In the crescent-shaped sales pavilion of the Keeneland Race Course at Lexington, Ky., auctioneer Tom Caldwell fingered his gavel. Into the sales ring below came a stylish-looking yearling colt—a son of the fine stallion Hoist the Flag from the broodmare Royal Dowry. The colt gazed at the hundreds of American and foreign breeders gathered before him, lifting his head and looking quite pleased with himself. His handler leading, he turned in slow circles in the ring, as if modeling his gorgeous seal-brown coat, buffed to a shine for the occasion. He pricked his ears as Caldwell went into his spiel. Right off, the auctioneer asked for $200,000.
"Gimme 200 to start...200...200...200! Now 250...250...250...250! Now 300...300! 350...350! Now 400...400...400...400! Now 450...500...550!...600!...700!"
The gallery was buzzing. Breeder Tom Gentry sat in the audience, clapping his hands, his eyes growing wider as the numbers mounted. He had bred the colt and had expected perhaps $600,000 for him, tops. But the price had gone beyond that in less than a minute and was soaring toward $1 million.
Gentry was wearing a flamboyant plaid sports coat—a street map of royal blues and flaming reds and greens—and he was drawing as much attention as the colt he was selling. Bouncing in his seat, he threw his right fist in the air, for the bidding had developed into a duel, one of many that were making last week's Keeneland yearling sale the richest in history. It is traditionally the market for the most attractive and royally bred yearlings in the world, and it had been setting records almost from the start on July 23, the day before, when two million-dollar yearlings were gaveled down. By the next night the numbers had grown so outrageous that many prospective buyers were shut out. "I can't even get my hand up," New York trainer Joe Cantey complained.
August 5, 1979
And of all the yearlings offered, none was fought over like the son of Hoist the Flag, the Kentucky Derby favorite in 1971 until he shattered a hind leg in a training accident.
As the price neared $1 million, only two bidding groups remained. One consisted of Kazuo Nakamura and Yorozu Sugawara of Japan. The syndicate of Robert Sangster, the British soccer-pool mogul, was matching the Japanese bid for bid. Urged on by bid-spotter J. L. (Jay) Teater, Sangster's agent, Tom Cooper, had gone to $950,000. Now spotter Vernon Martin was holding up one finger, beseeching Nakamura for more. Nakamura nodded.
"One million!" bellowed Caldwell.
The price board flashed the figure and applause rippled through the pavilion. "Good God almighty!" said Gentry.
Caldwell's chant went on, asking for, and getting, $1,050,000. And so it went, on up to $1.5 million. The Hoist the Flag colt had tied the world record set three years ago when a son of Secretariat, Canadian Bound, brought $1.5 million at Keeneland. (He has never won a race.) Caldwell asked for more. "Anything from here on out, as long as it's a yes, will break the record," he shouted.
Although one member of the Japanese contingent shook his head, Nakamura overruled him with a nod to bring the bidding to an end.
"A million 600, yes!" cried Caldwell.
Thus the Hoist the Flag colt was knocked down for $1,600,000. "What about a round of applause," Caldwell said, "for the most expensive yearling ever sold at auction."
The sale helped Keeneland set additional records. On the first day 153 yearlings fetched $23,374,000, for an average of $152,771. Sangster, the biggest plunger, as he had been a year ago, bought two million-dollar yearlings that day. Bidding against another Japanese contingent, he picked up a son of Nijinsky II, out of a full sister to Secretariat, for $1.4 million. And he paid $1 million for a son of Northern Dancer. On the second and final day the average sale price was $158,382.
The grand totals were staggering: 305 yearlings sold for a record $47,448,000, an average of $155,567 per baby racehorse. Last year 350 yearlings went for $42,579,000, an average of $121,654. Nor was the Hoist the Flag colt the only yearling to go for a world-record sum. On Wednesday, in a dispersal at the Kentucky Horse Center in Lexington, Nelson Bunker Hunt sold a daughter of the 1976 Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Bold Forbes, out of Goofed, for $1,450,000, beating the record for a yearling filly set the day before at Keeneland. Sangster had bought that one, a daughter of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, out of My Charmer, the dam of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, for $750,000.
It was an extraordinary week for the thoroughbred industry and the city of Lexington. The world's most prominent horsemen and breeders and the wealthiest owners crowded the town's inns and hotels; they partied; they studied catalogues; they checked out every ankle and fetlock, some belonging to horses; they drank in Tom Caldwell's mesmeric hints of great things to come from the horseflesh he was peddling.
There were French and English horsemen, Swiss and Irish, breeders up from the Bahamas and down from the Dominion and around from Down Under. And there were the Japanese, with their yen for American bloodstock and the yen to back it up. The most visible American consignor, greeting all visitors in his garish plaid outfits and handing out whiskey and trinkets, was the 42-year-old Gentry, who has been regarded as something of a maverick by the Kentucky breeding establishment.
When Gentry started selling yearlings, he angered fellow hardboots one cold November day by setting up a silver coffee urn outside his shed, manning it with two workers—one had CREAM stitched on his back, the other SUGAR—and promptly became the most popular consignor on the grounds. At starchy old Keeneland, such a gimmick was like desecrating the flag. When other breeders complained to the management, Gentry was so chagrined he put the urn away. The next day the president of Keeneland, Louis Lee Haggin II, came around looking for a cup of coffee. When Gentry reported what had happened, Haggin told him, "Get that thing back up. That's a hell of an idea."
Gentry the promoter was launched. "I wanted to sell horses," he says, "but I wanted to put some fun into it. I had to do something different." So he started giving gifts to buyers visiting his barn. On the Sunday before the sale he gave away 120 bags full of miniature whiskey bottles—"Kentucky is dry on Sundays," Gentry noted—and heaped walking sticks, pens, lighters and hats upon prospective customers.
Nakamura and Sugawara, with a Japanese agent at their side, came by one morning. Gentry knows only two words in Japanese—ohayo, which sounds like Ohio and means good-morning, and arigato, which means thank you—but two are quite enough.
Gentry threw up his arms. "Ohayo!" he exclaimed. Delighted, the Japanese grinned and dipped their heads. He gave them pens and a walking stick and a lighter. "You must have refreshments," he said. They thanked him very much.
"Bring out the Derby winner!" Gentry cried. "The big horse. Three champions in the first two dams. Hip 245." Handler Bronell Bolton, wearing a football jersey with the lettering OUTSTANDING COLT: 245, brought forth the Hoist the Flag yearling.
"Here he is, gentlemen," Gentry said. The Japanese circled the colt, leading the pedigree in the sales catalogue and looking him carefully up and down. Then they watched him walk. Nakamura was identified to Gentry as a prominent breeder and trainer, Sugawara as the founder and sole owner of one of the biggest land-development firms in northern Honshu. They didn't let on how much they liked the colt. When they left, Gentry bowed, and in his distinctive Kentucky twang said, "Arigato! Arigato!"
In the pavilion, as Caldwell's gavel sounded the million six, Gentry kissed his wife, Kathy, leaped to his feet and took the stairs two steps at a time up to where Kazuo Nakamura was sitting. He whipped off his plaid jacket and handed it to Nakamura. The gallery roared.
Later, at a party in his tack room, Gentry parted with a pair of equally outrageous plaid pants. Nakamura slipped them over his trousers. He was all in plaid now, dancing a disco to applause. Gentry ended the evening with a small speech, translated by a Japanese agent. "I want to wish Mr. Nakamura and Mr. Sugawara all the very best luck with their horse, and I hope he turns out to be a bargain. In closing, I want to say just one more thing." He thrust his arms into the air. "Arigato!" he cried.