JANOW PODLASKI, Poland (AP) — Sales at a famed horse auction on a remote state-run farm in eastern Poland on Sunday were much lower this year, with some potential buyers staying away after the country's right-wing government carried out a controversial political purge of managers in the respected Arabian horse breeding program.
An 11-year-old grey mare, Sefora, sold for 300,000 euros ($335,000) at the Pride of Poland auction, but many of the 31 horses in the sale at all found no buyers at all, failing to reach required minimum prices.
Organizers raised about 1.3 million euros ($1.45 million), far below the 2-2.5 million they had sought, money critical to the survival of the enterprise. At last year's auction, one mare, Pepita, sold for 1.4 million euros alone and the sale raised 4.6 million euros — though that was a highly unusual result and not the norm.
Slawomir Pietrzak, the stud farm's new director, said he didn't consider this year's auction a failure and said you can't have a record year every year.
The farm at Janow Podlaski is set amid lush meadows near the border with Belarus and has for decades drawn film directors and rock stars, Arab sheikhs and other millionaires seeking some of the world's finest Arabian horses.
The firing of three managers came as the ruling Law and Justice party has brought other widespread changes to the country, including a weakening of the judiciary that has brought international concern over the state of Poland's democracy, and the fate of the prized Arabian breeding program had come to stand as a symbol of those deep changes.
An auctioneer struggled to urge prices higher, praising the beauty of the mares — "they don't get any more beautiful than that and she's only 6 years old!" he said of a grey mare, Wabia, that sold for 100,000 euros — but ultimately had to send many back to the stables without buyers.
Nobody expected this year's auction to raise nearly as much as last year's, but the results appeared to be hurt by major buyers of past years from the U.S., Europe and the Middle East who stayed home due to problems with the new management.
One notable person absent this year after more than two decades of buying horses from Janow Podlaski is British breeder Shirley Watts, wife of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Two mares that she had loaned to the farm died after the management changes earlier this year, causing her to bring home two other mares on loan early and ending her years of cooperation with the stud.
In a sign of how Pietrzak is trying to clean up the stud farm's image, he said Friday that he had apologized to Shirley Watts and hoped to restore good ties with such an important client.
Pietrzak, a horse expert and university professor, took over in June, replacing a short-lived manager who had no previous experience with horses, but said on his appointment he hoped to make horses his new hobby.
Poland's government accused the fired managers of financial wrongdoing. The three insist they are innocent and are the victims of a personal vendetta. They were among scores of civil servants who were fired after Law and Justice took power last November. It's a usual practice in Poland when power changes hands, but this purge was deeper and faster than most, leading critics to accuse the government of a willingness to harm the country's vital interests for in political expediency.
Before the auction, potential buyers of 30 mares and one stallion had mixed opinions on the horses, which were presented at a show and were also available for inspection in the classical 19th-century stables on the farm's grounds.
Some raved that the horses seemed as graceful as ever.
"The event is brilliant and the horses look very nice," said Amy Dutkowski Southworth, a breeder from Poulton-le-Fylde in Lancashire, England.
Faisad Al o Taibe, an owner and breeder from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said that this year the quality of the organization, food and everything else was much better than in the past, "but the quality of the horses at the auction has dropped."
Fahad Al-Zaydi, a breeder from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, said "the quality of the broodmares seems to be the same. But I suppose we will see in five or 10 years if there is a difference or not."
The Polish visitors were also deeply divided about the changes. "These are bad changes in Poland. The horses are still great but we don't know if this will last," said Michal Janicki, 35, from Ostrow Wielkopolski.
But Daniel Milewski, a 27-year-old lawyer from Warsaw, was more sympathetic to the political changes that have reached into the breeding program, saying there are reasons to suspect the long-time managers of impropriety and insisting that all political parties change the top people at state enterprises when they take power.
"The organization this year was great and even if we had had the previous management I think the prices would have been the same," Milewski said.
The farm's attraction comes from the fine horses it breeds, but it also enjoys a romantic allure because of its storied history.
Russian Czar Alexander I started the breeding operation in 1817, a time when a large swath of eastern Poland was under Russian control, because Russia needed to replenish a cavalry force depleted by the Napoleonic wars.
The farm then suffered through a tumultuous history of uprisings and war, with World War II almost finishing the farm off. The Nazis took some Arabians back to Germany with them, but most of the horses were killed in fighting.
After the war, stable owners managed to rebuild by leasing Polish Arabian stallions around the world for breeding. Despite the communists' hatred of aristocracy, they worked to rebuild the bloodlines of these horses. Even in the communist era the auction drew the rich and famous, with film director Mike Nichols a notable buyer in decades past.