Selling that Derby dream

 
Bill Esdaile
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Bill Esdaile speaks to Tattersalls’ Jimmy George about how to sell the best horses in the world

WHEN John Magnier raised his hand for the last time for Lot 172 at the Tattersalls October Yearling Sale back in 2012, he did so with today’s date firmly in mind.

He’d just paid 525,000 guineas on behalf of Coolmore for an impeccablybred chestnut colt who was only ever going to be targeted at the Investec Derby, the most prestigious three-yearold race in the world.

Australia, as he is now called, is the three-year-old son of Galileo. His sire was an emphatic winner of the race in 2001, while his mother Ouija Board won the Oaks (the fillies’ equivalent), just three years later.

As a result, one of the men who helped preside over that sale for Tattersalls, marketing director Jimmy George, is convinced that money was well spent.

“Horses with pedigrees like his, by a Derby-winning sire out of an amazing Oaks winner, don’t come along that often. They are exactly what thoroughbred breeding is all about,” says George.

An immature Australia was only narrowly beaten on his racecourse debut at the Curragh last June, but rounded off his two-year-old campaign by winning his maiden and then going on to rout the well-regarded Free Eagle by six lengths in a Group Three on his final start.

He was beaten less than a length when finishing third in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket on his seasonal reappearance, but he is bred for middle distances and should relish the step up in trip to 12 furlongs.

“He’s such as exciting prospect,” effuses George. “On paper he has it all and he looks like he could be every bit as good as his parents at this stage.”

Amazingly, even though the bulk of attention surrounds the bookies’ hot favourite Australia this afternoon, he is just one of seven colts in the Investec Derby line-up to graduate from that very same Tattersalls October Yearling Sale.

Founded in 1766 by Richard Tattersall, the company is the oldest bloodstock auctioneers in the world. It remains steeped in an equine history few can rival. Fittingly, they still trade in guineas, a currency worth £1.05 in today’s money.

It also has an unsurpassed record when it comes to selling horses who go on to land the Epsom Classic. In fact, there isn’t even an accurate tally of winners, as origins of sale become murky as we wade back through the centuries.

One thing is certain, however, no auction house has been responsible for more. In 13 runnings so far this century, five winners of the race have passed through their Newmarket sales ring.

Despite that, and the wealthy owners such success inevitably attracts, George is quick to reassure the doubters that the Tattersalls Sales are for everyone.

Spectators, as well as potential customers, are free to walk in through the front door and cast their eyes over each bloodstock beauty parade.

“For many it’s just a day’s entertainment,” he says, “but for those looking to get financially involved, it’s a sport that people can take part in at so many levels. We welcome royalty, your normal man in the street, and everyone in between.”

Of course, not all the runners in this afternoon’s Investec Derby were bought for astronomical sums ı four of the seven Tattersalls graduates sold for 70,000 guineas or less.

In George’s eyes, at least, this is “proof in the pudding that living the Derby dream isn’t the exclusive reserve of the mega wealthy.”

In support of his point, Western Hymn, who changed hands for 50,000 guineas, occupies a far more prominent position in the betting market than his price tag would suggest he’s entitled to.

But he wouldn’t be the cheapest Tattersalls graduate to taste Epsom Derby success. Sir Percy, winner of the 2006 renewal, cost connections just 16,000 guineas and clearly demonstrates that Derby glory isn’t down to the level of investment alone.

George should know. He himself is no stranger to living that Derby dream, after buying a share in Curtain Call who went on to take part in the 2008 renewal.

Unfortunately, his colt found nine others too good for him that day. But the thrill of owning a runner was more than enough compensation.

“Turning up at Epsom on Derby day with a runner is as exciting as flat racing gets,” he reminisces. “We nearly went all the way that year in our pursuit of the Derby dream and still live in hope. I’m still involved with one or two every season.”

“There may be races around the world with more prize money,” adds George. “But if you ask both racing and non-racing folk what flat race they’d like to own the winner of it would be the Derby. It’s quite simply a magical race run at an extraordinary racecourse.”

In spite of the recession, business at Tattersalls is booming. Turnover through the ring last year stood at a staggering £260 million. Each horse raised £55,000 on average.

“We’ve had a good start to 2014”, he says, ebulliently. “We’re excited and ready for the autumn when the bulk of our business is done.”

As for this afternoon’s race, George will watch from the stands hoping from a professional point of view that any one of the ‘Tattersalls seven’ maintains the auction house’s impressive record.

“If Australia wins, it would be just reward for those handsomely investing in the sport. But if the race goes to a horse like Red Galileo or Western Hymn, it would send out a fantastic message that success in a race like the Derby really is possible for the smaller investor.”

Speculation will abound among the cognoscenti as to which of the 16 runners has what it takes to outsmart Epsom. But George doesn’t really feel that any horse handles the rigours of the famous course. Instead, it’s just a question of which horse handles it the best.

He does wryly concede, however, that it “helps if you go a bit quicker than the rest!”