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Rolling In the Bluegrass – Part 2: The Sale

The Keeneland Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale gives race fans a chance to see the horses that will be making headlines in the coming year, and the well-off a chance to buy them. Hip #61 - a colt by Bluegrass Cat was a horse of interest due to his Michigan ties.

Outside of the racing and all the festivities that come with it, one of the draws of opening weekend at Keeneland Race Course is the Two-Year-Olds in Training Sale.

Prior to this, my experience with horse auctions was limited to Michigan’s yearling sale and the occasional Amish-run Draft Horse sale in Indiana. Attending a sale of this magnitude felt on the same level as visiting a new racetrack, even though I had been to Keeneland many times before.

The sale unofficially began a few days before the auction itself when the juveniles posted public workouts on preview day. Potential buyers and members of the general public gathered on the apron and in the grandstands to watch each entry breeze between one and three furlongs on Keeneland’s Polytrack.

After some wandering around to find a catalog and try to get a feel of what was about to happen, I settled into one of the box seats in the grandstand. I think it was Cot Campbell’s. Unless I come into a considerable sum of money and/or influence somewhere down the road, a day like that was probably going to be my only opportunity to watch a horse do anything meaningful on the track from such a location. The view was nice, but for the money said rich, influential people likely pay for the right to sit there, the seats were rather uncomfortable and wobbly.

Preview Day was a fairly straightforward affair. The announcer introduces the “on deck” horse making his way through the turn and how far he intends to breeze, the horse approaches the pole, he guns it, the announcer goes over his information, the clock stops, the horse gallops out and the process starts over again.

Having just picked up a physical copy of the sale catalog that morning, there was not much time to identify and analyze the horses whizzing past before the next one started to wind up for his workout. Instead, I used the opportunity to work on my camera timing for the weekend’s races.

Shortly after the first intermission, I was beckoned to Zaxby’s by Ed and Tim from Thoroughbred Times. The call came just moments after finishing a large hot dog with sales editor Pete Denk, but I went anyway. I was on vacation.

I returned to the track about an hour later and the juveniles were still breezing. As I fiddled through the program, I realized I may have missed the one horse I set out to see that weekend, Hip #61 – an unnamed colt by Bluegrass Cat out of Maid’s Broom. Regular readers may recall I highlighted this colt for his connections to some of the better Michigan-breds in recent memory, including all-time leading MI-bred earner Tenpins. The horses breezed in random order, so I was unsure if he was in queue or back in the barn.

My concerns were settled when the announcer informed the crowd that Hip #61 was making his way around the turn to breeze. He was gone just as fast as he came, but I got a decent shot and his time was respectable. Preview day soon came to a close and I returned to my hotel with a mild sunburn and a head start on what to look for in the auction.

The day of the sale began for me around 9 a.m. Monday morning, waiting in the Keeneland barn area for sale guru Emily, whom I had met a couple days before at the races. Emily studied the Thoroughbred sale market for her PhD research, so she knew where to go, who to talk to and what to look for in any aspect of the sale in which I was curious.

Throughout the morning, I received a crash course in big sale etiquette and what makes a well-put-together two-year-old. The barns that housed the sale horses were fairly quiet, but many were still busy with horses being led back and forth for inspection by potential buyers and glorified tourists like myself.

We eventually made our way to the Kirkwood Stables barn, which housed the Bluegrass Cat colt that caught my eye in the sale catalog. He was a strong-looking colt with solid hindquarters and a nice walk. Judging by his looks and pedigree, I would expect him to succeed as a hard-knocking allowance horse on the Kentucky circuit. The few moments I saw of the colt up close were enough to make me wish I had some of that previously mentioned money and/or influence to promote my bid on the horse from “pipe dream” level to a reality (pending the proper check of his X-rays and such, of course. I liked the horse, but I’m not that irresponsible with my imaginary money).

After looking over a few more horses, Emily took me down to the sale pavilion for a quick tour. Throughout the sales ring and walking areas, she pointed out all of the dents and divots in the walls, some of which were surprisingly high and must have required some effort to accomplish. The tour was also useful for two reasons: 1) It showed me the best places to get run over by a freaked out two-year-old if I should choose to do so, and 2) It helped ease my doubts about where I should and shouldn’t be. Had Emily not shown me around and answered all of my silly little questions, I would have wandered behind the sales ring, seen the likes of Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Wayne Catalano, and immediately assumed I did not belong there. Instead I found myself writing down the outs next to Asmussen prior to the sale and scoping out horses on the same rail as the others. A tip of the hat goes to Emily for being an outstanding teacher/tour guide/giver of confidence.

Shortly after Emily and I parted ways, I headed back up to the barn area to look at a few more horses I had singled out in the sale catalog. One of the things that surprised me about the sale was the amount of access the general public was given to the potentially valuable horses. For the most part, all I had to do was fill out a card at the horse’s barn and hand it to the person in charge to see whomever I wanted. I often felt guilty for doing it, as I had no intention to buy whatsoever, but I chalked it up to gaining valuable learning experience. I was learning how to be a buyer so I might someday make the consignors lots of money. The consignors were friendly and very generous with their time.

I returned to the sale pavilion later that afternoon for the main event – the auction itself.

To describe the atmosphere of the pavilion in one word, it would be “buzz”; from the buzz of the chatter in every corner of the building, to the buzz of the rain on the roof as a storm grew near to the buzz many were trying to obtain in the pavilion bar.

I made my way behind the sales ring to catch a glimpse of some of the horses on my watch list. The pavilion area is divided into several walking rings as each horse gets closer to his or her moment in the spotlight, with each ring smaller than the last. I positioned myself on the ledge of the furthermost ring, where the horses enter from the barns. This was the best opportunity to see each horse before they split into odds and evens on different sides of the pavilion.

After some horse watching, I returned to the sales ring to see how the show looked from the front of the stage. Every seat in the sales ring was marked with a piece of paper reserving it for a farm, buyer or other person of interest. However, entire sections sat empty and no one was checking reservations, so I grabbed a seat in the back row and tried not to draw attention to myself.

At times, this can be difficult. At auctions where I have no intention of bidding, I live in constant fear that an itch on the top of my head will lead to the purchase of a six-digit horse. My scalp knows this and will become tingly at the most inopportune times to test my will. Fortunately, I managed to keep it under control for this sale and did not have to inquire about hiring a van to haul home any new purchases.

I eventually decided to head back out to the pavilion, but before that, I ran into Pete, who invited me to the press box to watch the remainder of the sale. For the most part, I had paid little attention to who was placing the winning bids, so being in the press box provided yet another layer of intrigue to the sale (FYI, French mystery group Prime Equestrian was by far the leading buyer).

Soon, the sale drew to an end. I circled the grounds one more time to grab any free trade publications sitting in the racks (because I am a cheapskate), took one last look over the pavilion, now empty and almost dead silent except for the bar, and headed back to my car. I aimed to be at Beulah Park the following afternoon to try my hand at the Fortune 6 wager, so I had to get things in order to move out. But that’s another story for another day…

Behind the jump are some photos from the various stages of the sale. Enjoy!

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