01/11/2008 12:00AM

Courtney calls it quits after 67 fun years


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Robert Courtney, who sold his last horse at Keeneland on Wednesday after 67 years in the business, still recalls with great clarity the first mare he ever bought, back in 1941. Her name was Sweet Face, and he got her for $50.

It might have seemed a nondescript beginning, but when he sold Sweet Face and her foal for 32 times that shortly thereafter, it marked the start of a great career that Courtney says has been filled with hard work, fun, and good luck.

In 1941, Courtney was 20 and working at W.R. Estill's farm near Lexington, and he bought Sweet Face out of a sale from Jess Spencer, a breeder, owner, and trainer who was getting out of the horse business.

"He had told me he had a 2-year-old that he thought was the best he'd ever had, named Bright Willie," Courtney said.

That colt brought $2,500 at Spencer's racing stock dispersal at Churchill Downs. But when his dam came up for auction soon afterward at Fasig-Tipton in Lexington, she was barren and few bidders were interested.

"She'd been barren for four years, but I knew the mare hadn't had much of a chance to get in foal," Courtney said. "I knew Mr. Spencer and his brother ran their farm, and they didn't even have a teaser to tease the mares. We didn't have all those medical skills we have today. And this man named Coleman used to just ride the Spencers' mares down the road to Mr. Estill's farm, tease the mares, and ride them home. They'd just breed her once, and she didn't have much chance."

Courtney's first gamble paid off just two months later, when Bright Willie won the Hialeah Stakes, and a buyer came to offer him $1,000 for Sweet Face.

"I wouldn't sell, and my father, who was a banker, just about killed me," Courtney recalled.

Courtney bred his first foal out of Sweet Face, spending $300 for a stud fee to He Did. He sold the resulting filly for $600, and the mare brought $1,000 in the same auction.

"I took the $1,600 and when I got out of the Army, I bought a mare for $1,500, and sold her for $3,500," Courtney said.

Courtney, now 86, became famous for spotting good mares and selling foals out of them at healthy profits for his partners and clients. His most famous acquisition came when he bought Hasty Queen II for $11,000, then sold more than $1 million worth of yearlings out of her - including Grade 1 winner Fit to Fight, graded winner Hasty Tam, and three other stakes winners. In 1992, he bought Delta Slew for $67,000 and went on to sell more than $1.1 million worth of horses from her; the mare died only a few days ago and is buried at Crestfield Farm. And he bought Saratoga Dame in 1995 for $55,000, then sold $365,000 worth of stock from her - including the popular Grade 2 winner and Grade 1-placed runner Dollar Bill, bred by Courtney and his wife, Evelyn.

Along the way, Courtney and his partners and clients - such as Bob Congleton, Jaime Carrion, and others - have had both fun and profits. Courtney has sold a couple of million-dollar yearlings, and, perhaps more important for Thoroughbred bloodlines, he raised and sold champions Meadow Star and Action This Day on Carrion's behalf. Crestfield also was the home of Meadow Star's sire, Meadowlake, when he was a foal.

Courtney has weathered many changes in the breeding business, and he laments the high-turnover, bottom-line mind-set he sees in the breeding world today. That, along with the deaths of some of his cherished clients and friends and Carrion's decision to disperse his horses this year, finally prompted him to retire. He has one horse in training ("But he's not any 'count, so we won't talk about him," he said with a laugh) and a couple of mares ("Just enough to worry me").

"I've been very fortunate," he said, "and I have had fun. I went into it wanting to raise a good horse and hoping to make a living."

It's fair to say he's done well on both counts.

Phipps colt sells for $380,000

The Cynthia Phipps dispersal's 3-year-old racehorse Wotan brought $380,000 as the session topper at Keeneland's January all-ages sale on Friday. George Krikorian bought the Dynaformer colt, who finished third and second in two starts last season. Claiborne Farm, agent, consigned the colt. He is out of Versaillles Treaty's stakes-producing daughter Rhineland, making him a half-brother to stakes-placed Cologne and St. Hildegard.

Rhineland, by Mr. Prospector, sold earlier in the week to Kelley Farms Racing for $350,000.

Friday's session, the fifth of seven, posted declines across the board. The session sold 239 horses for $3,766,400, down 14 percent from last year, when 221 sold. Average price was down 21 percent to $15,759, and median dropped 15 percent to $8,500. But buy-backs decreased from 25 percent last year to 21 percent.

* Legacy Bloodstock has hired bloodstock agent Ginger Emerson to head up its research and sales development. Legacy, which offered its first public consignment in 2005, is operated by partners Tom Eastham and Mark Toothaker in Nicholasville, Ky. Emerson most recently operated her own bloodstock agency.