Can you put a price on beauty? Is €6m okay?
Records were broken as billionaires bartered for horseflesh at Goffs last week. Niamh Horan dropped in for a look
THE scene was set for the record books to be broken. Saudi dynasty and billionaire business magnates descended on Goffs bloodstock agency in Co Kildare as the countdown to the historic horse auction began on Friday morning.
This was by far the biggest concentration of wealth in one room since the heady days of the Celtic Tiger.
But unlike the gaudy peacock displays of Ireland's halcyon years, this weekend's meeting was all about wealth kept well out of sight.
In the canteen, multi-millionaire Indian stud owner Shyam Ruia skipped the organic-salmon menu and sat in runners and a fleece, eating thick-cut chips and drinking cola with his Cambridge-educated son.
Upstairs, Sheik Fahad Al Thani, from the ruling family of Qatar, kicked back in a tracksuit as he smiled at passers-by through the open door of his private suite.
The anticipation in the air for the main event was intoxicating. Down on the auction room floor, millions of euro was trading at the tip of a hat or the wink of an eye.
But shortly after 5pm, the star they'd all been waiting for entered the ring. Chestnut brown, with a brilliant glossy coat, intelligent eyes and fluid gait, Chicquita was the one they had come to see.
Children who had been given the day off school sat on their parents knees as one horse enthusiast pointed out: "In years to come, people will ask, 'Where were you the day the record was broken?'"
There was just a hint of the Ballinasloe Horse Fair about it – where the judgement of horse flesh, the knowing eye, the excitement of the purchase – reminds us where the heart of Ireland's talent really lies.
When ruling over the two arenas, the difference between Saudi princes and canny Travellers in Ballinasloe is one of degree.
In the middle of the crowd sat the Australian breeder Paul Makin. Dressed unassumingly in a black raincoat and jeans, this was the proud and colourful owner of the thoroughbred collection on sale.
To his right, in the red corner, was Irishman Peter Doyle with his son Ross. On the far side, in the blue corner, stood British buyer James McHale.
The previous European record set for a filly was €5.8m at the height of the boom in 2006. Tensions were high that that bar would be raised this weekend.
"The ring hasn't been this full since Christy Moore was in the middle of it," quipped Sir Nick Nugent.
"Here we go," whispered an excited punter as auctioneer Henry Beeby kicked off the theatrics from the podium.
Gasps echoed through the crowd when the British buyer, on a mobile phone to a secret bidder, subtly raised three fingers, signalling how many million he was throwing in to start the race.
On the far side, Doyle didn't take his eyes off his son, who was whispering on the phone to an undisclosed buyer. "Should we go one more?" he casually asked his son, before with the slightest raise of his finger, he was back in the game, heading to €4m.
Standing on the podium, the auctioneer turned his attention towards the opposition, his rhythmic chant burrowing deep into the rich man's psyche. "Don't walk away empty handed, are you going to let him walk away with this," said the auctioneer.
The champion horse continued round in circles as his value reached dizzying heights. Whether it was ego, desire or power at play, the bids kept rolling in. This was a rich man's race with everything to play for.
Suddenly, McHale made the big jump to €5m.
The father and son team kept their cool, acting unperturbed every time their British opponent came back with a higher offer. On the wall behind, the stakes climbed on the electronic tally, the red digits now clocking €5.5m.
There was talk in the father and son camp that their chance had disappeared.
Was it a tactic? They were surrounded by dozens of men, many who had mobile phones glued to their ears. Who knew who was listening in, feeding back information.
"Do we have €5.6m," the auctioneer asked, only to be met with stony silence.
"Go on, do it," he coaxed in the most seductive tone. Doyle's finger went up, his face always carefully turned away from the crowd and his opponent.
McHale offered €5.7m, with his secret bidder now offering more than originally planned.
Finally, the auctioneer asked the Irish son and father team for €6m: "Come on, I hate to see you lose, you bid me so well."
Suddenly they threw down the gauntlet at €6m. The auctioneer looked towards McHale again. This time, however, there was no bite. It was a knockout. Doyle and son were bringing her home.
"She's gorgeous, she's a star," smiled Peter as they made their way through crowds of punters eager to shake their hands.
Afterwards Paul Makin, another satisfied customer, sat in a private suite, vintage champagne on ice. Was he sorry to see her go?
"It's like an old girlfriend. What am I going to do – go back and say, 'I'm really sorry, I want you back?' This was over."
And it wasn't about the money either. "I could win or lose a million and I don't think about money. My wife got all my money and I just hope that she still loves me," he smiled looking over at his beautiful brunette partner.
A few minutes later there was a knock at the door and under-bidder James McHale walked in to shake his hand. "It's very disappointing but we went a bit further than intended," he told the Sunday Independent afterwards.
"Oh and before you ask, no, it wasn't Paul on the other end of the phone" he chuckled before walking out the door.
We never thought it for a second.
Last year the thoroughbred industry made €1.1bn for the Irish economy. Goffs sold €23m worth of thoroughbred horses on Friday, €13m of which belonged to Paul Makin.