Robert Sangster 1936-2004: `It was clear the team had found a formula for fabulous success'.
THE very first bid that Robert Sangster made on a yearling at Keeneland was one of $500,000. It was the opening bid on a colt by multiple US champion sire Bold Ruler, and it was supposed to wipe out all opposition at a stroke. It failed. An American agent for Japanese clients bid $600,000.
"Plucky man, that Brit," said some. But the Kentucky hardboots saw it differently: "A man with real pluck would've gone on." And Sangster knew they were right. He'd started something he couldn't finish, and he'd been made to look foolish. If he was ever going to return to Keeneland, things would be different.
Things were different on his return two years later. John Magnier saw to that. And anyone who hoped to beat Sangster for a yearling he truly craved in the next decade would have to go over $10 million to do it.
The transformation from 1973's debacle to the glorious sale-ring reign that began in 1975 had its roots in the purchase, by Vincent O'Brien, of a half-share in Coolmore Stud from Tim Vigors, and the installation of John Magnier as its manager. Sangster needed no persuading that Magnier owned the sharpest brain in the bloodstock business, none to jump at the chance to invest in Coolmore, and none to fall in with the young man's plan to plunder US markets for "baby stallions" - this time with partners.
The colt Sangster had tried and failed to buy - Wajima - was on his way to North America's three-year-old championship when the newly-formed group, soon to be styled `Sangster's gangsters' raided Keeneland, converting close on $2 million into a dozen yearlings, among them a little chestnut colt who would race to fame as The Minstrel.
The Minstrel, so instrumental in making Sangster leading owner in Britain for the first of five times in 1977, cost $200,000, earned pounds 333,197 and was sold to an American syndicate for $9 million. When his contemporary Alleged, bought for $175,000 as a two-year-old, left for Kentucky for $16 million a year later after two Arc wins in the Sangster colours, it was clear the team had found a formula for fabulous success.
The partners, who at various times included such as Danny Schwartz, Simon Fraser, Charles St George, Alan Clore, Jack Mulcahy, Stavros Niarchos and Walter Haefner, came and went, while Sangster, O'Brien and Magnier were constantly involved, with bloodstock agents Tom Cooper and Pat Hogan always lending their matchless expertise.
Their targets were invariably colts who would - if successful as athletes - have appeal as stallions, and at first the sons of Round Table and Forli were as keenly sought as any, but The Minstrel's triumphs soon convinced them to concentrate on the products of Northern Dancer and Nijinsky. Sangster's own breeding enterprise, as Swettenham Stud, took the same direction, to the extent that Northern Dancer seemed almost to be a partner in his operation.
Swettenham had been founded in 1967 on a
200-acre site in Cheshire, converted from a dairy farm, and though he sold it 20 years later (by which time his northern hemisphere broodmare band was mostly resident in Ireland or Kentucky), the name continued to identify Sangster breeding to the last. It was as Swettenham Stud that Sangster became leading breeder in Britain and Ireland in 1992.
Sangster would eventually achieve as much distinction as a breeder as he had as a buyer, but until the mid-1980s it was his exploits at major auctions that made him the focus of attention in the bloodstock world. His early successes with purchases in America had huge repercussions, driving markets higher on both sides of the Atlantic, as new buyers sought a slice of the action in a booming business; in Keeneland's July Select Sale the average soared from $53,000 in 1975 (when The Minstrel was acquired) to more than $600,000 in 1984. Newmarket's corresponding Houghton Sales showed similar progress in average over the same period, from 7,600gns to 92,500gns.
With funds for reinvestment provided from those lucrative sales back into the American market, the Sangster team had a headstart that kept the competition at bay for several years. Try My Best ($185,000), Storm Bird
($1 million), Golden Fleece ($775,000) and Caerleon ($800,000) were among the champions who underlined the group's buying acumen in an increasingly competitive arena.
The arrival of the Maktoums, investing without a commercial imperative, signalled the beginning of the end for Sangster's domination in the market-place. The writing was on the wall when they beat him for Shareef Dancer at $3.3 million in 1981, and confirmed when they topped his $10 million bid for Snaafi Dancer in 1983; his $13.1 million purchase of Seattle Dancer - still the world's record-priced yearling - in 1985 shrieked defiance, but it was virtually the final gesture.
Sangster's withdrawal from that unequal contest hardly seemed to matter. By the mid-1980s Coolmore had one champion sire (Be My Guest) in residence and was rapidly expanding, with other fashionable stallions, both bought and home-bred. Ashford Stud, in Kentucky, had come into the fold, and there were developments in Australia, where Beldale Ball had won him a Melbourne Cup.
Sangster had first become involved in Australia as a partner with Magnier in early shuttle stallions Deep Diver, Green God and Sun Prince in the early 1970s. Successful racing ventures there led to his purchase of Collingrove Stud in New South Wales and subsequently the acquisition of a half-share, with the Hayes family, in a second Collingrove, in Victoria.
In 1993 Sangster parted with his interest in the Coolmore property while retaining involvement with some of the stallions, notably a dozen breeding rights to Sadler's Wells and a significant share in the hyper-active Danehill. He became a resident, and in due course a citizen, of Barbados, while three sons became active in the family business - Guy as managing director, Ben as northern hemisphere bloodstock manager, and Adam as Australian operations manager.
While he maintained a
50-horse string of
home-breds in training in Britain, the main focus of commercial breeding activity switched to Australia, where an 80-strong broodmare band delivered him conspicuous success both at the sales and at the races. The Australian Derby and Golden Slipper both fell to Sangster-breds in recent years.
Robert Sangster is assured a place in history for countless achievements. He owned two Derby winners (The Minstrel and Golden Fleece) and bred a third (Dr Devious). He bred and raced one better than all three in El Gran Senor.
But ultimately, just as Charles Engelhard said that "He owned Nijinsky" would suffice as his epitaph, a single superstar will serve as reminder of Robert Sangster's massive contribution to the world of the thoroughbred.
He bred Sadler's Wells.
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Apr 9, 2004|
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