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Tribute to Robert Sangster

Owner, breeder and visionary bloodstock investor Robert Sangster

Owner, breeder and visionary bloodstock investor Robert Sangster
Few modern racehorse owners and breeders have had as much success as Robert Sangster who died in London on Wednesday afternoon, 7 April, at the age of 67. Even fewer have appeared to enjoy it as much as he did.

I met him very briefly only once at an Australian thoroughbred breeding conference in Melbourne six years ago and found him every bit as charming as I'd been led to expect. He joined John Messara and Patrick Hogan to speak about the three champion sires with which they were each associated: Sadler's Wells, Danehill and Sir Tristram. It was the best session of the entire conference and the style and content of the presentations revealed much about the characters of the men who delivered them.

John Messara the businessman gave a cool, well-researched analysis of Danehill's achievements, comparing them with those of Sir Tristram and suggesting that eventually he would surpass New Zealand's super-sire. Serving two books of mares a year for eleven years gave him a great advantage, of course, but no-one can deny Danehill's astonishing success in both hemispheres: 237 stakeswinners (12.3%) from 1916 foals of racing age and 22 sire premierships. He currently has three sons among Australia's top twenty sires by earnings and is damsire of 19 stakeswinners as well.

The studmaster Patrick Hogan, more comfortable in personal conversation than in formal speaking situations, gave a passionate and moving account of the stallion who transformed not only his life, but also an entire industry.

Then Robert Sangster strolled to the centre of the stage. With his hands in his pockets and eschewing the notes that had been carefully prepared for him, he told a series of tales which only loosely centred on Sadler's Wells. Without appearing to make any effort to command attention, Sangster had everyone in the palm of his hand. No statistical analysis or hands-on stories of working with horses. He simply talked in modest and amusing fashion about his remarkable life in racing as the high-stakes investor, owner and breeder who helped to establish Coolmore, went head-to-head with the Maktoums in the sale-ring, raced more than 100 Group One winners, won 27 European classics and operated in both hemispheres well before Coolmore or Sheikh Mohammed looked south.

A multi-millionaire who inherited Vernon's Soccer Pools from his father and sold it for ₤90 million in 1988, Sangster parlayed his riches into a thoroughbred racing and breeding empire that included interests in Australia, England, the United States, Ireland, France, and New Zealand. Sangster registered his famous green and blue colors in England in 1967 and five years later joined forces with Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien and young businessman John Magnier to establish Coolmore Stud and buy well-bred colts in the hope they would maximise their stallion value by winning classics. From 1975 to 1980 the trio spent $US40 million on yearlings and led a shift in the balance of power in world racing and breeding towards Ireland.

It was a strategy that in the cases of horses like Sadler's Wells (bred by Sangster in Kentucky), The Minstrel (1977 English Horse of the Year), Alleged (two-time winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe), Storm Bird (1980 champion two-year-old of England & Ireland) and Caerleon (1983 champion French three-year-old) proved spectacularly successful.

But their failures were also spectacular. Seattle Dancer, purchased as a yearling for a world-record $US13.1 million in 1985, did not recoup that investment, and El Gran Senor's close second to Secreto in the 1984 English Derby was one of the more expensive defeats in turf history. His sporting acceptance of the failures made Sangster popular with racing people, but he was no fool. Realising that competing with the Maktoums was a recipe for losses even they couldn't sustain, Sangster, Magnier and O'Brien backed off the dizziest end of sale-ring action from the late 1980s onwards.

Coolmore focussed instead on using advanced veterinary technology to increase the number of mares a stallion could serve, and began shuttling stallions between hemispheres to increase the income they could earn. Once again, that pushed Coolmore ahead of their competition. Magnier has been described as "the Bill Gates of the horse world" and Coolmore's annual turnover is estimated to be 150 million pounds. But Sangster deserves equal credit for the shuttle concept, and being willing to invest his money in revolutionary approaches to international breeding.

The list of Sangster's major race victories is a long one and includes the Epsom Derby (twice, with The Minstrel & Golden Fleece), the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (three times), the Irish Derby (four times), the Breeders' Cup Mile and in Australia the Melbourne Cup, Golden Slipper, AJC and Victoria Derbys. He was the leading owner in England five times from 1977 to 1984.

Sangster's primary racing and breeding interests in England were Swettenham Stud, which he purchased in the 1960s, and Manton, an estate of more than 2,300 acres he set up in 1984. Trainers at Manton have included Barry Hills, Peter Chapple-Hyam, and most recently John Gosden. Among his Australian breeding interests are holdings in the Hayes family's Lindsay Park, South Australia, and Collingrove Stud, Victoria.

Not least among Robert Sangster's contributions to the New Zealand thoroughbred industry were two broodmares he imported to Australia in the 1980s. Lady Giselle became dam of Cambridge Stud's champion sire & G1 winner Zabeel & G1 winner Baryshnikov, and Eight Carat became the matriarch of an antipodean tribe of champions.

In a touching personal tribute to Sangster released today by Coolmore, Vincent O'Brien says:

"Magnanimous in defeat he was a superb loser and did not waste time dwelling on what might have been. I appreciated, more than I can ever say, Robert's trust and confidence that I, as trainer and partner, would do the best for him and the horses."

"Robert was a true visionary whose large-scale investment in the best American-bred yearlings in the seventies was one of the principal factors in establishing Ireland and Coolmore as major forces in the bloodstock world..."

"We shared some great memories over the years with horses like The Minstrel, Alleged, El Gran Senor, Sadler's Wells and Golden Fleece and I cannot think of anybody with whom I would rather have shared them."

Acknowledgements to Arion Pedigrees, NZ; The Telegraph, UK; The Times, UK; and Thoroughbred Times, USA for data and information.

- Susan Archer


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