11/13/2013 10:35PM

Keith Gisser: Harrisburg the top stop in my lifetime of sales

Ken Weingartner/USTA Photo
Keith Gisser was among the many people who wanted to see White Bliss at the Harrisburg Sale on November 5.

Handicappers don’t often worry too much about horse sales, especially yearling sales. I’ve been to a lot of horse sales in my life. But until 10 days ago, I had never been to Harrisburg. Now, for clarity, I have been to Harrisburg many times. I have even been to the Farm Show Complex; just not to the Harrisburg sale. Never mind that it’s not called the Harrisburg sale. But to anyone in the business, it’s Harrisburg (Real name- Standardbred Horse Sales Company Annual Sale). But if you Google Harrisburg Sale, it’s the top listing. You don’t need the word Standardbred to be there.

I bought my first horse at the Delaware Sale. Never mind that it’s not called the Delaware Sale (Real Name- Blooded Horse Sales Company’s Winter Speed Sale). It was February of 1978. I was 19 and about to embark on a successful career as a horse owner; or so I thought.  I spent $800 on chestnut Waver gelding named Jake Spinner and shipped him off to Northfield Park and trainer Keith Harran, who trained for a friend of mine. I also wanted to “learn the business,” so, although none of the other caretakers in the barn could figure out why, a new caretaker showed up one day, working with just one horse. The veterans showed me the ropes, but, alas, Jake Spinner just didn’t want to pace; or trot. He was an expert at a gait that was about halfway in between the two and after about six weeks, ‘Jake’ was off to Amish Country for $500. It was one of my better deals as an owner.

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Even when I did train horses, I was not much of a yearling guy. One year, at the Adios Sale, a gorgeous chestnut (are you seeing a theme here) son of Albatross came into the ring. I had about $5,000 to spend, my buddy Jay had about $7,500, but somehow we were in on this colt at $18,500. How ironic that his name was Rising Interest. Fortunately trainer Charlie Williams bailed us out on that one, as one of his owners went to $19,000 and we were off the hook. I watched this colt go through his paces (Charlie was in the same barn as me at the time) and he trained down beautifully, far ahead of most of the two-year-olds at Northfield, back at a time when Northfield actually had a reasonable number of colt trainers. I bitched about not getting him to anyone who would listen, even though I am not sure how we could have paid for him if we had won the bid. And then one day in spring, he ran head-on into a tractor pulling the drag and died. It was tragic. And it was the best deal I never made as an owner.

I always attended the Jug Sale, except it wasn’t called the Jug Sale. It was the Ohio Select Yearling Sale and it was held Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening of Jug week in the Scioto Downs paddock. The best feature of this sale, other than certain owners buying me cocktails, was that each night they had a drawing for a $2,500 sale credit. That was incentive enough for me to head over each year, although I never did win the credit.

One year, Jay showed up at the sale with his checkbook. By now he was a successful software engineer and could afford to buy pretty much anything in the sale but had never offered. He grabbed a catalogue and said, “Let’s buy one.” At the time, Baker Field was a rising Ohio sire and we agreed that his prices were probably going to be reasonable. Jay marked three yearlings; I picked three. His top choice was my second pick and my top choice was his third favorite, so we agreed to bid on his top choice, named Excel. His dam was a decent producer and we figured he would go for between $8-12,000, since similar animals were going for $6-10,000 and he was a good-looking animal. Too good looking!

Before I could even raise my hand, he was up to $12,000, then $15,000. And on and on, until Excel sold for $25,500. He wasn’t the sale topper, but he was the Baker Field topper. He was purchased by CSX Stables and Ohio Hall-of-Famer Joe Adamsky was the under-bidder. For the next two weeks at Lexington, Joe would tell anybody who would listen that he could not believe he bid $25,000 for a Baker Field. And didn’t get him!

After that, Jay was pretty disgusted and disheartened, so when our consensus second choice came into the ring, we didn’t even bid, even though Bet On Baker sold for just $4,500 and turned out to be a buy-back by his breeder. Bet on Baker was resold in November at the Delaware, err, Blooded Horse Sales Company’s Fall Speed Sale and brought $15,500. He was a decent but not great two- and three-year-old.

Excel raced for a long time, taking his mark at nine and winning races every year from age three through eleven, a total of 26 wins in 224 starts, but earning just over $60,000. It turns out the Baker Field we should have bought was not even at that sale. Ruffstuff Baker sold at the Buckeye Yearling Sale (Real name- Buckeye Yearling Sale) for $5,500 and went on to finish second in the Ohio Sire Stake Final at two, winning the title at three, when he also finished third in the Jug Preview.

So I have been to sales before, but never to any sale quite like Harrisburg. Like Lexington, it is a who’s who of the sport, but unlike Lexington, it is held in a huge complex, where it is easy to get lost. I got turned around multiple times and if I had not been using the food court as my point of reference, I might still be wandering aroundthe Farm Show complex today. I had several goals during my day-and-a-half there and I achieved my main one. I saw White Bliss.

It’s rare that I get excited by the way a colt looks. I no longer worry about racing them myself, so I am a lot more concerned with how his lines look once he gets to the races.  But this is the most amazing looking animal (not horse, animal) I have ever seen. The fact that his $240,000 sale price is probably $165,000 more than he is worth on paper confirms that.  I hope he gets to the races and excels. He will create interest in the sport and draw more money to it. And according to his genetics, eventually produce more white pacers or trotters.

What is important to handicappers and gambler is that, like Lexington, Harrisburg was successful, posting gains of close to 20%. The top, as usual, was solid, but the middle was surprisingly strong and that means the crop of 2012 should provide us with lots of solid racehorses to wager on. We are not just talking about in the stakes races of 2014 and 2015, but for several years into the future. And that is not just good for the sport, it’s good for the gamblers and handicappers. We may have to wait awhile, but go cash. See you next month.