The Super-select invitation evening of the sale has only been underway for 35 minutes when Sister Divine is led into the ring.  The prices so far have been mediocre.  Now this Northfields filly is favourite to fetch top price, and we will see how much money has ventured out of the neurotic economic landscape for the show.

Bidding gets away smartly and the pretenders soon collapse.  The big bloodstock agents and the trainers with wealthy patrons come under pressure as the price goes through R200 000.

As the bidding hits the old record of R240 000, applause tries to break out, but auctioneer Clive Gardener suffocates that quickly and whips his price on.

It climbs to R260 000, and this is the moment when Gardener suddenly pauses and gives them time to reflect.  A brilliant piece of pace-reading.  The old record is gone, irrelevant, and the only real question remaining is:  "So what's another twenty grand or so?"

At one time or another, this philosophical question engages most people, even those who don't have the first twenty, let alone another.  In this situation, you have to think:  "Do I want to write a little piece of history?"  A potent drug.

The battle is down to two.  One is Hans Roos, a specialist physician from Kempton Park.  His opponent perseveres but finally Roos shuts the door on him by calmly lifting his catalogue to register the bid of three hundred thousand rands.

The hammer falls, the applause is unrestrained, and Dr Roos becomes the owner of Lot 14, a bay filly born on the fifth of October 1984, the last foal of Soul, sired by Northfields at Sydney Press's Coromandel Stud?.

Every year they say:  "This is the year there'll be no money.  This is the year the economy of the country will catch up with the economy of racing and smack it down to size"  and it never happens.  Every autumn people come out and buy race horses for millions upon millions of rands, and when the annual National Yearling Sales are over, it always seems so obvious that this should be the case.

If we have brought our economic woes upon ourselves, Johannesburg is unrepentant for its sins.

Any event that promises to have seven or eight million rands changing hands in five hours is guaranteed a complete squadron fly-past of the city's players and this is the case, as people who wouldn't know what a July winner from a rocking horse mingle with the trainers and racing legends and that fastest-growing new species of upwardly-mobiles, the bloodstock agents.  This is truly the Biggest Game in Town.

Although the much-predicted thoroughbred debut of Sol Kerzner did not materialise, very Big Business was well represented.  Some merely watched, others drank and watched.  Some bought a horse or two, some, like Des Bolton seemed intent on stocking their stables for life in one sale.

At the end of it all, there was a new record aggregate (R21 231 500), a new record for a yearling (R300 000), and a new record for a vendor with Coromandel Stud selling 13 yearlings for R1 608 000.

Many people might think that to achieve the SA record price would be achievement enough, but Sydney Press summed it up the next day, "I'm no stranger to disappointment".

Press was expecting much more.  His investment in Northfields and the whole unparalleled set-up at Coromandel is not a hobby and it needs returns, big returns.

Press had thrown the full weight of a lifetime in creative retailing behind the marketing of his first Sales draft.  No potential buyer could possibly have been left in doubt as to the advent of Northfields, or his record.

In fact, Press had even toyed with the idea of bringing Northfields himself to the Sales - to show potential buyers what the grown-up version would look like.  I must say that this manoeuvre would have unquestionably been value for money from the point of view of the casual on-looker - tongues would have wagged and green-eyes would have spurted fire, and everyone would have gone along to see.  And as Press points out, Northfields is an extraordinarily athletic beast, an excellent advert for his offspring, who do tend to lack a little something in the looks department.

But this masterstroke in marketing was instantly killed by the insurers, who recoiled at the prospect of subjecting the country's most valuable horse to such hazards, and Northfields languished at home when the floats left Coromandel.

Nevertheless, Press managed to attract attention.  Coromandel's area of the sales complex was magnificently turned out, complete with big-screen video facilities.  Prominently on display was a sign which read:  "Not surprisingly, some curious rumours have been put in circulation about Coromandel Stud.  The crisp answer is:  all of our draft is offered WITHOUT RESERVE.  Coromandel willingly accepts the verdict of the marketplace."

