Holy mackerel! It really happened
Reliving a sale-topping, life-changing moment in bloodstock for the Swinburn family
By Julian Muscat
It would be stretching the point to suggest that half a lifetime of toil was repaid in three minutes of frenzied bidding at public auction, but events on 26 November 2021 represented a watershed for the Swinburn family.
In 1984 former Irish Champion Jockey Wally Swinburn bought Genesis Green Stud in Wickhambrook, on the fringes of Newmarket. In addition to boarding horses for clients, the plan was to establish a commercial enterprise with a handful of mares whose progeny would be offered for sale.
Genesis Green has since sold yearlings for upwards of 500,000 guineas, together with Classic winners Desert Prince, Landseer, Possessive Dancer and Victory Note. But its tour de force came when the stud offered a bay son of Dubawi at last year’s Tattersalls December Foal Sales. When the hammer came down on Godolphin’s bid of 1.8 million guineas, it was the highest price paid for a foal in Europe in nearly two decades.
“It was life-changing, as simple as that,” reflects Wally Swinburn of that seismic day. Indeed it was. The colt was the product of a foal share with Darley but the dividend allows for further investment in the Genesis Green infrastructure, which has continued apace since Swinburn bought the property.
There was also an apposite sub-plot. Woven into the tapestry of the colt’s heritage is the unmistakable thread of Wally’s son Walter, the much-acclaimed former jockey who died in a tragic accident, aged 55, in 2016. “None of this could have happened without Walter,” Wally avers.
More of that later, because the story behind the sale of the Dubawi colt, who is out of the Montjeu mare Madonna Dell’Orto, encapsulates the emotional extremes endured by commercial breeders.
One of the Coolmore team said our bell was going to ring with him, while another agent said, ‘Bejaysus, he could make the price of a farm’
I told them what I’d done and got one hell of a bollocking
There were the conflicting emotions of temperance and expectation as the foal bewitched allcomers when he arrived on the sales ground. There was profound disappointment during the auction when bidding suddenly stalled at 425,000 guineas. There was elation when the numbers board tipped over into seven figures, and there was jaw-dropping astonishment when the colt eventually sold for almost twice that sum.
The Swinburns knew they had a quality animal from the start. And there were other favourable portents. “We took him to the sales because he was a hot property, and you don’t know whether that will still be the case at the yearling sales six months down the road,” reflects Wally’s son Michael, who runs Genesis Green.
“Dubawi had had a fantastic autumn, especially at the Breeders’ Cup, but it was 50-50 whether we were going to offer him as a foal. Three weeks before the sale he looked more Montjeu than Dubawi but he turned into a Dubawi one week before. So we thought: ‘Let’s have a go’. Besides, we’re running a farm. We need money to pay bills.”
The colt flaunted an extravagant walk to go with his striking physique. Word of his allure spread quickly. “One of the Coolmore team said our bell was going to ring with him,” Michael relates, “while another agent said, ‘Bejaysus, he could make the price of a farm.’ But some people said it was a shame we hadn’t been able to bring him the previous year, when there were more end-users about. I thought to myself: ‘Great, that’s all I needed to hear’.”
Father and son were standing together when the colt entered the auction ring. Tempting fate is unwise at the best of times but particularly at a foal sale, where the difference between a fair price and a golden dividend can be all but imperceptible. Nevertheless, the Swinburns felt their colt was worth half a million or thereabouts.
They could see the Coolmore partners were bidding, which wasn’t surprising given that Coolmore had had great success with two previous members of the family. That was certainly reassuring, yet just as the auction was gaining momentum it came to a shuddering halt. Then followed that ominous pause when frantic calls from the rostrum met with a stony silence.
“I thought that was it,” says Wally.
“So did I,” concurs Michael. “We set no reserve and we couldn’t have bought him back. My great fear was that one of the pinhookers was going to buy him at that price, bring him back next year and sell him for a million as a yearling – in which case I would have felt suicidal. I thought: ‘Here we go, we’re going to miss out again’.”
The racing and breeding business is replete with stories of the one that got away, or the one that might have been. The Dubawi colt was out of Madonna Dell’Orta, a half-sister to Poule d’Essai des Poulains winner Landseer. So there were great expectations for Landseer’s yearling full-brother, from the last crop of Danehill, who was foaled in 2003. Had he made it to the sales, he might well have hit the jackpot for Genesis Green.
“Some Japanese agents came to see him in the paddock when he was a yearling and they offered me $3 million on the spot,” Michael recalls. “I tried to stay cool but my knees were shaking. I said I’d get back to them after talking to Walter, who owned the yearling. Well, there was a thunderstorm that same night, the horse broke his hind leg and we had to shoot him the next day.”
Another to get away was Romulus. In the Swinburn living room is an oil painting depicting Wally aboard the 2,000 Guineas runner-up who was one of seven horses that fell or were brought down in the 1962 Derby. “That was my big chance to win it,” Wally says wistfully.
At 425,000 guineas the Dubawi foal was heading into the “nearly zone” – until the bidding suddenly picked up again. “It just took off from there,” Wally says. “Everything happened very fast, and almost before we knew it, the price had reached one million (guineas). At that point both of us were disorientated. I looked over at Michael and he had his head down. Tears were streaming down his face.”
