10/15/2009 11:00PM

Tattersalls: History under the hammer

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The first man to hold the gavel at England's Tattersalls auction house was Richard Tattersall, in 1766, when the sales were held at London's Hyde Park Corner and the Thoroughbred was a relatively new creation.

Since then, the world's oldest equine auction firm has sold everything from dogs to foxes, world-record-priced Thoroughbreds to cab horses, and even the skeleton of the great racehorse and stallion Eclipse.

Richard Tattersall had started his trade selling carriages and carriage horses at Beevor's Horse Repository about 10 years earlier, and when he opened his sales company the trade was far more varied than it is today. He began with selling foxhounds and hunters, an occupation that made him of central importance to England's sporting set. The firm still conducted an annual hound sale until just before World War I.

Tattersall became so well liked that it was said even the highwaymen wouldn't rob him. A plaque at Park Paddocks recounts a time Tattersall ran into a masked robber while riding one night. 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.

At his death in 1795 Tattersall was a renowned Thoroughbred owner. His most famous acquisition was Highflyer, a Herod horse who already was a famous unbeaten runner when Tattersall bought him for 2,500 pounds in 1779 from breeder Lord Bolingbroke.

Highflyer ran four times for Tattersall, winning three and walking over once, before retiring and becoming England's premier stallion, to Tattersall's great profit. Tattersall named his home Highflyer Hall and was known, when hosting dinners, to offer a toast: "To the hammer and to Highflyer," both of which made Tattersall's fortune.

When Highflyer died in 1793, England's "Sporting Magazine" said: "Here lieth the perfect and beautiful symmetry of Highflyer, by whom, and his wonderful offspring, the celebrated Tattersall acquired a noble fortune, but was not ashamed to acknowledge it."

The Tattersalls company now exclusively auctions Thoroughbreds at its seven sales a year, including Europe's largest yearling vendue, the multipart October auction that opened Tuesday.

Tattersalls headquarters moved from London to Park Paddocks, Newmarket, in 1939. The company's iconic watering trough came with it. The trough, which watered sale horses from 1780 at Hyde Park Corner, is the most elaborate of its kind: a large cupola housing a fox on a plinth (a nod to the company's long association with foxhunting) and with a bust of King George IV on top of the cupola's dome. "The Fox" was the focal point for what an 1818 writer described as "peers, baronets, jockies, grooms, horse-dealers, gamblers, and spies," as well as "some of the best blood in England disguised as coachmen" alongside "fat glaziers" or "flashy butchers."

The gamblers had some reason to be there. In its earliest days and on into the 1800s, Tattersalls also housed a betting room whose prices were reported weekly in the "Sporting Magazine." Accounting day also was reported, and at least once a member of the European aristocracy apparently preferred meeting judgment day than the Tattersalls accounting day: He shot himself after losing heavily on a race wager.

It is remarkable how much non-equine trade the company did. In 1836, Tattersalls handled the dispersal of the late Duke of Gordon's Gordon setter line of hunting dogs, as well as his collection of greyhounds, terriers, and more.

But Tattersalls now is best known for its high-end bloodstock auctions and has been the scene of many notable and record sales. Solario set a record in 1925, when he brought a world record 47,000 guineas. In 1967, the opening bid on Vaguely Noble, 80,000 guineas, broke that record, and when the dust cleared, Dr. Robert Franklyn of California had bought the great runner and sire for a world record 136,000 guineas.

Kentucky became the scene of world records in the 1980s, but Tattersalls set a record again in 2006, when Magical Romance brought a world broodmare record 4.6 million guineas. That mark was later topped by Better Than Honour's $14 million price at the 2008 Fasig-Tipton November sale.

The Tattersalls of 2009 is vastly different from that of 1766, but the company retains much of its distinctive and historic flavor. The Park Paddocks pavilion is small and intimate, and the auctions are still held in the old currency of guineas (equivalent to 1.05 pounds) by auctioneers with a leisurely, conversational style. The original rostrum, like The Fox, was carried lovingly from London to Newmarket. Its dark wood surface, dented by gavels from Richard Tattersall to current chairman Edmond Mahony, is in the sale pavilion's back bar. Today, buyers and sellers can put their drinks on its surface, run their hand over the great dent, and contemplate all that has preceded them.