The marketplace took him at his word, and refused to bid higher than R35 000 on some of his Northfields yearlings, dragging Northfields average for the sale down dramatically.

Three hundred thousand may be a record, but Press operates almost entirely from an international perspective and to him, R300 000 is $150 000, which is low for a yearling that could have made the best sales in the world.

Press now realises that whatever Northfields's international reputation might be, he is going to have to wait until the stallion's progeny is locally proved before he gets what he might consider to be the true return on his investment.  This is an interval which I daresay Press has the resources to endure, but even so one can understand and sympathise with his disappointment.

He said:  "Traditionally, South African buyers play safe, and buy from the stallions they're familiar with.  In addition, they like big horses."

Nevertheless, Northfields has opened his show in South Africa, and, even at age 18, has a lot of potency in him yet (of the 49 mares he has covered since arriving, 76 got in foal and in both unsuccessful cases, the fault was with the mare).

One way or another, the stallion and his owner are set to change forever the way things are done here.

 

Press says: "You know that ancient Chinese proverb - the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step?  "Northfields is a newcomer to the SA scene (albeit not internationally) and had to take his first step in SA this evening.

 

"There's been criticism, and even resentment, of Coromandel's display, which I'm responsible for.  But I recognise the necessity to make known Northfield's record."

 

And this is the way things are going to go in future.  For a feature of this sale was its orientation to more sophisticated marketing.

The days when sales were the occasion for the tanned farmers to come to town for a week and trade horses with the goldminers are over.

It is now clearly understood that the future health of the industry depends on bringing in new blood not just in the horses, but in the owners.  Communication is essential for this.  The Jockey Club's modernisation of the regulations for syndicates improves the chances for more people to own an interest in a horse without being forced to compare balance sheets with Messrs Jaffee and Beck.

And if the top agents have their way, this will bring a flood of new capital funds into racing.

For example, Robin Bruss, who will approach any collection of thoroughbred buyers the way a good cabaret performer works an audience, has launched a new operation called Delta Boodstock which is specifically structured to guide new buyers through the minefield of acquiring and managing racing interests.

Increasingly the bloodstock agents are geared to forming and managing syndicates, and there is no doubt that the future lies here.

It is becoming clear that sophistication in marketing strategy is going to expand rapidly.  In this context, it is interesting to speculate on whether an invitation to the Super-select Evening is always a blessing.

There's no question that this section of the sale is regarded as being the domain of the big spenders, and much of the more modest money stays clear until the ?normal' sale starts.

For the horse which is good but not spectacular, this may be a problem.  The top buyers don't bother with the horse they don't like, which is why it is not surprising to see the same people who bid horses up to over R200 000 completely ignoring other select offerings, Northfields progeny included.

On the super sale, these are the also-rans.  But the next day, horses which are considered inferior are the best on show, and sell accordingly.

The good but not spectacular horse is a sound investment for a buyer spending in the R50 000 - R90 000 range, and this buyer probably feels out of his depth on Super-select day.

And this level of money is increasingly available as buyers learn that it is better economics to own 1 x R60 000 horse than 3 x R20 000 horses.  The burgeoning syndicates, especially, operate on this principle, and it is a change that could significantly restructure the product lines in this country.

And if the breeders are going to have to get cunning, so are the buyers.  If your idea of tough dealing is lurking behind the pillars (conveniently provided at the Germiston sales complex) while winking at the auctioneer, get this:

Mike Rattray, who paid the record price last year, told everyone he wasn't buying this year.  He said he's already overspent his budget in the Argentine (a thinly-veiled jab at the importation regulations, some feel).

Now many people say they aren't going to buy and still do, but Rattray underlined his conviction by leaving the sales on Friday and flying home to Durban, bringing wide-spread relief to those who have been mauled when bidding against him in the past.

But Rattray came to the sale.  He was on the phone to an office on the perimeter of the sales ring.  From there an intermediary kept him informed of progress.

Lot 99 was Spring Ball (Northfields - Have A Ball), and she was very popular.  The bidding was relayed to Rattray down the phone.  Orders came back.  Stud manager Brian Boyd raised his catalogue twice - at R180 000 and again at R200 000, to which the hammer fell.

