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Gavel comes down on career of auction world's most respected diplomat

16 December 2011

AS THE gavel came down on the final lot at the Tattersalls December Sale, it brought to a close the career of one of the most respected figures in the thoroughbred auction world. Following 40 years of service, Martin Mitchell attended his final sale as Tattersalls director of bloodstock sales, a role he has held since 1996.

Retirement beckons for the 63-year-old but he will not fade from view. Instead, he is set to succeed Nigel Elwes as chairman of the trustees at the British Racing School while fulfilling a consultancy role at Tattersalls, remaining a director of Tattersalls Ireland and assuming more of a presence within the Darley Flying Start programme.

Mitchell's diplomacy and ability to diffuse potentially difficult situations has won him respect from all corners of the industry. Numerous conflicts relating to transactions in the sale ring have been resolved through his intervention, an area of his role which he has found the most satisfying.

"It might be an odd thing to say but it's rewarding when you have an irate client and you've taken him into your office and resolved the problem," he says.

"A horseman's problem is usually resolved relatively quickly. A businessman might be different because he's come in from the outside world and perhaps views everything in a rather black and white way."

During Mitchell's 40-year tenure, Tattersalls has grown and consolidated its position as the dominant sales company in Europe. This year alone, over 182,600,000gns was traded on bloodstock at Park Paddocks. Mitchell has seen it all, ranging from the first million-guinea horse to the heady trading of major dispersals.

He remembers vividly how office staff adopted "a curious existence" during the days when Tattersalls was based next door to Harrods in Knightsbridge, which meant weekly tripsto Newmarket to attend the sales.

"The offices were in Knightsbridge and the company employed about 15 people overall compared to 25 today," he says. "There was no marketing or IT department.

"When the sales were on, the office staff moved up to Newmarket in a minibus with boxes of whatever we needed - sale books, hammers. You could say it was a slightly curious existence because we were always up and down from London."

Mitchell's interest in racing developed as a schoolboy and intensified during his time at Cambridge University, days which involved a first visit to Tattersalls.

"I was from a non-racing background, which meant a limited number of jobs in racing were open to me, including working for a sales company. I first went to Tattersalls when I was at university and remember being very taken with it. So I wrote to them and although there was nothing there at that time, they later wrote back saying they might have something for me. I was interviewed and hired.

"My main job then was to produce the catalogue pages. Vendors were required to write out the pedigrees on the entry form themselves - some were very good, some didn't do it at all, some did it half-heartedly and with some it was wishful thinking that relations had won four races instead of two.

"We would then use our card system - we used pedigrees from older catalogue pages stuck on to cards as references - to go through each pedigree to check and flesh out the details. Quite often, we'd be working until 8pm but it was a fantastic education."

BY 1986, Mitchell had taken over the role of bloodstock manager upon the retirement of Alan Taylor, the man whom Mitchell credits as "an excellent tutor", and in 1996 was appointed sales director. It was a landmark move for a company whose board of directors had primarily comprised family members.

"Alan Taylor was an amazingly good manager and guided me on how to react to clients," he says. "He was always calm, never got cross and regarded everything with a degree of humour.

"When I was appointed a director alongside company secretary Philip Potts, I was one of the first to be promoted having risen from the shop floor. When Edmond Mahony became chairman I think he saw a need to open up the company and although Tattersalls has always been very well run, when I joined it was still quite feudal."

Mitchell leaves with a host of memories and when pressed for a highlight, doesn't hesitate in nominating the 1980 sale of Tenea, the first horse to sell for a million guineas.

"I still get a kick from being at the sales," he said. "When Sumora sold last month for 2.4 million gns, there was a fantastic atmosphere. I know the American system of selling is quicker but it doesn't have that tremendous drama or theatre.

"I'm looking forward to staying on as consultant, which will be more of an ambassadorial role. I'm also moving to Newmarket. I've always lived in Cambridge because I knew my way around and it offered an escape - Newmarket can be very claustrophobic and the last thing you want is someone tackling you about a horse just as you're thinking about where to buy supper. Now that can be passed on to somebody else."

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