NOW UPDATED WITH AUCTION VIDEO!
IF you’re involved in the Thoroughbred breeding world, chances are you’ve heard of Tattersalls. The famous English auction house is headquartered in Newmarket and conducts seven Thoroughbred sales a year. But it also has a deep connection to foxhunting. The company no longer conducts sales of hounds, field hunters, or foxes (yes, foxes!), but it still honors the noble art and science of the hunt by including a fox in its corporate logo.
The company opened in London at Hyde Park Corner in 1766, and it’s worth noting that its founder, Richard Tattersall, started off as a canine auctioneer even more than an equine one. To quote from Peter Willett’s fascinating book The Story of Tattersalls, “Richard … was making friends with the county families through the medium of his hound sales–sales which he conducted in person at The Corner. This was a lucrative business, resulting in a daily turnover of anything up to 500 guineas, with the advantage that hacks and hunters were frequently offered at the end of the day. The horses caused the fodder bill to rise, but attracted a wider clientele. There was always a good market for horses of every description.”
Tattersall’s rise in the auctioneering business was steady and steep, partly because he had the reputation for conduting his sales with integrity. He and his auctions at Tattersall’s, as it was then known, were held in such esteem that it was said even the highwaymen wouldn’t rob him. One night, a story goes, Tattersall was riding along a lonely road when a masked man rode up alongside him. The two rode side by side for nearly two miles in silence before the robber said, “I think your name’s Tattersall?” When Tattersall confirmed this, so the story goes, the highwayman replied, “Ah, I thought so. I beg your pardon, sir,” and rode away without drawing his pistol.
In the early 1910s, before the outbreak of World War I, one of the firm’s auctioneers was J. R. Rawlence, who was also secretary of the Masters of Foxhounds Association at the time. Rawlence continued the auction house’s tradition of hound sales by conducting an annual hound auction until World War I intervened. Over time foxhounds, greyhounds, and other sporting dogs (in 1863, the firm also dispersed the late Duke of Gordon’s original group of Gordon setters as well as his terriers) faded from the trade at Tattersalls, but it continued selling hunt horses well into the 20th century.
Today, the company mantains a close cultural relationship with hunting, even though it has narrowed its business focus entirely on racehorses now. The current Tattersalls chairman and chief auctioneer, Edmond Mahony, is a great hunting man and Master of the Louth in Ireland. And nearly everyone we ran into among the Tattersalls staff was an active member of one hunt or another. So were many of the buyers and sellers at the company’s recent October Book 1 yearling sale.
To see Mahony in action selling horses, see the clip below.
Support for hunting and annoyance at the 2005 foxhunting ban were frequently in evidence in the form of pro-Countryside Alliance bumper stickers and even a large sign on one consignor’s barn!
Tattersalls has not been based in Newmarket for all that long, considering how old the firm itself is. It moved from Hyde Park Corner to Knightsbridge, also in London, in 1865. Tattersalls purchased the Park Paddocks land in Newmarket where it currently is headquartered back in 1870. But it wasn’t until 1977 that Tattersalls completely consolidated its operations in Newmarket.
When the company finally relocated to England’s racing center at Newmarket, it considered leaving The Fox behind, but it ultimately had the cupola dismantled and very carefully removed to Park Paddocks, where it now is a central and much loved focal point, as it had been throughout the decades at the London sales. Even more ambitiously, in the late 1940s the company also moved the enormous stone arch from its Knightsbridge location’s entrance. That huge edifice now stands near the Park Paddocks entrance as a grand monument to the auction house and its deep roots.
For the horses on offer at Tattersalls today, the setting is much simpler. The barns are situated around the sale pavilion, and they provide a peaceful, leafy setting that promotes relaxation in the horses and thoughtful contemplation among their examiners.
Thoroughbred sales surely have entered the technology age, with digital X-rays, endoscopic exams, and computerized race replays and pedigree analyses. But there are still traditions aplenty at Tattersalls. The firm still conducts its auctions in the old currency of guineas, the equivalent of £1.05 per guinea. Charmingly, the sale sessions are still opened each day by a man who stands outside the pavilion ringing a large brass bell for five minutes before the start of each day’s selling. (When sales aren’t on, John the bellringer told us, he does the gardening at Park Paddocks)
At 10:25 a.m., John emerges and clangs his bell steadily as fair warning to the crowd that the sale will open in five minutes’ time. Sure enough, the bidders and spectators all are drawn toward the pavilion very much as if they are heading for church, but carrying catalogs instead of Bibles. At 10:30, another man signals to John from the pavilion door that it’s time to start the selling; John and his brass bell go back into the sale offices; and the auctioneer calls in the first lot of the day.
The Tattersalls auction style is very different from that seen at most U.S. Thoroughbred sales. Each auctioneer has his own highly individual style. Mahony, for example, is precise and elegant and quite serious, while Alastair Pim is more theatrical and sometimes resembles a strict schoolteacher chiding his students (see below).
In 2005, Newmarket’s local Thurlow Hounds paraded at Tattersalls to remind the public how entwined are the histories of hunting, racing, and Tattersalls. For fun, we took Tattersalls up on the offer to arrange a kennel visit to the Thurlow, and we’ll report back on that later this week. But, as a tempting sneak preview, we offer this lovely view of the Thurlow hounds. Happy hunting, all!