Of course, the format of an auction lends itself to the application of - what shall we call it ? - finesse.

If auctioneers can call bids out of the sky, and breeders can have people bidding their horses up, then there's no reason why the purchasers shouldn't take evasive action.

I'm told that Charlie Engelhardt never had syndicates and front men - he stood there himself and bid for what he wanted.  Today's big owners seem intent on making their holdings in thoroughbreds as complex as the holdings in JSE companies, with everyone having a bit of that and a bit of this, all hoping to hook into 10% of the next Wolf Power.

If one stitches all that one hears together, the collusion between buyers on a few select lots at this year's sale seems to have been quite astounding, and the fall-out rather vicious.  Attempts to "allocate" certain attractive  horses before they entered the ring foundered on old rivalries, and possibly the whole show only made the prices higher.  Of course, that's only what one hears.  The really successful plot is the one one never hears about, and for all we know there are yearlings which have gone to homes carefully prepared in advance.

Then again, it may transpire, in six months or so, that those same horses can't even run out of the stable yard, let alone around Turffontein, and some moth-eaten R10 000 dope starts to clean up the nursery races.  Horses are like that.  Which is exactly why everyone comes to Germiston every year, and why it is the biggest game in town.  Being in the position to spend R300 000 on a single thoroughbred may be enviable, but Hans Roos has paid for the privilege in experience as well as money.

He first decided to invest in bloodstock in 1990.  Possibly it was his medical experience of specimens both athletic and slovenly that made him decide to buy top quality right from the start.

He went to the 1980 Yearling Sales and bought four horses, all from the select day crop.  The first of them, a Plum Bold colt called Impeccable, turned out to be a wobbler, and had to be destroyed.

Only one of the others ever won a race, and it had to go to Bloemfontein to do that.  Of the remaining two Roos says:  "I keep them in the garden and ride them myself.

"Actually, the wobbler turned out to be the best purchase of them all - at least I got my money back from the insurance on him."

Despite this hapless start, Roos persevered, but that was the last time he bought a colt.  He decided to develop a stock of broodmares:

"The ultimate aim of every purchase I make is for breeding, and hopefully for the international market."

This policy has inevitably led Roos to pay top prices.  Wicklow Queen was the top-priced filly at Germiston in 1984, and is now in training with Alistair Gordon.  At Cyril Hurvitz's dispersal sale last year, Roos bought Frisky (NZ) for R260 000, a record price for a broodmare.

By top New Zealand sire Sir Tristram, Frisky distinguished herself on the race course before going to stud, has a Northern Guest (USA) foal at foot, and is now in foal to Northfields (USA).

Roos also has two imported mares.

Cwrle (pronounced "Curly") a daughter of the Irish 1 000 guineas winner Caergwerle, whose full brother is Caerdeon, highly successful at stud here.  Cwrle is station at Roos's Ponderosa Stud in Kempton Park and has a Thatching foal at foot.

Roos's second import is Pour Liezl, in training with John Nicholson, and due to make her local track debut later this year.

She is a daughter of the Aga Khan's stallion Nishapour.  Nicholson is also bringing along Elevated Art, Roos's Elevation filly purchased at least year's sale, and Sylvan Nymph, from the Sylvan Glade family.

From this perspective, and in this sort of company, Sister Divine looks quite at home, and R300 000 seems anything but a reckless price.

"I see her as a filly with the potential to become a foundation mare with international credentials," says Roos.

She will go to Ricky Maingard for racing preparation.  Once again, this decision reflects Roos's orientation to breeding priorities.  Because mares that have been raced too hard often perform poorly at stud, he wants Sister Divine to be treated with kid gloves, and believes Maingard to be the trainer for this.

"He is professional and patient and won't push her.  I regard him as a highly responsible trainer."

Maingard also has two other Roos fillies - Matchless Moment, a R90 000 Royal Prerogative yearling in 1984, and Jamaico's Magic Carousel, for which Roos has quiet hopes of a good Natal Oaks showing later this year.

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