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‘It’s like a travelling circus’: inside the super-rich Ascot auctions

The Goffs London Sale
At the Goffs London Sale, guests greet each other like old friends – and everyone is expensively dressed and well-groomed - Jeff Gilbert

It’s a warm and bright afternoon in Kensington Palace Gardens – the first genuinely hot day Britain has seen all year.

In a secluded part of the garden overlooking the palace, around 800 horse racing enthusiasts are gathered, many of them discussing how much money they have riding on the races at Ascot. Among the crowd are some of the richest people in the world – and a select few of them are braced to spend a serious amount of money.

This is the annual Goffs London Sale, where thoroughbreds are to be auctioned off for hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of pounds each. Bidding starts at £5,000 for the 23 horses on sale today. The first 10 go for six-figure sums.

The Goffs London Sale
Bidding starts at £5,000 for the 23 horses on sale – yet bids quickly reach £8.1m - Jeff Gilbert

Then we get to lot 11, and it becomes apparent this thoroughbred is in a class of its own. In seconds, the bidding jumps from £500,000 to £2m. The casual chatter among the socialites and business tycoons dies down, and the heat seems to intensify, as the price tag quickly passes the £6m mark.

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A glamorous woman in floral trousers is winning this particular bidding war – not that an onlooker would know it.

With one immaculately manicured hand, she barely lifts a finger to signal she wants to bid enough money to buy a flat down the road. With the other, she clutches a bright orange phone to her ear, from which a mysterious buyer orders her to push the price tag further towards £8m.

For the first time all day the garden is silent, save for the auctioneer’s hypnotic rapid-fire chanting and the occasional hollering of bid spotters from raised platforms among the crowd.

“I have to ask you to hurry now, we’ve all got dinners,” chides the auctioneer, as the remaining bidders drop off.

After eight minutes of bidding, the gavel falls and the enigmatic agent secures lot number 11, a horse named Sparkling Plenty, for a cool £8.1m. The filly is today’s big ticket item – she won the Prix de Diane, the French Oaks, in Chantilly a day earlier and is a full sister to the Jersey Stakes winner Noble Truth.

She isn’t here, but large screens behind the auctioneer describe the thoroughbred as a “filly of the highest order and a leading contender for the Gr. 1 Prix de Diane”.

Even so, staff from Goffs auction house, peppered throughout the crowd, are visibly dumbfounded at how much money has just been spent. Goffs makes 1.5pc commission on each sale made today. In the end 13 of the 23 horses up for auction were sold.

Unlike a typical auction house, punters don’t get to see what they’re buying up close. Instead, serious buyers send their own vets to inspect horses ahead of time. As a rare treat, one horse is brought out and displayed to the crowd – ultimately selling for £625,000.

The Goffs London Sale
The horseracing world is 'like a travelling circus' - Jeff Gilbert

One of today’s happy buyers is Richard Ryan, a veteran racing manager at Teme Valley. He’s just parted with £400,000 for a colt named Pentle Bay, described as having “every credential to be a Chesham contender”. Despite this, Ryan’s day has been profitable – he also sold two thoroughbreds, for £180,000 and £250,000 each.

“This is the very tip of an iceberg. There have been many days of due diligence, observing exercises, vettings, weighing them up,” he explains. “You have to draw a conclusion on how you value a horse globally in the marketplace and try and get it right. There’s no perfect formula for that but you try and land on something that’s agreeable in every partner’s place.”

A catalogue lists each horse’s recent race performances. Goff’s London Sale markets itself as a unique opportunity for horse racing enthusiasts to secure an entry in Ascot this month – referred to frequently here as the Olympics of horseracing.

It is implied many of the horses sold today will go on to travel the world, potentially winning hundreds of thousands in cash for their new owners, or to be used to breed the next generation of winners.

The crowd is a mix of entrepreneurs, horseracing industry legends and socialites. Even here there are hierarchies to being super-rich – a low wooden decking elevates the VIP guests of sponsors Privat 3 Money, a fintech company, and IT firm Ampito.

Everyone is expensively dressed and well-groomed. Guests greet each other like old friends, and the auctioneers address some bidders by name, making winking references to past bids. The horseracing world is a small one, says one Goffs staffer: “It’s like a travelling circus.”

The Goffs London Sale
Whether you're a spectator, an owner, or a sponsor, being seriously rich is a prerequisite to attend - Jeff Gilbert

Today’s attendees include Cyrus Poonawalla, the billionaire responsible for the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world. Also here is former England striker Michael Owen, a long-time investor in race horses.

