07/27/2017 12:40PM

Employing horse power to sell horsepower

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Courtesy of Barrett-Jackson
Joseph Mast (second from left) and Kurt Becker (right), known in the Thoroughbred world for their work at Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland, respectively, help sell a 1978 Pontiac Firebird at the 2017 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Collector Car Auction.

In another world, Kurt Becker and Joseph Mast might have been cross-town rivals.

Becker has been the voice of Keeneland since the track first staffed an announcer in 1997. Mast is in his seventh year as a Fasig-Tipton auctioneer. Holding down the same stand at a Thoroughbred sale would be a branding clash akin to Coca-Cola and Pepsi teaming up.

The differences between Kentucky auction houses mean little, though, when it’s January in Scottsdale, Ariz., and there are cars to sell.

Mast and Becker, whose voices are familiar in the Thoroughbred world, have been working together for Barrett-Jackson, a leading collector car auction house, since 2009.

This year’s Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Collector Car Auction buzzed when actor Burt Reynolds rolled onto the stage in a 1978 Pontiac Firebird, restored to look like his signature ride from “Smokey and the Bandit.”

The public address system twanged out Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down,” and a crush of onlookers gathered with their phones recording every second.

Reynolds addressed the crowd in his timeless smooth growl, then yielded the floor to Mast. His staccato cadence is familiar background noise at Thoroughbred sales, but something was clearly different.

Mast’s voice was a touch higher and his pace more rapid-fire than at Fasig-Tipton. He hung on to the last syllable of the asking bid a little longer, with a rise instead of a drop, while he scanned for flailing bidspotters. Onlookers whooped with each bid.

As the bidding slowed, Becker intervened with a reminder of the Firebird’s selling points. Becker’s style at Keeneland is one of controlled enthusiasm and knowing when to crescendo, but his tone at the Barrett-Jackson sale was conversational.

Mast thrust the gavel down at $250,000, and the car and actor were cheered off the stage.

None of this would have flown at a Thoroughbred auction.

“There’s definitely a different approach to working the job at Barrett-Jackson, insofar as it’s a different atmosphere,” Becker said. “Demographically and socioeconomically speaking, you’ve got two sets of clientele and they respond to different types of presentations on the microphone, and I like the challenge.”

Becker was hired at Barrett-Jackson by auctioneer Tom “Spanky” Assiter, who previously manned the gavel at Keeneland. Mast succeeded Assiter as Barrett-Jackson’s head auctioneer in 2015.

Mast is perhaps best recognized as the grocery store checkout clerk-turned-auctioneer in a 2013 GEICO commercial, but his company, Mast Auctioneers, handles a broad spectrum of offerings across the country.

Mast began working for Fasig-Tipton in 2010.

“Kurt was one of the first people that I talked to about the industry when I got a call from Fasig-Tipton to come and try out,” Mast said.

Becker’s first lesson for Mast was the importance of correct pronunciation.

“He sent me, and I still have it, a multiple-page email on all the hot sires and dams at the time, and he would spell out phonetically their names and how to say them,” Mast said. “He knew I wasn’t going to Keeneland, I was going to Fasig-Tipton, and it was kind of a cool way to start a young guy like me in the business.”

The Barrett-Jackson sale’s pageantry is rooted in its production demands. Becker and Mast not only must project themselves to thousands of bidders and spectators under the massive tent at WestWorld of Scottsdale, but to a global audience on the auction’s long-running television broadcasts.

For Mast, that can mean adding a flair for the dramatic to his chant. For his bidspotters, it means venturing out to individual bidders to interact with them, where Thoroughbred bidspotters remain largely stationary and some buyers are famously inconspicuous.

“You’ve got to remember we’re really putting on a show out there,” Mast said. “We are literally making a TV show and part of that TV show is the auction. People understand we’re going to be in their face, rubbing their backs, and hugging on them and trying to get them to give us that extra $1,000 or $5,000.

“Here, it’s much more of a professional setting, where we’re not in your face,” he said about the Thoroughbred realm. “We’re going to stand back, we’re going to take your bids. We’ll encourage you, but I do that more from the stand than the bid-spotters actually going out and putting their hands on you, and I think a lot of that has to do with tradition.”

A big part of that tradition is deference to the horse. The pace and cadence is closer to a livestock dispersal than an art auction, but Thoroughbred sales are structured to minimize the risk of triggering the flight-instinct animals, with an emphasis on giving the horse space and limiting commotion inside the pavilion.

Mast said the size of the room also affects his choices. A smaller crowd might be turned off by overblown physical and vocal gestures, while a buttoned-down auctioneer could lose a bigger room’s attention.

Compared to the 3,925-seat bidder floor under the WestWorld tent, the Keeneland sales pavilion seats about 700, Fasig-Tipton’s Lexington base has 645 theater-style seats, and the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., seats 622.

“It’s a more boutique style where you’ve got a smaller room,” Mast said. “It’s more intimate. I think if we used the same energy that we used [at Barrett-Jackson], the people would be like, ‘Who is this guy? We’re selling horses here. You don’t need to get that raucous with us.’”

Mast and Becker said they are not given specific guidelines on structuring their cadences at Thoroughbred sales. Instead, the controlled chatter comes from knowing the room and the product.

Said Becker: “My approach is often to look around and I’ll see a D. Wayne Lukas or a Bob Baffert, and because I know those guys, I will say to myself, ‘Less is more in this situation. They know what they’re looking at.’ By the time that horse comes to the ring, they’ve been back to the barn, they’ve watched that horse come out of the stall several times, they know the pedigree like the back of their hand, and chances are they’ve trained racehorses out of that pedigree on the page. As a result, I can afford to be more reserved.”

While the presentation may differ, the two markets share many common traits.

Comparing bellwether auctions for both arenas – the Keeneland September yearling sale for Thoroughbreds and Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale for collector cars – the markets each saw its highest recent points during the mid-2000s and were staggered by the Great Recession. After bottoming out early this decade, both sales gradually rebounded to post averages comparable to previous highs.

The average price for a yearling at last year’s Keeneland September sale was $87,803 from 2,895 horses sold, while January’s Scottsdale sale average was $59,100 from 1,709 cars sold.

“When you get a really rare car, they’re all over it,” Mast said. “I will say, there’s more people that are playing in the car market at the low end because it’s easy to get into. It’s not hard to get into the horse market, but there’s just a lot more to it. You can buy a car, you can take it home, and you can stick it in your garage. It’s not eating, you don’t have to work it, and when you want to get rid of it, you pull it back out and sell it. There just aren’t as many strings attached.”

Value is determined in either market by how far a bidder will go to secure the lot, but Mast said the Thoroughbred industry is unique in its competitiveness and the emotional appeal of the horse itself, which ramps up the element of surprise.

“I love the horse industry because you’re selling an animal that someone is going to fall in love with, or has fallen in love with,” Mast said. “A car’s a little different in that if you tell me the year, make, and model, in five minutes I can probably get you to within 10 to 15 percent of what the car’s worth.

“As an auctioneer, selling Thoroughbreds is true price discovery. They walk in, and somebody might say it’s a $10,000 horse and another might say it’s a $500,000 horse. You just don’t know, and that’s one of the fun things about selling here.”