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Keeneland September: Sales veterans share tricks of the trade
The art and even the science of selecting a Thoroughbred yearling at auction is inexact. But information, expertise, and opinions abound on any sales ground. Pretty much everyone in the Thoroughbred sales business has a piece of advice he or she is willing to pass along, and while some of it is worth whatever you paid for it, some free advice also has turned out to be golden for the listener. Daily Racing Form asked a few of Thoroughbred auction participants to share the best advice they ever received about working the yearling sales, whether they’re buying, selling, holding a gavel, or peering at images from an endoscope. Here’s what they had to say.
Barry Irwin, buyer
Team Valor International
“One bit of advice I got from a guy in France. I was looking at a filly once, and she had crooked hind legs. She didn’t walk well and wasn’t built right. I loved everything about her but that. This was in about 1982. I didn’t even know this trainer, but we just started talking. I said, ‘What do you think of this filly’s hind leg?’ He looked at it and said, ‘I would never let any horse’s hock keep me from buying a horse I liked, a young horse.’ I’ve followed that through the years, and it’s worked out pretty good.
“To me, the most important thing is to have a correct pastern angle, because that’s basically where everything starts. If a horse is too upright or too long, it’s going to create problems you just don’t want. So that’s the first thing I look at. The front legs take the brunt of all the pressure, and the hind legs push off, and I’ve noticed through the years that a lot of horses that are crooked behind, it does not seem to bother them.
“When you race in America, the one thing you’ve got to have is a good left front leg, because that’s the one that leads the way. When you look at yearlings, most times their left front legs are pretty correct, and their right ones kind of rotate. I always wondered, having seen this so many times, whether or not it was because of the way the foal lies inside of the mare. This guy did a study on it, and he said that was the case. So when I look at a horse, you want to find a correct horse, but if they do rotate out a little on the right, I forgive that, because I think that’s natural.”
Jody Huckabay, consignor
Elm Tree Farm
“Try to be the biggest fish in the smallest pond. When I first moved up here, that’s what I was told, and for years we went to Texas and Louisiana sales and whatever else to try to accomplish that. And we’re still going to those sales, but now we’re also able to sell at some of the select sales at Keeneland September and Fasig-Tipton Saratoga, places like that.
“You take the best individual you can and try to be the best individual on that day, whether it’s at Keeneland or in a particular small sale. We’ve been very lucky over the years. We’ve got a great clientele who are very understanding, and all horses aren’t cut out to be sale horses. Doesn’t mean they won’t go on to race, but it’s a very fickle market, and you have to have horses that you hope and think are going to jump through all the hoops for the buyers. The market’s polarized, and you need to know your individual and the market.
“Think about it: With Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton, you’re consigning these horses way out, on the first of May for the September sale. These horses change so much. They’re like kids or teenagers, and a few months can make a world of difference, good or bad. You hope they stay as good as you predict when you put together your consignment and say, ‘This is where we’d like to sell, and this is where we think they’ll fit.’ ”
Ben Glass, bloodstock agent/racing manager
“The best advice I ever got about looking at a yearling to buy was, ‘If you didn’t like him when you first saw him, don’t try to talk yourself into him.’ [Veterinarian] Bob Copelan said that. When I first started looking at yearlings, he was a friend of mine, and I didn’t think there was anyone better to follow around and see what he had to say about yearlings. He taught me a lot about what to look for, what to stay away from, and what you could live with. That was one thing he told me, so now I just walk away. Why would you talk yourself into him?
“One day I was looking at a yearling, and Bob said, ‘Benny, that horse doesn’t have a good head.’ I said, ‘Well, Bobby, neither did Man o’ War.’ He said: ‘Listen to me, Benny, just listen to me. I know all three of your boys. They’ve all got good heads. You don’t want this horse. He just doesn’t have a good enough head.’ So every time I look at a horse, if he doesn’t have just the perfect head, my mind goes back to Bobby Copelan.”
