Early on Thursday morning an earnest young woman to the left of the Tattersall’s breakfast table hands written yellow “post-it” notes to an owlish man in his early fifties who sticks them into a Yearling Sales catalogue held open at the requisite page by an attentive young man in the chair opposite. At first glance it looks like the indulgence of a potentate. But no, it is John Warren and his assistants at work. 

 John Warren is a phenomenon. With no links to racing beyond an innate affinity with dogs and horses with which he played in what were then the green Essex fields of Harlow, he has worked his way up from being a stable lad with Barry Hills to becoming not just the Queen’s bloodstock and racing advisor but the point of first consult for many other major figures in the game. And that’s before his role as joint owner with his wife Carolyn of  the Highclere Stud which, for the third year running, was the leading consignor at last week’s premier Tattersalls Sale.  

But his real renown, and what he was testing on Thursday, is his “eye for a horse,” his ability to look at a young thoroughbred at rest and at the walk and correctly imagine it as the one that could be galloping to Group Race glory a season or two later. In this category he had the century up some time ago and the innings has included the classic winners Petrushka, Sixties Icon and Motivator. But every new catalogue, and last week’s was 600 horses strong, is a new bowling barrage. This batsman does not expect the runs to come easily.

“We have to be regimented,” he says in explanation of the almost lackey-like status of assistants Claire Middlebrook and Dan Kubler who have now handed him another small printed list with assorted hieroglyphics attached to the names. “Time is of the essence and unless we get really on top of things, the day and the horses can slip away. This is the third day of the sale. We started looking at horses last Friday and have now got today’s 200 down to a short list of 16 which have now been vetted and these notes carry the comments of our vet Nick Wingfield Digby who has been a special part of the team for 20 years.”

Warren’s thick black and gold catalogue is a battered, dog-eared, black-stickered, multi-annotated thing compared to the pristine publication he was handling in his first floor office at the Highclere Stud a month earlier. “I know I am a bit of a control freak,” he said waving at an endless array of lists and charts and coloured cards on the desks and walls to indicate the status of the horses he manages, the foals in the fields, the yearlings in preparation, the mares in readiness, and the emerging mating plans for next season. “But we have a lot going on and I like to be organized.”
He was fresh back then. Proudly turning over his latest computer charts of stallion success with the fascination of the bloodstock academic he has become, crisply collecting his schedule for five full days shuttling from stud to stud in Ireland and then another five doing the same over here. A month later and with another 600 horses set to come before the Newmarket hammer this week, the tiredness is beginning to show as it does in the slightly glazed eyes and crumpled cheeks of his brother in law Harry Herbert sitting opposite and already fielding calls from the trainers of runners for the Highclere Syndicates at the weekend.

But the treadmill they and the other weary figures hustling around the Sales paddocks catalogue in hand and mobile to ear, are on is not one to shirk. Nor a trip for the inattentive; over the next two and a half hours Warren and Herbert traverse the slopes and boxes as 17 separate horses are led up, stood, walked and trotted for inspection. Claire and Dan, the two assistants hurry ahead like sheepdogs to have the next yearling ready for when their boss and his ever more thumbed catalogue come round the corner

“Move him up a bit, no, back a bit,” says Warren trying to hide his irritation as a young colt refuses to stand in the classic position of near fore leg out in front of the other and the near hind in the rear of its partner. Once set, John peers so intently that you can almost hear the click of the camera in his head. “What you are doing,” he says, “is throwing your mind forward. Could you see this horse walking round in the Group Race Paddock next year. Does his shape, does his muscle conformation give you what his pedigree suggests and what you are buying him for? I have a picture in my mind of what a good horse, and the good horses we have bought, should look like. Can he match up?”

By way of explanation, he summons up a product of a famous sire and discreetly whispers why it doesn’t qualify. How with its neck too upright and its body too lean and its colour different from its father, it is also unlikely to have inherited his talents as a runner. “For us it’s a process of elimination,” says Warren. “By now we are down to the short list, but early in the week when we are really drilling round a hundred horses a day, it can get a bit like auditioning a chorus line. The  moment you see something you know is not for you,  it’s hard not to be impatient, just to shout ‘next’ like a producer in the movies.”

The concentration remains intense as Galileos come and Cape Crosses go, and if he had not confided the problem earlier, no one would have known that the object of his most famous responsibility was lying on an operating table just a mile up the road. Motivator, the 2005 Derby winner and current sultan of the royal stud was having the surgeon’s attention on his damaged hind leg. A faulty outcome could delay next season’s covering duties just when the horse is taking off as a stallion. From time to time Warren has to step away to field or make calls to assorted parties which of course would include the resident of Buckingham Palace. Distractions don’t come much higher than that.

The latest news from Motivator is good.  John Warren looks quizzically at one colt, “I think he is a bit hard on himself, the way he walks, just a bit too short a stride in front” and then admiringly at a bay son of Galileo whose grandam was the Prix Vermeille winner Bint Pasha. “Looking at him,” says Warren standing very still and bird-like alert, “you can see him walking round before a big race like the Derby or The King George. He has the quality, the limbs, the scope.” 

Harry Herbert is still beside us but he knows that this is the sort of colt over which the big hitters lock horns and the price will soar way above the 100,000 gns mark which is the usual Highclere upper limit. Yet Warren with a piece of flawless multi-tasking can now play in that top area as Sir Robert Ogden has come to the sales intent on getting a selection of prime colts to give his pink and white check silks a classic hand in 2011.

