-priced thoroughbred ever sold at public auction – he was. As a three-year-old he won four of his five starts culminating in a majestic win in the Arc, with Derby winner Sir Ivor clear of the rest in second, but no match for Vaguely Noble.
"Gainesway Farm subsequently paid $1.25 million for a quarter of Vaguely Noble. Ken Watt was spot on!"
For 200 years the company based itself in Hyde Park, and then Knightsbridge, in London, where the offices remained up until the 1970s. In 1965 it built the sales ring and a lot of the outbuildings at the present day venue at Park Paddocks in Newmarket, before eventually moving the whole operation to Terrace House.
George joined the company in 1986, with a love of racing acquired in his youth on holidays spent in Jamaica with his family, who owned racehorses on the Caribbean island. He started at the bottom of the ladder as part of the bloodstock sales team. After an interlude editing Pacemaker magazine he came back to Tattersalls in 1994 and became a director in 2001.
It's a serious business, but he recalls the day when Abba's Benny Andersson, also a leading owner, took to the piano in the 'red' dining room after securing top lot at Book 1 in 2008 and played an impromptu set of Abba hits.
Everyone was entertained, but as George goes on to say: "The things that stand out most are the horses and the battles between the huge powers of the bloodstock world competing for future champions. There have been some epic duels over the years. The Maktoum family and the Coolmore team have been the dominant forces in my time and although they haven't locked horns here for a while, it certainly would not be a surprise to see it happen this year.
"The two teams stand the best two stallions in Europe, possibly the world, and clearly they both want the best bloodlines."
George was proven correct this week when the two superpowers went head to head for a Galileo filly out of Breeders' Cup heroine Dank. The long battle was won by Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation with a winning bid of four million guineas.