Those hoping to rub shoulders with a famous pop star or an actor will come away disappointed, however. While the odd reality TV star might crop up here and there, this is not the place for common or garden celebs.

“That’s fake money,” grins Goffs’ marketing director Joey Cullen. “The people here have owned and sold companies for billions – they have real money.”

Indeed, buying thoroughbreds is not for the faint of heart, or the light of wallet.

Henry Beeby, Goffs chief executive and today’s lead auctioneer says: “We always advise buyers that they should be using disposable income when buying thoroughbreds.”

No other horse on offer gets anywhere near the bids for Sparkling Plenty, but most of today’s thoroughbreds still fetch a price tag of at least half a million pounds. So why do people want a horse? The simple answer, Beeby explains, is clout.

“You could buy a horse today and tomorrow you could see your horse running in your colours at the Royal Ascot, so you could be in the parade ring with potentially the King and Queen,” he explains.

Prizes for the biggest races can stretch into the hundreds of thousands but, of course, your horse may never win.

“It is high risk,” continues Beeby. “You buy a racehorse for the thrill of buying a racehorse, the excitement of going to the races and being part of the scene. The benefit is you could make money.

“If you’re buying a quality thoroughbred, it has the potential to earn you prize money. If it’s a filly it can be bred to produce horses that can make money,” says Beeby. “If he’s a colt he can go on to be a stallion.”

The Goffs London Sale
Goff's London Sale markets itself as a unique opportunity for horse racing enthusiasts to secure an entry in Ascot

As marketing director Cullen suggests, horse racing is synonymous with wealth – real wealth. Whether you’re a spectator, an owner, or a sponsor, being seriously rich is a prerequisite to be here.

But events like these showcase just how much cash there is to be made in rearing and selling a fast thoroughbred. Con Marnane, 62, heads up Bansha House Stables in County Tipperary – he is here with his daughters Amy, 30, and Olivia, 24.

Last year, Give Me The Beat Boys, a yearling the Marnanes bought for the bargain price of £11,000 sold for a staggering £1.1m. Today, their colt Rock N Roll Rocket sells for £125,000.

“We’re basically trying to produce horses that can compete in Ascot year in, year out,” explains Amy. “If we’re buying a yearling we want one with speed in its pedigree that’s fast and precocious enough to compete.”

Bansha House Stables employs about 10 people. Amy explains that stallions can cost anywhere between £5,000 and £60,000, while the markup on a yearling depends on race results.

Con says: “With Give Me the Beat Boys, buyers in Australia offered more for him after Ascot last year, so the original buyers made a very good investment. The prize money is so much better in Australia than it is in England or Ireland, so they could afford to give that extra money for it.”

Psychological warfare abounds, but cynical bargain hunters may be put off as Goffs won’t sell a horse significantly below its presumed value. The final thoroughbred on offer today is a gelding described in the programme as an “unbeaten winner in his five races and a contender for the world’s richest horse racing prizes”.

The Goffs London Sale
The crowd is a mix of entrepreneurs, horseracing industry legends and socialites - Jeff Gilbert

Bidding quickly prompts offers over the £1m mark, but the spotters look angsty as enthusiasm slows down beyond the £2m mark.

“Go around the world and win him back in no time,” the auctioneer pleads with the crowd. But no dice – the gavel falls at a measly £2.25m. “We’re not selling him for that. He’s worth more,” the auctioneer says tersely.

A spokesman later explains: “The auction house works to the reserve price submitted by the vendor, and if the horse does not reach that reserve it goes unsold. Goffs London Sale is unique in that vendors can enter a horse with an Ascot entry into the sale, and if they make a premium they are happy to sell.

“But if they do not meet their reserve price, the existing owners are more than happy to keep the horse and take their chances at Royal Ascot.”

The spotters are fun to watch. Peering into the crowd like meerkats, they are experts in spotting the richest people amidst a sea of casual observers – the kind perfectly at ease with raising a £200,000 bid with a barely visible nod.

“It’s all in the eye contact. You know the type of horse people are looking for,” says Tadhg Dooley, one of the more animated spotters. “Once you know you’re in you’re just working off them. All they have to do is give you a nod – even just with their eyes.”

Meanwhile, the mysterious buyer of Sparkling Plenty has been pacing the edge of the garden all afternoon, deep in conversation with someone who has just spent £8.1m. A Goffs spokesman later confirms the woman’s name is Amanda Zetterholm, “but it later transpired that she was acting for the vendor, who bought back the filly”.

Later that evening, a private sale was subsequently negotiated with Al Shaqab Racing, owned by Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al Thani of the Qatari Royal Family, who purchased a half share in the filly for £5m – a record price for a Goffs sale.