< After a few glitches, Donny reboots and flies to Kentucky. Here’s what happened at the sale. >
In most of my travels, the transportation portion of the story is unremarkable. We’ve all had flight delays, bad weather, traffic jams and other predictable nuisances. One thing I could not have planned for that went terribly wrong took place on the overnight flight from SFO to ORD then CVG, which is technically the Cincinnati airport but physically across the border in Kentucky. I figured I could catch some z’s (4 ½ hrs gate to gate), grab my rental car and some breakfast, and be in Lexington well before the first yearling entered the ring.
I was expecting business travelers, especially on a Wednesday. That was mostly correct for the 200+ passengers, except for the couple with the toddler sitting 2 rows behind me. It’s unfair to say the child cried throughout the trip… he didn’t start until takeoff and finished shortly before landing… but the sound he made is more accurately described as “screaming”. It’s been a long time since I felt the urge to slap someone, and I couldn’t decide which parent deserved it more for their futile efforts (or lack thereof) to maintain the peace. I slept a good 20 minutes or so on the second leg and landed around 8:30am, slightly less optimistic on how Thursday might go down.
One regret I have about the trip is that I trusted the online travel modules and offers too much; for instance, when the travel package to Lexington gave me no options for transportation besides a $200 town car ride, I opted for the Cincinnati package and a rental car. The 70 mile trip from the hotel to the sales seemed harmless at first, but I didn’t plan on being sleep deprived and in a hurry! Next time I would piecemeal the whole thing – flight and rental car in Cinci, and book the hotel separately near Lexington. Still, I enjoyed the riverfront views and Bluegrass-hipster vibe going on in downtown Covington, KY.
Classic Bluegrass State. Half-price sushi and a Korean billiards hall? I did not get a chance to enjoy the local cuisine.
There were a handful of horses to look at, and my crude calculations (horses sold per hour on previous days) said I need to be available by 11:30am for the first of my candidates. I skipped the planned Waffle House visit (haven’t seen one in San Francisco, shocker!) and jumped on the interstate after the requisite caffeine injections. I had a Chevrolet Impala which was surprisingly quick and comfortable to drive – I would especially like to thank the law enforcement officials throughout Northern Kentucky for their dedication to fighting crime, and focusing their efforts on things other than tourists who might be driving slightly faster than the speed limit. Traffic was light so it felt like only 50 minutes had elapsed from the time I left the airport, and I pulled into the vast Keeneland grounds for the first time.
I would be more than remiss and dishonest not to mention some very specific help I got along the way. A single question, in an email sent to a friend who works in the thoroughbred industry, evolved into an indispensable tutorial on how the sales process worked, how to interpret veterinary reports and their various grades and medical acronyms, tricks of the trade used by consignors and agents, red flags and red herrings, and even the layout of the walking rings behind the sales arena you see online. I picked up so much information in such a short time that I felt I would have been seriously compromised trying to decipher all these things on my own, and it drastically accelerated my learning curve for the buying process. Some of you may know this individual (who may or may not frequent this site from time to time) but it goes without saying that he or she is as outstanding a human being and friend as they are a fantastic horseman. Thanks times a million!
After surmising the ‘outs’ (cataloged horses removed from the sale) I was left with about eight candidates on day one. I scurried to the barn area – the yearlings are housed in the same barns used for the Keeneland race meet, of course – and asked to have a look. I quickly learned that it was wise to review the veterinary reports BEFORE inspecting the yearlings when possible, as some of them had radiographic rap sheets a mile long. While some of those ‘findings’ do not ultimately hinder performance as a racehorse, I’m certainly more forgiving of the flaws I can see rather than the ones I cannot. As an archer with a single arrow in the quiver, I felt like my margin of error was small. Looks like I am going to be compromising on pedigree rather than on the physical issues!
Sample radiographic report. The more information I saw listed, the less interested I became.
Very quickly my list was whittled down to three, mostly by process of elimination. There was one filly I loved that I thought might slip through the cracks. She’s by Istan (Gone West –Ronda(GB), by Bluebird), truly a non-commercial turf sire whose yearlings averaged around $10k last year despite throwing the occasional stakes performer.
Her annotated page is one I posted in the previous article – and her prospects looked better the more I dug into it. Her dam Tribal Council was 0 for 2 starts, but those were as a 2yo at Delaware and Keeneland MdSpWt for the successful but hard-charging trainer Larry Jones. I could be convinced to excuse a career-ending injury for a horse pressed for speed at 2, in my worldview. She’s the first foal of the dam, who’s a full sister to MR. NIGHTLINGER, a crack turf sprinter who actually had the lead in the BC Turf Sprint (because I read all his charts) and ran a half-mile in 41 and 4/5. That’s nuts to me!
