08/06/2002 12:00AM

Showmen: Art and science of sale ring

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - When a potential buyer stands looking at a yearling at a select auction consignment, he probably doesn't notice the person on the end of that yearling's lead shank. But the yearling handlers - known as showmen - can have an influence on the buyer's viewing experience and, in a small way, on how the yearling sells.

The showman's job is simple: Lead the yearling out of the barn and into the consignment's walking ring, stand with the horse, and walk the horse up and down at the buyer's request. But, as any consignor will tell you, there's more to it than that.

"They definitely can make a difference to how a horse shows," said Craig Bandoroff, who operates Denali Stud with his wife, Holly. "You need your yearlings to stand up properly, relax, and show their class, and a good showman can make that happen. It's important because a horse only gets one shot with a buyer. If they don't do it right, they don't get another chance to make a good impression, and they're off that buyer's list."

That's why these silent, often overlooked horse-holders make some of the best money on the sale grounds. At premier, boutique auctions like this week's Saratoga select yearling sale, showmen - and, increasingly, show-women - make between $150 and $250 a day. And many of them are hand-picked months in advance from farms and horse-show circuits around the country, then flown in for the auction.

At the sale, they must concentrate on keeping their yearlings focused and energetic, and make sure the yearling has all four feet on the ground - no small job with fractious, fit young horses who are faced with the new sights and sounds of a crowd of lookers. When a yearling does get rowdy, a good showman can make the difference between a momentary distraction and a dangerous loose horse. Understandably, the job has its risks.

"I've been chewed on, struck at, reared over, you name it," said one longtime showman who asked not to be identified. "But that's just horses, and these are young horses. You have to stay calm and keep them calm, and you sort of work them out of it. You have to anticipate what they might react to and prevent it before they get silly."

There is an art to showing even a well-behaved yearling, Bandoroff said.

"When they stand a yearling up, you want them to have the front leg on the side toward the buyer standing a little in front of the one away from the buyer," Bandoroff said. "That gives a good view of the angle of the horse's shoulder. You don't want to have a horse too stretched out. And you want the horse's ears up so he'll look alert and show some class.

"But at the end of the day you can't make a yearling into something he's not," Bandoroff noted. "Either he's got it or he doesn't."

Still, in the high-stakes Thoroughbred auction world, every detail counts. Bandoroff keeps a full-time staff person to hire Denali's showmen. The basic criteria are longtime hands-on experience dealing with horses on the ground and not too much height.

"Seriously, they have to be the right size," Bandoroff said. "If you have some guy who's 6' 3" on the end of the shank, your yearling looks too small."

Showmen also can help a consignor gauge buyer interest. Standing unobtrusively by, they sometimes overhear comments or read body language, then relay the signs to the consignment manager.

But consignors don't just rely on such subtleties as body language. When buyers come to look at a consignment's yearlings, they often are asked to fill out a card indicating which of the barn's yearlings they would like to have brought out. The card serves a dual purpose. It makes presentation more efficient, allowing the consignment manager to route horses from buyer to buyer in a crowded walking ring, but it also allows the consignor to know how many times a buyer has looked at a horse.

Many consignments enter the card data into computer programs to track how many times a horse has shown or been vetted - a sure sign of buyer interest - and then use that data to establish their reserves.

"The card information lets you know where you stand," Bandoroff said. "It indicates how much interest there is and where the interest is coming from."

Top sales prospects can show as many as 60 times a day and undergo several veterinary examinations. Crafty buying agents might feign a lack of interest in a horse they actually intend to bid on, but in general very little escapes the modern consignor's notice. Multiple visits by veterinarians is likely to boost a seller's confidence - and the horse's reserve.

"You can change the reserve if you have to, and we've had to do that," Bandoroff said. "Sometimes everything doesn't come together until the last minute. At the end of the day, a big part of my job is to know what the horse is worth. It's a high-stakes poker game."