11/18/2010 3:29PM

When it comes to boosting bids, Mahan's the man

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Coady Photography/Keeneland
Ryan Mahan has been Keeneland's senior auctioneer since 2001.

This is the way Keeneland auctioneer Ryan Mahan remembers it: Thoroughbred owner Jerry Crawford once brought Mahan to Iowa to conduct a greyhound auction. A year later, Crawford was bidding on a yearling at Keeneland.

"He bids $95,000, and somebody else bids $100,000," Mahan said. "He stands up to leave, I say, 'Whoa, sit back down. This ain't no dog.' He turned around and smiled and bid $105,000. And that horse was Paddy O'Prado."

That's vintage Ryan Mahan. Keeneland's senior auctioneer is part comedian, but his comedy has a serious purpose: to get that bid.
It comes as a surprise to hear Mahan's voice, unamplified, speaking in normal conversation. When he's not fielding bids from the auctioneer's stand, Mahan is so quiet you sometimes have to lean forward a little to catch what he's saying. But he is otherwise just as you find him when he is in his stand above the bidding ring, gavel and voice raised to urge bidders on. In a word, he's quick. Quick-witted, quick-talking, quick with a good story. And he's got plenty of those.

Canadian tycoon Ross Johnson once admiringly described Mahan's job this way, as the two swapped tales over a glass of wine after a Canadian auction: "It's real belly-to-belly commerce. Making decisions minute to minute, make or break, then do it again. And again. And again."

Mahan, 57, has sold everything from furniture to farms to cattle, but horses are his full-time job now. He started at Keeneland as a bid-spotter in 1977 and moved into the auctioneer's stand not long afterward, but as an assistant announcer, introducing the horses as they came into the ring. Mahan eventually worked his way over to the auctioneer's seat, and in 2001 he succeeded the late Tom Caldwell as Keeneland's senior auctioneer. But Mahan also sells horses coast to coast, at Barretts, the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company, and in Canada. He also owns the Swinebroad Denton auction company with Walt Robertson, the former Fasig-Tipton chief auctioneer and chairman.

"I am strictly in the horse business, and that's something I'm proud of," Mahan said. "I think I'm much more a horse guy than an auctioneer. I just happen to be an auctioneer."

Knowing what breeders and horsemen have put into their bloodstock − in both time and treasure − should humble the man auctioning it, Mahan points out.

"The work they've put into those horses, and we're going to walk in there in a minute and a half and decide what the horse brings? I'm going to zip through one because I walked in with a headache?" Mahan said, shaking his head. "I really feel compassion for these people. I know the time and work and anxiety that go into it, even without the money."

The money, of course, is the whole point of auctions, and the men at the mike feel that keenly, Mahan said. Mahan grew up with a lot of Kentucky breeders, and, as a member of Keeneland's sales inspection team, he has gotten to know many more when he has come to view their horses.

Speaking of one longtime consignor and friend, Mahan recalled: "He'd bring his own horses in the ring, and he'd always tap the auction stand on the way by and say, 'Baby needs a new pair of shoes.' Well, those babies now are mothers themselves. But he still does that every time. And, believe me, I work hard for his horses and every horse.

"That $5,000 bid on a $15,000 weanling might have just paid the feed bill for a month for one of those guys," he said.

Some sales are memorable because of who the horse is, as in the $9 million sale of Ashado to Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum in 2005. That sale-ring drama took 10 minutes. Others are notable because of who the horse became, as when the future Zenyatta, then a yearling with skin disease, zipped through at $60,000, also in 2005. Mahan presided over both.

You would think his long experience selling multi-million-dollar horses would make Mahan immune to stage fright when the big horse comes in the ring. But he acknowledges that sometimes he feels a nerve or two. Already a veteran auctioneer, he found he couldn't breathe the first time he picked up the gavel at Keeneland in 1981.

"Tom Hammond was announcing then, and he did me a favor by making it a really long announcement until I got settled in," Mahan said. "I got through that first horse, but I knew my voice was cracking. I thought I'd drink some water, but my hand was shaking when I tried to pick up the glass. It was just that it was at Keeneland.

"I still get nervous, especially for a big horse," he said. "You see who's out there, then the spotter in the back says, 'Sheikh Mohammed's here,' and John Magnier walks in over here, and Jess Jackson's over there. All of a sudden, you've got a little flutter going. I hope I always do."

Mahan calls it "room-managing," the way an auctioneer knows the habits of the bidders, where they stand and how far they're likely to go, when to push them and when to slow things down.

"It's such an emotional thing," he said of bidding. "I think that's part of the theater, part of the fun. Bob Lewis was the perfect guy. He'd say, 'I'm as competitive in this as I am in racing. I was going to $400,000 for that horse, and I bought her for $600,000. I'm mad at myself, but, golly, that was fun.' They get competitive. When you generate the emotion, because these people are so competitive, they get caught up in it."

They certainly do. The late Roger King once was so frustrated at being outbid that he threw his sale catalog at the horse in the ring.

"You play all those guys one against the other to get what's a fair price for that horse," Mahan said. "If I see a guy, even if I don't know his name, I can probably tell you he's good to $250,000."

Mahan advises sellers never to bid on their own horse when they can put a reserve on it, because getting unfamiliar cousin Jimmy to bid for you may fool the auctioneer into thinking he's the live money. He might unwittingly press cousin Jimmy instead of the real live bidder who doesn't seem as aggressive, ultimately costing you money.

And Mahan recommends that bidders not play it too cool. Super-subtle bidding signs − the single raised eyebrow is a good example − really are hard to spot. If you're determined to be secretive, keep it simple.

"Wayne Lukas one year said, 'When my pen's in my pocket, keep me in,' " Mahan said, patting his breast pocket. "Okay. We got to $2 million, and he takes his pen out because some kid wants his autograph."

Lukas put his pen back in his pocket again, but was he still in or out? Even Lukas wasn't too sure by that point, Mahan said. But the pen was in the pocket, and Mahan knocked the horse down to Lukas.

"People will tell you, 'When my glasses are on, I'm in, and when I take them off, I'm out,' " Mahan said. "The problem is, four horses later when theirs is in the ring, they can't remember exactly what they told you."

Other bidders are more flamboyant. Benjamin Leon made his Keeneland debut in September, bursting onto the scene with a $4.2 million purchase. He didn't bid until about $3 million and then made his first move by pointing directly at Mahan. After Leon won the duel for the A.P. Indy-Balance colt, Mahan − who had once conducted a Florida Paso Fino sale for Leon and encouraged him to come to the September sale − said, "Welcome to Keeneland, Mr. Leon." Leon, beaming, stood up and made a little bow to the audience.

That, Mahan said, was fun for both of them. And in his view, it was good for the game at a time when prices and industry morale are down.

"That was great," Mahan said. "We need more guys like that."