Michael was aware the magic sum had been reached but his mind was elsewhere. “When the bidding got to one million I couldn’t help thinking about Walter,” he recalls. “I couldn’t look up because people might have thought the money had made me cry, when it hadn’t at all.”
Michael’s thoughts had relapsed to day he’d bought the Dubawi colt’s granddam, Sabria, for 25,000 guineas in the same auction ring back in 1994. The unraced three-year-old daughter of Montjeu had been appraised by the bloodstock agent, Oliver St Lawrence, who signed the ticket on Michael’s behalf.
Inevitably, Wally and his wife Doreen had heard of their son’s impromptu purchase by the time Michael got home that evening. “As I walked around the kitchen two sets of eyes were following me, so I thought I’d better come clean,” Michael says.
“I told them what I’d done and got one hell of a bollocking. So I rang Jack (Michael’s nickname for his brother Walter) and said I needed his help; did he fancy this mare? As usual, he bailed me out again.”
In the event Sabria would prove an inspired purchase who would become the bedrock of Genesis Green. Landseer was her third foal to race, followed 12 months later by Ikhtyar, who ran third in the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes. Those colts raised Sabria’s profile; two later colts, both foal-shares by Sadler’s Wells, fetched a total of 820,000 guineas; one by Dansili made €280,000; while another by Cape Cross made 160,000 guineas.
In between time, Sabria foaled a filly by Montjeu in 2007 which the Swinburns were anxious to keep.
That’s how Madonna Dell’Orto ended up in training with Walter. The filly failed to win in six starts but has thrived as a mother. Her third foal to race was I Can Fly, the hard-as-nails, Group-2 winning Fastnet Rock filly who cost the Coolmore partners 240,000 guineas as a yearling in 2016. She proved cheap at the price.
“Walter absolutely loved Madonna,” Michael recalls. “To the day he died he regretted not running her over the trip he thought she wanted. Because she was by Montjeu, he went further with her. His great regret was that she never fulfilled the potential she had. And that’s what started me off when Madonna’s Dubawi foal was going through the ring.”
With Michael in floods of tears, the process propelling the Dubawi foal beyond one million became blurred. “Seeing Michael in that state really threw me,” Wally says. “I didn’t see the bidding from one million up to 1.8. All I remember was that it felt like it went from one million to one point eight in a few seconds.
“When I looked at the board saying 1.8 million, I thought there was something wrong,” Wally continues.
“I kept looking at it because I was sure it was going to change. And when it didn’t I thought: ‘Holy mackerel! It really happened.”
Father and son were then engulfed by a flood of emotions. “I didn’t expect the colt to make one million, but equally, I wasn’t surprised,” Michael says. “I could see why. Coolmore had done well with the family, most stallion operations need a son of Dubawi and Sheikh Mohammed doesn’t tend to walk away from a nice one.
“And when he hit one million, the difference between that and (the colt making) two million is minuscule.
But what I couldn’t get over was how pleased everybody was for us. I guess we’re all in the same canoe; everybody knows how hard this business is.”
Redemption for the family’s earlier tales of woe had finally arrived. It had been a long and sometimes trying journey to that point. Three Piece joined the Genesis Green broodmare band in the late 1980s after proving difficult to get in foal. She produced Poule d’Essai des Poulains winner Victory Note when she was 12 and had plenty of foals thereafter. None made the sort of money you’d expect of a Classic-winning dam.
“Three Piece always threw a nice foal but we probably weren’t brave enough with her to go to the big stallions,” Michael reflects. “The bottom line was that we couldn’t afford it, but she was a learning curve for us.”
Another learning curve was Possessive, dam of Irish and Italian Oaks heroine Possessive Dancer who stood bolt upright and threw foals of that ilk – even though they could run. “We could never sell anything out of her because of that,” Michael relates.
For all that, four decades of rearing and selling horses has been immensely rewarding. It has been everything and more for Wally, who retired in 1982 with two riding titles in Ireland. Fate brought the family to Genesis Green: they were gazumped on a farm near Newbury and bought their present property after a social visit to former jockey Harry Carr, with whom Wally was on good terms.
On his retirement Wally could easily have taken a different path. He was asked by Colonel Dick Warden to become Sheikh Mohammed’s racing manager, and was approached by Azziz Bassam, who he’d met when riding in India, to fill the same role for the late Prince Khalid Abdullah. “I’d never been my own boss,” he reflects of those opportunities. “We’d just bought this place, we wanted to develop it and I didn’t think I’d have the time.”
It was the right call. “I can honestly say I don’t know where the time has gone,” he says. “I rode for 30 years but the 40 years we have been doing this have passed twice as quick.”
As with all previous profits, the dividend from the Dubawi foal will be reinvested in the farm, but there has been a more personal payoff. “There have been plenty of times we’ve come away from the sales wondering how we were going to keep the farm going,” Michael reflects.
“It can literally be hand to mouth: you wonder what you’ve done wrong, you doubt yourself and you beat yourself up. So it’s a good feeling when people compliment you on how your horses look. Everybody likes a pat on the back from time to time.”
It is well known within the industry that Michael is overtly and uncompromisingly hard on himself. It doubtless explains why he was extended so much goodwill on the most rewarding day of his professional life.