09/06/2012 12:30PM

Keeneland September auctioneers adapt to changing times


Legendary Keeneland auctioneer George Swinebroad probably said it best: “You never know where your money’s going to come from.”

Swinebroad ruled the rostrum from 1944 to 1975, and since then his maxim has become more relevant, even as the sale has changed drastically from his day. Notably, three key figures have gone way up: the number of yearlings Keeneland sells each year, the prices those horses fetch, and the number of countries from which the buyers arrive. When buyers converge on Keeneland for the Sept. 10-21 yearling sale, they will fly in from nearly every state in the U.S., as well as from Dubai, Australia, Turkey, England, and Korea, to name a few countries. They’ll carry catalogs featuring 3,604 yearlings, and at least some of these intrepid bidders will expect to spend well over $1 million for a horse.

The game has changed since Swinebroad’s day, and that means Keeneland auctioneering has changed a little, too.

“I think the auctioneers have realized it’s a different market, and all of us have slowed our chant down from what it used to be,” said Scott Caldwell, whose family has been well represented in the Keeneland auctioneer’s stand.

Scott and his brother Cris followed their late father, Swinebroad protege Tom Caldwell, to wield Keeneland’s gavel.

“You try and get rhythm in your chant, but at the same time you understand you’ve got people out there speaking probably 15 or 20 different languages, and most of the time they’re looking at the tote board now instead of listening to you,” he said. “So it’s very important that you are clear and precise in your numbers and everybody understands what the bid is and what the current asking price is. I think, from George Swinebroad’s day, if you listen to the tapes it was all gravelly and very quick. It was just a different era. Now we’re expected to be a little more aesthetically pleasing to everyone involved, and do our job in a way that’s quite a bit different from the Swinebroad era.”

The chant might have slowed, but the rate of selling remains pretty quick at Keeneland. The first week, 25 to 30 horses can go through the ring in an hour, a rate that Swinebroad himself took credit for in a 1974 Daily Racing Form interview with Logan Bailey.

“I sold my first Thoroughbred in Maryland in 1935, and we’d sell maybe 10 to 15 horses an hour,” he said then. “I’ve gradually increased the tempo to now we never sell less than 25 to 30 horses an hour and sometimes more. Of course, that lets you make more money for the company for which you work.”

Swinebroad’s education included on-the-job training and a spell at Centre College in Kentucky for voice lessons, where he learned to control his breath during the chant, much as a singer must while performing. Today’s would-be auctioneers can get formal training, covering everything from legal technicalities to confidence-building and salesmanship skills. The National Auctioneers Association lists 27 auction schools in the United States; Iowa and Pennsylvania have the most with three each.

“Once you have your auction school diploma, the best training comes from working under a mentor auctioneer,” said Justin Holmberg, who joined senior auctioneer Ryan Mahan’s Keeneland auction team in 1998. “They teach you product knowledge. And they help you build relationships, which are key to being a successful auctioneer. Beyond that, the best training is what we call mike time. That’s where you learn your chant, you get comfortable with yourself, and you get your rhythm down.”

Holmberg’s chant is woven from stylistic threads he picked up from his favorite auctioneers.

“You pick up different pieces from guys that you like,” he said. “You use them once, and if you get comfortable with them, then you keep them. If you fumble over something, you get rid of that part.”

Listen closely to Holmberg, and you’ll hear his dad’s style, rhythm, and “wouldyadothat,” plus Tom Caldwell’s “wouldhegive.”

And while auctioneering styles differ from auto sales to property auctions to the Thoroughbred ring, there is some verbal cross-pollination, Holmberg said.

“My sixes and my eights are a little different for the Thoroughbred business, but not for the cattle business,” Holmberg said, rattling off a sample skein, a galloping repetition that English author and actor Stephen Fry, visiting Keeneland several years ago, aptly compared to banjo music.

For some auctioneers, of course, training comes via family. One famous example: the Tattersall family of Newmarket, England. In 1885, Edmund Somerville “Sommy” Tattersall, a shy member of the family that founded Tattersalls in 1766, came to the gavel unexpectedly when his father fell ill while selling horses one July.

“Suddenly, his father’s voice deserted him altogether, as the first of the Blankney yearlings was led into the ring,” Peter Willett wrote in The Story of Tattersalls. “Sommy took the hammer, spread his catalog calmly on the shelf in front of him, and proceeded to sell without turning a hair. He was perfectly self-possessed, persuasive of voice, patient and composed in the inevitable moments when bids hung fire.”

In 1974, the year Swinebroad was reminiscing with Daily Racing Form, Scott Caldwell was in his early 20s and just about to take the Keeneland mike for the first time after serving as a bid-spotter (alongside Keeneland’s current vice-president of sales Walt Robertson, coincidentally).

“I thought my father would be sitting next to me, but when I got up there, he wasn’t,” Caldwell said. “It was Mr. Swinebroad, who was, at best, scary for me. When he was up there, I never felt that I did the job I was capable of because I was always so nervous. I was very glad the microphone was being held by a device, because I don’t think I could have held it, my hands were shaking so bad at the time. To be able to participate at that level, it’s a high, and it makes your heart flutter.”

Caldwell uses the present tense for good reason. Since 1974, multi-million-dollar bids have become almost commonplace at Thoroughbred auctions, and Keeneland auctioneers have presided over many of them. But it isn’t just the big prices that give auctioneers a thrill, Caldwell said. Getting the best possible price for whatever horse is in the ring is a big deal for the person holding the gavel, too.

“When you sell a really good one or one you felt like brought all the money, there’s a high involved,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s what we all live for.”

Jay Cash More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed being there this past tuesday and wednesday, thought they did a professional job and made the auction industry look good!
Barbara Travis More than 1 year ago
Thank you, Mr. Oakford for writing about the Auctioneers at Keeneland. They deserve a "thank you" from everyone because they have to please the bidders, the consigners and the other attendes at the sale, along with the sales company. It is not an easy job. Most auctioneers have from 3 to 5 years as a bid spotter before they take the gavel. Knowing how to handle the gavel is an art within itself. Thanks again. jktravis1@yahoo.com
Theodore Kuster More than 1 year ago
Keeneland Has a fine staff