Physically she was clearly the best of anything I saw so far, and had no flaws that I could detect, veterinary or otherwise. She looked like a runner and a fast one, with turf credentials to boot. The only uncertainty was how much would she bring? Two Istan’s sold earlier in the sale for 10k and 15k. They’re all owned by former Kentucky Governor Brereton C. Jones, who typically breeds to race. He raced both the sire and the dam, and plenty of other Istans I could find, including Chief Istan, a stakes-winning sprinter out of another Indian Charlie mare.
I’m all in. The two others I mildly considered bidding on were a less athletic, cow-hocked Afleet Alex filly who was to be sold shortly after http://apps.keeneland.com/sales/Sep17/pdfs/3471.pdf and a Verrazano colt that I suspected would be out of my price range – he looked too nice for the scratch and dent bin.
3471 – She’s a big ‘ol gal for an Afleet Alex Her hocks nearly rubbed together when she walked.
Another tip I received was to inquire with the consignor and agents about a possible reserve price. I received a wide spectrum of responses on these, ranging from a polite version of “command of self-pleasure” to “she brings what she brings” to a precise dollar value. In this case, the folks from Airdrie Stud were more than gracious, and informed me that they would make that decision (aka receive instructions from the boss) right before the horse entered the sales ring.
Unidentified yearling and handler, almost on deck in the innermost walking ring.
There was little time to do anything else so I tracked the filly though the various walking rings, biding her time before eventually passing through the sliding wood door to the sales arena. While en route, the yearlings are being eyeballed by agents and owner-trainer types who may not have done such rigorous analysis in this price range– they simply thumb through the catalog, watch the horse walking in circles, and ask to see the vet report if one catches their eye. Ben from Airdrie found me moments before the filly’s number was called, and told me the reserve was going to be $15,000. Ok, so I’m not going to win her outright with my $10k of credit, but what if she goes unsold? Certainly few people would realize that she’s way better than she looks on paper, right? I hoped she’d either sell for some astronomical sum, or not reach anything close to her reserve so I could make a private offer after the fact.
Although many of the bids are being placed “behind the ring” with bid spotters out of view of the front room, I decide to bid from the back of the arena to see how much interest is coming from the sparsely populated, seated crowd. The auctioneer opens with a solicitation for a $25,000 bid, which quickly crumbles down to $2,000 before I raise my hand. There’s a quick back and forth at $1k increments until I find myself the high bidder at $7,000… and then a long pause. No one is bidding $8,000. The auctioneer sounds like he is going to wrap things up, and all of a sudden there is a flurry of activity, and the price slides upward. I indicate to the bid spotter that I am out when $11,000 is offered. And the bidding stops with the pronouncement “SOLD!” with a final price of…. $15,000.
The view from inside the area. Plenty of good seats still available!
With my inside information and e-mail coaching from the pros, I become suspicious of this final transaction. I text my new acquaintance from Airdrie and (as politely as I can articulate) inquire if the filly is still for sale. He texts me back and asks me to make an offer. I ask for five minutes to ‘consult partners’, and he suggests I take ten. Now the wheels are really turning and I’m trying to figure out what happened and what might be reasonable. I convince myself that I was the last real bid at $7,000 and the others were some sort of attempt to generate interest through that $15k reserve price – which of course they’re not bound to, but I take them at their word. I don’t want to insult them with a lowball offer, and yet I don’t want to outbid myself if I am the only interested buyer. She really did fall through the cracks, and I am there with my magnifying glass and horse-tweezers to extract her. I wasn’t expecting this sort of poker hand scenario at the auction, but the parallels between the two ‘sports’ are numerous and well-documented. I’ve played plenty of Hold’em in my day, but know at least three sim trainers who can wipe the floor with me. I’m slightly less than confident in this situation.
By the time I make up my mind to offer 6k and go as far as 8k, Ben texts me again to tell me he “spoke to the boss and he had taken her off the market”. Just as I feared, he’ll keep her to race instead of sell her for what might be a ridiculous bargain. There’s nothing I can do, but I’m not happy with myself for waffling in the heat of the moment, for being compromised by the circumstances of arriving late and tired… and especially for not having the $15,000 lined up for a filly that might actually be special.
The Afleet Alex filly (2016 median sales price: $12,500) that I didn’t really like as much went for a mind-boggling $47,000. I actually got a bid in on the Verrazano but as predicted, he was well liked and brought $45,000. I made the trek back to the hotel mentally drained; more dejected than I would have ever imagined, feeling as if someone casually made off with one of my children.
It felt like the one that got away.