Keeneland Sales Legends: Robert Sangster - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Keeneland Sales Legends: Robert Sangster

Robert Sangster

There are certain names that are oft-revered at the Keeneland sales as legendary buyers and horsemen: Engelhard, Sangster, Niarchos, etc. but how many of us know much about them? 

Today, we conclude a series recalling the lives of four men whose influence in the Thoroughbred world still resonates today.

Robert Sangster's purchases, perhaps more than those of his predecessors or contemporary big spenders, revolutionized the Thoroughbred market forever.

Sangster got his fortune from his family's business, Vernons Pools, a company managing betting pools on soccer games. After buying his first racehorse, Chalk Stream, as a wedding present for his fiancé in 1960, Sangster was hooked. He decided to invest in the empire which ultimately became Coolmore, together with Tim Vigors, Vincent O'Brien, Simon Fraser, and John Magnier in the mid-1970s. Together, the group came to the United States “to take racing by the neck.” The plan was to buy high-dollar colts, focusing on descendants of Northern Dancer, and turn a profit when they were syndicated.

The plan worked. Among the group's first American purchases in 1975 was The Minstrel, a $200,000 yearling who won the English and Irish Derbies before being syndicated for $9 million. Sangster bought Alleged that year for $170,000, and the horse became a two-time winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe before being syndicated for between $13 and $16 million.

The profits from those first purchases fueled the group — often called “Sangster's gangsters” — to make more expensive purchases. Between 1975 and 1984, no one could buy a horse once the group set their eyes on it.

That didn't exactly thrill buyers, who accused the group of cornering the market to an unreasonable degree.

“It's ridiculous to say that we have taken over world bloodstock; no single man or group of men could possibly do that,” Sangster told The Horseman's Journal in July 1982. “If I have one criticism of racing, it must be that it is a very jealous game. I'm not some silly woman flashing her money about in Harrods.”

Following up the success of Alleged and The Minstrel were Irish One Thousand Guineas winners Lady Capulet (a $70,000 yearling) and Godetia ($60,000 yearling who also won the Irish Oaks), Irish Two Thousand Guineas winner Jaazeiro ($24,000 yearling), Arc winner Detroit (FR) (a private weanling purchase), and Epsom Derby winner Golden Fleece ($775,000 yearling). Storm Bird, a top-rated European 2-year-old, was also a Sangster syndicate success story after the $1 million colt retired undefeated in five starts and sold in 1981 for $28 million. Vincent O'Brien trained most of Sangster/Coolmore's horses.

The biggest Sangster purchase was world record yearling Seattle Dancer, who brought $13.1 million in 1985 for a Sangster syndicate. The half-brother to Seattle Slew proved considerably less successful on and off the track than his predecessor and retired with two ungraded stakes wins in Ireland.

Sangster had about 200 broodmares by 1980 at his network of farms all over the globe, including Creekview farm in Paris and Walmac in Lexington. Sangster was among the first breeders to begin shuttling his stallions to the Southern Hemisphere for stud duty, further increasing his profits. In 1984, Coolmore purchased Ashford Stud for $9 million ($19,000/acre) and has filled its stallion barns ever since.

One of the underbidders for Seattle Dancer was Sheikh Mohammed, whose presence was felt more strongly in the late 1980s and 1990s. This, combined with increased competition from other international interests who were drawn to Sangster's success, forced him to cut back on auction purchases. His relative silence after so many years of big spending prompted an almost gleeful, morbid curiosity from the press, resulting in headlines like “Sangster's Losing Streak” in a 1987 edition of Business and “The impossible dream is over,” courtesy of Pacemaker Update International in 1989. While the press speculated that Sangster had run out of luck and money, he fueled rumors by selling Vernon Pools for a reported $183 million. He later told the media that the sale was due to the institution of the British national lottery, which he correctly guessed would reduce the profitability of soccer pools.

Sangster began stepping back from Coolmore, selling his share in the property in 1993 but retaining interest in Coolmore stallions as his focus shifted to breeding his own horses. He found success, producing such notables as Sadler's Wells (whose dam was a $10,000 yearling purchase) and El Gran Senor. By the end of his life, Sangster's 45 years of horse ownership had included 27 European classic wins and 125 grade/group 1 victories internationally.

Sangster died of pancreatic cancer in London in 2004 at the age of 67.

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