It is to a conference with Sir Robert to which Warren must repair as the bell tolls mizzen-wise to summon buyers to the ring. But not before looking at a handsome Mr Greeley colt which is a final Ogden possibility and whose handler, a 35 year old, bespectacled Frenchman called Jerome Glandais draws special praise. “To make a horse stand and walk so easily is a real art,” says John whose original wish to train horses saw him also work for Peter Walwyn in Grundy’s era, with Neville Dent in Australia and with Theo Greiper’s 1975 Arc winner Star Appeal after which race he knocked on Francois Boutin’s door in Chantilly and persuaded the great trainer to break the habit of a lifetime and employ an Englishman. “Look at this guy and the way the horse responds to him. To do it like this you should hold the rein as if you are squeezing toothpaste out of the tube.”
That’s the looking, now the buying. Warren first got involved when asked by vet Dick O’Gorman to help out at Richard Galpin’s Newmarket Bloodstock Agency whilst awaiting an American visa to go and work for John Gosden in California. The role fitted and when Galpin’s agency sank two years later Warren launched off on his own to make training’s loss into bloodstock’s gain.
But the actual sales process is a competitive game. “Never point,” he says softly, as my forefinger indicates the first animal on his short list now circling the ring. “If we do at all, we tend to have codes like referring to the one behind the one we are pointing at.” The filly goes into the ring and Warren and Herbert take up their accustomed positions by the entrance in the well of the staircase. Standing there, they can catch the auctioneer’s eye but are invisible to most opposing bidders.

An actual sale, with the ululating  auction voice wheedling the price up and down “thirty thousand, thirty thousand, do I have thirty thousand? She’s really cheap you know,” is an emotional business. But the weeks of preparation, the miles of walking and the poring over pedigrees, have set a strict budget. At 80,000gns  it is beyond that for this filly. The hammer falls and announces “sold to Mr Angus Gold”. They never could compete with Sheikh Hamdan.

But Robert Ogden can. Twice in the next hour and half Warren stands beside Sir Robert and his racing manager Barry Simpson as the silver haired northern tycoon goes into battle with the big battalions over colts by Galileo. The first time the electronic indicator flashes all the way up to 600,000 gns before Robert turns away and the auctioneer announces “Mr Demi O’Byrne”. That means the  colt is heading for Ballydoyle.  But 40 lots later, the old man will not be denied.

This is the good looking grandson of Bint Pasha that we had so admired and whose final touches of grooming are being done by Duncan Kinane, cousin to the mighty Michael . John Magnier and his Coolmore/Ballydoyle  associates are in again and so too is Bint Pasha’s trainer Paul Cole not to mention Galileo’s greatest fan Jim Bolger. There is an awestruck expectant, hush when these big lots start to climb. 300,000 comes and goes, then, to increasingly rapt attention, so too does 400,000. We get into half century land and breathless watchers stare at the stony, apparently totally uninterested faces of the major bidders.

Robert Ogden plays less tricks, stands much closer to the auctioneer than the others, but at 540,000 he seems to have turned away and be out of it until a final swing back of the head clinches things at 550,000. It was mesmerising theatre but he knows and we know that the buying, if you have the scratch, is the easy bit. Now the training, and the blossoming or otherwise of the talent, has to begin.
Owner and racing manager and champagne-spurning Warren are immediately into discussions as to the next move in the 2011 Derby project  and have no apparent wish to celebrate. Such restraint does not apply to Bob Lanigan, the happy vendor who is soon settled in at a table where bottles of bubbly come like buses in the rush hour. Herbert sneaks in and watches a Highclere horse called Reaction run 4th at Newbury on the TV. But he can’t dally either. There are horses to buy.

With his size and sweeping, impeccable connections, it is hard to describe Harry as a little man. But in this environment he has to be a second division player albeit one who has a share in the Encosta da Lago filly who tops Highclere Stud’s own awesome sale at 280,000 gns. In his tiny hutch of an office in the ribs of the Sales ring he places a set of yellow stickers on the wall. They represent the seven syndicates he has to fill with two and three yearlings apiece, the five horses he has already bought, and the ten within the budget that he has to get.
Out in the well of the ring he and Warren get a series of rebuffs as the prices spin away from them. Finally a bold strutting filly by Danehill Dancer who had so taken the eye in the morning gets knocked down to them for 72,000 gns – “The hardest thing to resist is temptation,” says John but that, for the day, is where the temptation ends.  Two long hours later, the last on the short list is allowed to go its way without interest, and Claire and Dan are dismissed at least until the morning when a new catalogue and a hundred fresh horses will go through their inspection routine ready for next week’s sale. 

It has been a twelve hour day.  Carlolyn Warren comes up, looking ridiculously fresh despite having masterminded a table topping £3.4 million of sales from the 23 horse consignment she and her 16 strong team have been showing this past week and ready for the next batch to start arriving. “Yes it will be a real slog,” admits John Warren, “but in a masochistic way I am looking forward to it. For every time you open the box door you know there is just the chance that this really beautiful, perfect horse will walk out in front of you.”
Away from the ring, the fullness of the silent, darkened stables is witnessed by the shrill whinnies of disorientated young thoroughbreds. What has happened over the day could be dismissed as a big bucks game for monster egos if it were not for the animals at the heart of it all. John Warren has had one of the most extraordinary climbs in racing history but it’s dead obvious where it comes from. “I have an absolute passion,” he says quite openly, “to develop and deliver the sort of horse we all dream about.”

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