06/28/2012 12:47PM

Q&A: Bill Graves, Fasig-Tipton sales inspector

Photos by Z

Fasig-Tipton’s vice-president of recruiting and selections, William Graves, has been inspecting yearlings for the auction house’s select sales since 1992. Graves and his team − Dennis Lynch, Peter Penny, Bayne Welker, and Max Hodge − have a simple goal: to choose the best of about 2,500 yearlings nominated for Fasig-Tipton’s July and Saratoga select sales.

A 63-year-old Lynchburg, Va., native, Graves started in the hunter-jumper world and was inducted into the Virginia Horse Shows Association’s Hall of Fame in 2008. His success in the Thoroughbred business extends to a second generation: In 2007, a Gainesway Farm partnership including Graves’s son Brian sold the topper at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select sale with the $2.2 million Mr. Greeley colt Kinsella, a moment the elder Graves cites as a personal highlight.

Describe the yearling inspection and selection process. We sit down first and go over the pedigrees. Naturally, we want as good-looking a horse as we can find at all of our horse sales, but pedigree is very important. Some pedigrees are just too obscure to put into any kind of a select format, so we have to eliminate a few of those.

Then we hit the road and look at the individuals. The more pedigree you’ve got, combined with the nice physical, the higher the expectation. But the physical horse is very important to us. You can have a yearling by the most popular stallion in the United States, and if he doesn’t look the part, believe me, he’s still hard to sell.
We’ve always taken a lot of pride in not disappointing people when they come to look at a select horse, even if he is a little short on pedigree. So the physical horse, for Fasig-Tipton, is very important. The combination of the great physical along with a deep pedigree is what commands the big money these days.

How has the physical look of sale yearlings changed over the last 30 years? The bar has been raised so much. There are so many professional people selling horses these days, and they know exactly how to get a horse ready for the day. These days, the yearling that shows up in the select marketplace looks like a year-old racehorse. He’s fit, he’s got great muscle tone. In the past, they were probably a little bit more protected as far as the amount of exercise they got, even though back then we thought the sales horses looked fabulous. And they did. They were well-groomed, they walked well.

But today the sale is demanding. People come and ask to see not just one or two, but every horse in the consignment. Horses are showing an awful lot in the select format, and they have to walk a long way every day. In order to accomplish that, they have to be fit to begin with. So it’s a different ball game now, simply because of the buyers’ habits.

When you look back at the equipment people used to use to prepare a select sale yearling, people used to be able to walk a yearling up to a sale. A lot of people still do it and do it successfully. But now you’ve also got (automatic) free walkers, which probably just about every farm has these days, and you can get even more sophisticated than that with swimming pools, underwater treadmills, all of these things. Horses are getting an awful lot more exercise than they used to. I don’t see it as a bad thing. Physical fitness is a wonderful thing, period. And if a horse has to walk however many miles a day at the sale, if he’s not fit and ready, it would wear on him.

What fashion trends among pedigrees have you seen during your time on the selection team? People do their very best to breed to the best stallion they can these days. A mediocre horse on the racetrack that goes to stud doesn’t get a great deal of traffic anymore. The people that breed these horses understand that it’s going to take something, some pedigree, to get yearling buyers’ attention to really get them interested to begin with.

People want a horse that’s going to run long, but you better have plenty of speed so he can be positioned properly. It’s a combination of speed and stamina. Good horses are fast.

The people who spend sizable money are looking for a horse that can go the distance, win them a nice graded race, and hopefully a classic race.

What’s your view on conformation-changing surgeries, such as those that can straighten a leg or make leg conformation more correct? There’s no fixing a horse that’s really crooked. We don’t pay that much attention to little faults, a little out at the knee, a little in at the knee, a little toeing out or a little toeing in. If it’s a nice horse, those things aren’t terribly important to us, because we know that it’s not that totally important to the professionals. If a horse has been tweaked a little bit after we look at him, I personally don’t pay that much attention to it, and the thought doesn’t really come to mind. We’re not going to select a horse that’s so terribly crooked to begin with that some kind of procedure or surgery is going to help him well enough to be just exactly what we want at the end of the day.

Some people say they don’t like those corrections because, in their view, it keeps you from knowing what conformation the horse will produce in its breeding career. What’s your response? I can understand what the breeders might say, but sometimes horses will deviate a little bit, whether it be from a little epiphysitis (bone inflammation) or a little or this or that, without it being a genetic thing. I can understand a breeder wouldn’t want to buy a horse that had been tweaked so much, but, once again, there’s only so much you can do for a horse. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. If it’s that bad, you can’t help it anyway.

How will the debate over medications affect yearling sales and selection? Some Europeans say they won’t buy American yearlings partly because breeding stock here were medicated during their racing careers. I hear what people are saying, and I respect what people are saying, but I haven’t seen a huge change in our marketplace because of it.

How has the sales business changed since the early 1990s, when you started with Fasig-Tipton? I think people have gotten a bit more select. At the end of the day, in a selected format, buyers compare from the top. They find what they feel is the best horse there and compare from there.

How has that affected the way you select horses for the select yearling auctions? Our attitude when we go out there is, we’re not trying to make it complicated at all. We’re just trying to find the best-looking horse with the most pedigree we can find. Whether that’s a Saratoga horse or a horse that’s slated for the July sale, we’re just trying to put the best horse in there we can find.