Case Clay, consignor
President, Three Chimneys Farm
“I was standing with my father, and there was $100,000 on the board, and I was disappointed that the horse didn’t bring more. And my father said, ‘Wait until you get out onto Old Frankfort Pike, it’ll register that that’s a lot of money.’ Up on the board, it just looks like numbers, but when you get in your car and drive out of there, it’s cash. The advice meant, ‘Don’t get greedy.’
“We talk about reserves and what horses are worth sometimes like they’re just numbers. When you’re advising clients or putting reserves on your own horses, it’s easy to fall in the trap of ‘my horse is great, they’re going to clamor for him.’ If you bump that reserve up $25,000, it may seem like it’s just a number, but it’s a lot of money. If you go buy a car, you’re haggling with the car salesman over $2,000. On a yearling, one extra bid can be $25,000 or $50,000. So don’t get greedy. Because if you bump it up and don’t get that one extra bid, you’re walking out of there with nothing. Don’t fall in love too much with your horse, or be prepared to keep it.”
Mandy Pope, buyer
Whisper Hill Farm
“Buy an athlete. Besides being pinhooked, the horses need to go on and make racehorses. They need to not just have a short-term ability to go fast for an eighth or a quarter of a mile. Look for a horse that strides out and walks like it can go a minimum of six furlongs to a mile and an eighth. I think of that when I look at a horse and go, ‘Oh, I really like this horse, he looks like an athlete, but he’s offset or he toes in or toes out, but he has a really nice walk to him.’ I’d rather buy the horse that has the really nice walk to him with a shoulder and a hip than one that is dead correct. That advice has definitely changed how I look at horses.
“The second thing that may be even more important than the first thing is to buy a sane horse, a happy horse. Some of them get really grouchy and pin their ears, they don’t want to walk, and every time a fly comes near them they start stomping their feet. You don’t want a grouchy, unhappy horse. You want somebody that’s happy to be at the sale and wants to walk. I think that has a big impact on how they’re going to handle the stress for the rest of their life.”
Scott Caldwell, auctioneer
“Many years ago when I was first starting out, my father told me that, as an auctioneer and especially at Keeneland, if you would always surround yourself with professionals, then you would always look professional. That’s the one thing Keeneland has done for all of us on the rostrum is surround us with the best ring help, and we have a computer up there that’s telling us everything we could possibly know about the horse. As a team, we all work together to try to get the most amount of money for every horse in the limited amount of time we have to sell.
“The second advice I got was from another auctioneer, Bill Tackett. He told me the most important thing was to always know the product that you’re selling. That’s why we read the magazines and take all the literature we can on every horse and pay attention to the values that are assessed not only here but worldwide. Because the market doesn’t just function off what’s happening at Keeneland. It functions off what’s transpiring in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, everywhere. We have buyers from probably 50-plus countries. As an auctioneer you need to try to learn every piece of information you can.”
Dr. Jeffrey Berk, veterinarian
Equine Medical Associates
“Remember that discretion is very important. I think you need to learn how to keep your mouth shut and do your work. In life in general, people want to let you know how important they are by how much they know about other people’s business, and this is not that type of a business. When you’re working for a client, you need to keep that information strictly confidential, and if you’re working for 10 clients, you need to keep it all to yourself and not tell anybody what anybody else is doing.
“Let’s say someone wants to buy a horse, and they want other people to be off of it. They might spread some misinformation: ‘Oh, that horse has a chip in an ankle.’ So they spread that around, and certain people get off the horse, and then they buy it for less money because other bidders weren’t on the horse. That’s why, in the sales business, people should form a team. A team typically is comprised of people with specific functions, like a veterinarian and a bloodstock agent. A lot of owners make a mistake when they listen to too much advice from too many people. They get confused. Like everything else in life, you’ve got to have a plan, and your best plan is with your team. If you don’t like the results, then down the road you can either change the team or change the plan or both. But just going willy-nilly and getting information from everybody who will talk to you usually results in disaster and not success.”