04/08/2004 12:00AM

Robert Sangster dead


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Robert Sangster, a major English-based owner and breeder and a force behind the creation of the globally dominant Coolmore operation, died at his London home on Wednesday. Sangster, who was 67, had pancreatic cancer.

A family friend, Lord Bell, said Thursday, "He was surrounded by his family, and he died very peacefully after a long illness that started nine or 10 months ago."

Sangster bred and raced more than 100 Grade 1 or Group 1 winners and helped change the face of modern commercial Thoroughbred breeding with his involvement in Coolmore, but he is perhaps best known as leader of a partnership that paid a world-record $13.1 million for the yearling Seattle Dancer at Keeneland's 1985 July yearling sale.

Sangster inherited $30 million of his father's Vernon Pools betting fortune in the early 1970's and used it to become one of the Thoroughbred sport's most influential owners and breeders. With his friend, Irish farm owner John Magnier, Sangster began buying up Northern Dancer yearlings and seasons in the early 1970's and quickly became one of the dominant market forces at North America's premier Thoroughbred yearling auctions. Their selection team, which included famed Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien and was often referred to as "Sangster's Gangsters," had immediate success with such runners as the 1977 Epsom Derby and Irish Derby winner, The Minstrel, and the 1977 and 1978 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, Alleged. Under the banner of Coolmore Stud in Ireland, the triumvirate of Sangster, Magnier, and O'Brien developed a system that has made the racing and breeding operation a global powerhouse: They identified top male racing prospects at auction, sent them to O'Brien to maximize their talents on the racecourse, then stood them at stud at Magnier's farm.

Sangster's famed blue and green colors were carried to victory in no fewer than 27 European classics, most of the winners trained by O'Brien. Golden Fleece preceded The Minstrel as one of Sangster's two Epsom Derby winners. Sangster suffered perhaps the most heartbreaking defeat of his career when El Gran Senor was nosed out of the Epsom Derby by Secreto in 1984. El Gran Senor bounced back to become one of his four Irish Derby winners, as was The Minstrel. El Gran Senor was also one of his three 2000 Guineas winners, joining Lomond and Rodrigo De Triano, the latter trained by Peter Chapple-Hyam.

Sangster also campaigned the O'Brien-trained Sadler's Wells to win the Eclipse Stakes and the Irish Champion Stakes, and won the first Breeders' Cup Mile with the John Gosden-trained filly Royal Heroine.

"Sangster's Gangsters" were the preeminent spenders at North America's select yearling auctions throughout the 1970's. When they were challenged in the early 1980's by such new buyers as the Maktoum brothers of Dubai, and D. Wayne Lukas's major client Eugene Klein, the resulting bidding duels created an unprecedented bloodstock auction boom. In 1983, Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum outbid Lukas and Sangster for a then world-record $10.2 million to acquire Snaafi Dancer at the Keeneland July sale. The following year saw Northern Dancer yearlings Imperial Falcon and Jareer sell for $8.25 million and $7.1 million, respectively, thanks to the groups' clashes.

In 1985, Sangster, Magnier, and O'Brien flew to Dubai to establish a bidding agreement with Sheikh Mohammed, and the resulting detente helped deflate yearling prices that season as the two teams avoided battles wherever possible. Despite that cooler market atmosphere, the 1985 Keeneland July sale produced the world-record $13.1 million Seattle Dancer when Sangster - leading a partnership that included Magnier, O'Brien, Stavros Niarchos, and Danny Schwartz - outbid Lukas for the colt.

Although Sangster had decreased his involvement in Coolmore in recent years, the stud operation - which includes divisions in Kentucky and Australia - remains one of the world's largest and most lucrative breeding and racing programs. Under Sangster's influence, Coolmore has shaped new trends in commercial Thoroughbred breeding, including the vast expansion of stallions' books past 100 mares and the shuttling of popular stallions to Southern Hemisphere stud duty.

Sangster, who was separated from his third wife, Sue, has six children: sons Ben, Adam, Guy, Max, and Sam, and a daughter, Kate. His funeral is scheduled for April 19 at St. Paul's in Knightsbridge, London.

- additional reporting by Alan Shuback