• Punjabi Girl wins The Fillies Championship Stakes (Gr.1)
  • Sir Cecil wins The Colts Championship Stakes (Gr.1)
By Anil Mukhi
Tuesday 16 Jan 2018
Mr Anil Mukhi

When organized horse racing first began in England, the sport was restricted to royalty, nobility and the aristocracy. Any trade in Thoroughbreds took place more often than not via private deals between members of these groups. Gradually, as the general public began to get involved, the medium of sales by auction gained popularity. Fast forward a few centuries to the present and it is clear that sale by auction has become the preferred mode worldwide for price discovery, particularly for youngstock, horses in training and broodmares.

Auctions allow the prospective buyer of Thoroughbreds to:

  1. personally view and inspect the goods on offer at a convenient venue
  2. compare a large number of offerings of various vendors, both on paper and physically, prior to making choices
  3. restrict bidding to the planned budget or vary the budget at will
  4. acquire a horse via a clean and transparent transaction
  5. and last, but not least, hopefully secure a bargain!

In India, too, auctions were the norm for several decades – the RWITC Ltd. has been conducting an annual sale at Mahalakshmi Racecourse and/or Pune Racecourse for some 75 years. Many a champion has changed hands there by the simple expedient of the buyer raising the bid until there is no response from opposing bidders.

In its early days, the RWITC Ltd. Auction at Bombay (as it then was) saw many top performers traded. The very first Indian Derby winner, Princess Beautiful in 1943, was sold at Mahalakshmi by the Renala Estate and bought by H.H. Maharaja Pratapsingh Gaekwar of Baroda. Five of the next seven Indian Derby winners changed hands at the sale and included Odds On (1945), Chakori (1946), Jeanne d’Arc (1948), Balam (1949) and Mansoor Beg (1950)!

This breakneck tempo obviously could not last as private sales, retentions and rival auction sales took a greater slice of the action. Still, few transactions in Thoroughbred history could match the sale of the 1973–born colt by Valoroso* out of Milky Way at Mahalakshmi. It was late in the evening of Wednesday, February 5th, 1975, when the well-made product of the Yeravada Stud came up as Lot No. 179 and fetched a mere Rs. 65,000 to the bid of Mr. Ranjit V. Bhat.

As it turns out, this was probably the greatest bargain in the history of the Indian Turf. Named Squanderer, the colt became one of the two greatest all-time champion Indian-breds. He went on to win 18 races from 19 starts during 1976-1978, earning Rs.16,78,698. These victories included the Indian Triple Crown and the Indian Turf Invitation Cup. Financially, it was the equivalent of turning Rs.13 lakhs in today’s money into Rs.3.25 crores in just 3 years. More important were the emotional value – that sublime and giddy feeling of being on top of the world – and the bragging rights, experiences on which no price can be placed! 

Due to taxation changes and commercial developments, sales in India of Thoroughbreds gradually gravitated away from auctions to private sales. This was not “buyer-friendly” as there was scope for shady dealings “under the trees”. What’s more, the credibility of the stock that actually came under the hammer was suspect as buyers’ reasoned that the specimens that entered the ring, having failed to find buyers privately, must be sub-standard.

Faced with diminishing returns, the RWITC Ltd. took stock of the situation and decided the time was ripe for some bold measures. In a brilliant move, the club decided to return the sale to Mahalakshmi Racecourse in 2018, after a 20-year sojourn “across the Ghats” in Pune, and to institute two epoch-making measures:

  1. to require every horse entered to be sold in the auction ring i.e. no private sales, and
  2. to require every horse entered to be tested for “soundness for racing”

Here then is a grand opportunity for buyers, both experienced and novice, to acquire pedigreed Indian-bred two-year-olds at their true value on the day (like in the stock market, values can rise and fall with time). Every horse is for sale and buyers can bid without fear, always keeping in mind the fact that the dictum caveat emptor applies to horses, as it does in other walks of life.

The response from vendors to the new scheme has been overwhelming. As many as 33 entities have nominated 261 two-year-olds to the sale, so potential buyers have plenty of choice. The largest number of entries hails from that leading nursery, the Poonawalla Group of Stud Farms, with 56 head or just over a fifth of the catalogue. 

An interesting feature is the introduction of a “Blue Pages” section (lots 113 to 130) where 18 selected two-year-olds from seven vendors will be offered. The catalogue pages include posed conformation shots of each lot in full colour. The criterion used for entry into this group has been specified and requires that they must fulfil at least one of the undermentioned conditions:

  1. Lots must be offered by Breeding Establishments/Vendors which have produced at least one Indian Classic Winner, or
  2. Lots must be out of a Group/Graded Stakes-winning dam, or
  3. Lots must be full or half-siblings to a Group/Graded Stakes Winner in India or abroad.

The concept is interesting even if the criteria will surely need tweaking in future. In view of the potential for discord in having a “select” section, perhaps in future the “Blue Pages” could consist of “Consignor-preferred lots”, with a higher entry fee. That would amount to a vote of confidence from the vendors, and such lots are more than likely to earn back the extra cost of entry.

On the pedigree front, no less than 47 are sired by Arazan[IRE], bred and raced by the Aga Khan, and now owned by the Poonawallas. The handsome and talented son of Anabaa ranked fourth in the sires’ table, by number of races won, in the most recent racing year (November 2016-October 2017). Eleven entries are by the reigning champion sire, the Usha Stud-based Multidimensional[IRE]. Imported stallions account for 243 of the 261 entries, one is by a stallion (Dream Ahead) standing abroad, while the remaining 17 are progeny of the Indian-bred Beautiful Stranger (1 head) and Royal Gladiator (16 head).  

A feature of each year’s foal crop is the appearance of the initial representatives of new stallions. This sale will showcase a trio of imported newcomers, each with nine lots entered from the crop of 2016. These are:

  • The ill-fated Corporate Jungle[USA] (a Gr.3 winning son of Giant’s Causeway who stood at the Hazara Stud in Ambala, Haryana)
  • Leitir Mor[IRE] (a multiple Gr.3 winner by Holy Roman Emperor, and resident at the Cyza Agro & Stud Farm in Pune, Maharashtra), and
  • Speaking Of Which[IRE] (a Gr.2 and multiple Gr.3 winner sired by Invincible Spirit and barn-mate of Multidimensional[IRE] at the Usha Stud in Gurgaon, Haryana)

Cumulatively, these first-crop sires constitute about 10% of the catalogue.

The second part of this piece will follow shortly.