09/17/2002 12:00AM

Doing her job is making history


LEXINGTON, Ky. - It was a moment that went unnoticed by many in the bidding arena, but when a Danzig filly labeled Hip No. 28 came into the auction ring at Keeneland's September yearling sale on Sept. 28, she ushered in a historic change. It had nothing to do with the filly herself, but with the person on the other end of the lead shank. For the first time in Keeneland's 59-year sale history, a woman was holding the shank on a horse in the world's most famous auction ring.

There was no announcement, just business as usual when Lisa Douglas, 36, led the dark bay filly in a slow circle around the ring. If people didn't notice right away that there was a new female face on the team, that was fine by Douglas, whose job is to show each horse to its best advantage.

"We're supposed to be invisible," she said later. "If you're doing it right, you are invisible."

But the personal importance of the moment certainly wasn't lost on Douglas.

"I've wanted this job forever and a day," she said. "I've been pestering Geoffrey Russell" - the Keeneland director of sales - "and Rogers Beasley" - his predecessor - "for years to get this green Keeneland jacket."

When the call finally came in August, Douglas faced a tough choice. She had recently taken a job as stud groom at WinStar Farm, caring for 2000 Horse of the Year Tiznow. It was the kind of assignment that anyone who works with horses would want, and Douglas loved the work. But to work for Keeneland was, as she put it, "a dream I'd always wanted" - and a chance to break a historic barrier at the notoriously conservative auction house.

"We knew she was good," said Russell, who was impressed when he saw the 5-foot-6 Douglas handling 17-hand stallion Tiznow at WinStar. "She's had some tough horses since she started here. She's drawn the wrong straw a couple of times, but nothing fazes her. She's a great horsewoman."

When an opening came up on the four-man ring crew in August, Russell tracked Douglas down and made the offer. And when WinStar vice president Gary Bush asked her what she was going to do, Douglas answered, "Go make history."

Douglas grew up in Midway, Ky., a crossroads of a town that is surrounded by some of central Kentucky's oldest and most successful Thoroughbred farms. She got acquainted with horses through a friend whose father worked at the Roach family's Parrish Hill Farm. "The whole neighborhood worked on horse farms," Douglas said, "and they were like my extended family."

Douglas had few links to the Thoroughbred industry in her own family, but by the age of 18 she had worked her way into the horse business on a full-time basis. Since then, she's accumulated a resume that would be impressive for someone twice her age. She has galloped and groomed horses, shown them at sales, and broken yearlings. She worked at the racetrack for Ernie and Ruth Flynn, Jimmy Murphy, and LeRoy Jolley. She's worked on too many farms to list, handling everything from yearlings at Juddmonte to stallions at WinStar. Douglas is tough - her nose is scarred where a mare struck her with a front hoof, and the stallion DeNiro once took a bite out of her left shoulder - but she's also patient. That's a crucial combination in the auction ring, where a nervous yearling can quickly turn into an 800-pound dervish with flying hooves.

"You've got to watch those horses all the time," said Dudley Sidney, a 25-year veteran of the Keeneland ring. "They'll try to rear and paw at you. They're high-strung. But you've also got to be patient with them. A horse is scared when he comes in here and sees all these people hollering and talking, and the hammer coming down - bang! That makes them jump. But once they realize you're not going to hurt them, most of them calm down.

"Lisa's doing a wonderful job. The other day a guy came up here with a horse and said, 'This one's tough, you better be careful.' I told him, 'If you can get him up here from the barn, I guarantee you Lisa can hold him.' "

The hardest part of the job, Douglas said, is not the horses. It's keeping an eye on everything around the horse. "There's a lot going on," she explained. She points to a sale catalog lying open on a stool near the roped-off sale ring. "A horse will see that catalog when he comes in, and it might make him stop or it might make him jump. When they come in the ring, they're terrified, and you have no idea what you're putting your hands on."

The audience unwittingly can cause problems, too, like the front-row spectator who startled yearlings and unnerved handlers by twirling his pen on the end of a white cord as he watched the sale.

"The horse sees everything, so you have to see it before they do," Douglas said. "When a person comes in to scoop up the muck out of the ring, you have to look out for him, too. I like to keep myself between him and the horse.

"The hardest ones are the horses that won't stand still. A lot of times, it helps to put them up against the auctioneer's podium, so they have the security of that wall beside them. Others will calm down if you just let them walk around the ring once and see everything."

But the main point, of course, is to show the horse off to the bidders, and Douglas always remembers that.

"I'm always looking at the horse's feet," she said. "There's a way to stand them up right so people can see them, and if you go slow with them, you can get them to move one leg at a time until they're standing up where people see what their legs and body look like. But if one won't cooperate, you've got to go where he's going."

"Not everybody thought she could do it," Sidney said. "But she's proved them wrong."

"It was Keeneland or nowhere," said Douglas. "I've got my green jacket, and I don't plan on giving it back."