Hearts full of hope, the breeders, owners, sellers, consultants and analysts, with their trained eyes and minds, have come to this horse capital of the world from more than 50 countries, including Canada, Japan, Australia and across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. They are here to participate in a quest for champions among the September yearlings at the world’s leading thoroughbred auction house, Keeneland Sales, in Lexington, Kentucky.
There is a hush in the vast sales arena late afternoon, and each seat is filled. Lighting here is as important as a showcase at Tiffany’s. It is rumoured that there is a special horse being auctioned today. The gorgeous beasts are led from the barn to the pre-sale ring, where they’re admired and assessed. Then it’s into the exercise ring for a few turns before they go into the chute to take the stage.
It’s showtime, baby! A beauty contest like no other. Manes and tails meticulously groomed, coats brushed and polished to a burnished gleam, muscles rippling, they are led by a handler in green blazer and tie to a green carpeted stage. The provenance of the horse is cited, and the auctioneer begins his melodious spiel. This grey filly has the grace and the stature of a champion, and she knows it. Hip No. 49, by Tapit, foaled Feb. 7, 2016, and on and on. This is the most magnificent horse I have ever seen. Calm, head held high, she owns the stage. I cannot fathom one word of the auctioneer’s singsong cadence, but I think the horses find it soothing and gentle. The bidding from the floor is fast and furious, and try as I might, I cannot spot even the flicker of an eyelash or the raise of a finger. “One Million five, do I hear Two?” You can hear a pin drop in the arena. “Two million… Do I hear two million five…Do I hear Three? Sold! for two million six hundred thousand dollars.” Thirteen horses sell for more than a million dollars during the auction.
It’s whispered that there are eight billionaires in the audience tonight. Perhaps one of them is B. Wayne Hughes, the richest man in Kentucky, whose Spendthrift farm has a market value of $40 billion. The Sheik of Dubai has five farms in the area. The Frank Stronach family’s Adena Springs is well represented. Another Canadian, John Sikura of Hill ‘n’ Dale Farm is quoted in Bloodstock, the racing post, saying “Pedigree’s important, but become too snobbish about it and I think you’ll miss a lot of opportunities.”
I spoke with 6th generation Price Bell about Mill Ridge Farm, the family’s commercial breeding nursery that was started by George Washington Headly in the 1800s. “We’ve come here to sell our crop, which is yearling horses. Now they are off to the next test to learn how to be ridden.” I ask how they are offered for sale at the auction. “The buyers have been here,” he says, “they’ve made their short list and they know which horses they want to take to the next dance. The review pedigree and lineage and have an idea of what they produced.
They’re familiar with where they are raised, where they come from, how they’ve been handled by humans, the herd they run with. The human-to-horse contact is important, that’s where they get the confidence to win a race. It’s all nature and nurture.”
Over two days, I have watched 197 horses being auctioned. It is the most important 120 seconds of their lives so far. I have begun to see the differences. The stance, the shape, the length of the neck, the size of the nostrils, whether they are pigeon-toed or if their legs are straight will determine how they take the turns. To me, the most amazing part of the thorough- bred anatomy are their delicate ankles that seem to be the thickness of a man’s wrist.
The horses are only known by the numbered sticker pasted on their hip. Their new owners will have the naming privilege. Kentucky Derby, Breeders Cup and Queen’s Plate winners may well come from this sale.
“It’s a great adventure,” says Bell. “The beauty of this game is that there is no right answer and everyone has a different opinion. It’s all based on hope.” Gross sales of $307,845,400 this year showed a 12.81 percent increase from last year. And that is a lot of “hope.”