John M.S. Finney

The charm of horse racing lies primarily in the animals that do it—their beauty, grace, power and their degree of class. But there is an undeniable attraction to the colorful human beings that make it happen. The purpose of this blog is to share my stories about some of these characters. My requisites in the selection: I had dealings with them, their antics and accomplishments should not be forgotten, and that at least most of them are no longer with us. Cot Campbell      


   To me, John M.S. Finney, legendary president of Fasig-Tipton, was a man who had never been young...yet he would never be old. He was John Finney; he was there and was always going to be...and thank God for it. So vivid was his personality that it was inconceivable that he would not continue to enliven the Thoroughbred racing scene. But he died in 1994.

   Selling Thoroughbreds was his game, and he will always be remembered as the head of Fasig-Tipton. He worked for that fine auction company most of his life and was bred to run it. And run it he did, in his own colorful style, at a time when it was in its heyday. But John was painting with broad strokes indeed, and his grandiose expansion plans collided with the economic reality of the late eighties, and problems arose. He left Fasig-Tipton late in his business life and became a high-level bloodstock agent. He was successful, of course, but his name will always be synonymous with Fasig-Tipton.

John Finney and Brereton Jones

Finney with Ky. Gov. Brereton Jones

   The colorful son succeeded a colorful father, the legendary Humphrey Finney. John said he was perceived to be "the second cup of tea from the same bag." He may have been at first, but the second cup proved plenty potent.

   Keeneland, Fasig's only real competitor then, was solid, sensible, and perhaps almost paternal. Fasig-Tipton was run in what seemed to be a loosey-goosey style by a fun-loving, delightful, but ever-so-effective bunch of characters. On the team along with Finney were Ralph Retler, Laddie Dance, D.G. Van Clief, Walt Robertson, Boyd Browning, Terence Collier, and Steve Dance, with Tyson Gilpin and Clay Camp not officially on the staff but firmly connected as "house consignors." To say that they were jovial men would be like saying that Frank Sinatra could carry a tune.

   Fasig-Tipton was "Robin Hood and his Merry Men" to Keeneland's "King Arthur and the Round Table." In the role of Robin Hood himself was John Finney.

   No human being ever enjoyed the good life as much as John Finney. John's great wit was celebrated. Never had a more impish, rapier-like wit fueled an endless supply of deliciously spicy anecdotes. No man ever possessed such a flair for walking amongst socialite-sportsmen, aristocrats, con artists, and good old boys and keeping them all placated. It almost seemed an incongruity that he combined these characteristics with what was an unswervingly rigid code of ethics.


When Fasig-Tipton was in that particular bright period in the mid-eighties, the company generated considerable cash flow. Finney wanted to make hay while the sun was shining and had his eye peeled for expansion opportunities. Some made sense; some did not. One from the latter category was his trip to Georgia to discuss with me the possibility of buying the Dogwood operation. He already knew a lot about us, but that "affinity," as he typically termed it, would not have worked, and we both quickly realized it.

One thing that intrigued Finney was the aforementioned Dogwood concept of buying horses on terms. Terms were old stuff in private transactions, but the idea of doing so with horses sold by consignors at public auction was avant-garde, to put it mildly.

   With me, invention was the mother of necessity! Coming from an area where banking connections understood precious little about the Thoroughbred industry, it was difficult in the early days to arrange an adequate line of credit-and this was in an era when horses were selling like expensive hotcakes.

   Consequently, I conceived the idea of going to a consignor and saying, in effect, "If I am successful in buying one of your horses (with no pre-arranged price in mind, of course) -I want you to permit me to pay for that horse over a period of a year."

   Spendthrift Farm and Leslie Combs was the first to go for it. Lee Eaton, the pre-eminent sales agent of the day, embraced the idea, and soon practically every consignor was willing to sell me horses in this manner.

   The sales companies liked it fine. They got their full commission out of the first payment. Furthermore, it put another strong bidder in the market (with a little more guts than he might normally have had paying cash). Additionally, though I might not end up with the horse, my presence might have pushed the ultimate buyer a little higher.

   An example of John's complete fairness is the fact that Fasig-Tipton had its own financing arm. It was called TECO (Thoroughbred Equity Company), but its arrangement was nowhere near as beneficial to me as the terms I was enjoying. Finney knew this, and still he tried wholeheartedly to sell any reluctant consignor on cooperating with the Dogwood terms "package."

John Finney   He was smooth as silk, but on one occasion he did lose his cool.

   In 1975 John's pal LeRoy Jolley (another renowned wit), won the Kentucky Derby with Foolish Pleasure.  

   After the Derby the colt shipped to Baltimore for the Preakness at Pimlico. Foolish Pleasure was going to have a maintenance breeze five days before the race, and LeRoy invited John Finney to come out to Pimlico at 7:00 a.m. when the Foolish Pleasure entourage would leave the barn and head to the racetrack for the breeze. As with all racehorses-and Triple Crown runners for damn sure-there was no leeway in the timing. He would go at 7:00!

   John was delighted, and he invited Terence Collier, a key Fasig-Tipton staffer, to come along. Terence asked if he might bring two visiting equine auction executives from Europe. John said fine. They would all meet in the lobby of the Cross Keys Hotel, where they were staying. The time would be 6:30 a.m. -sharp!

   The next morning John and Terence were there, but the two visitors were late. John paced a bit, went and got the car, and pulled it up front. By now it was 6:40, and both he and Terence were fuming. At 6:45 the two men showed up, and off they roared to Pimlico, about ten minutes away. John was quite tense-for him.

   They pulled up to the stable gate just before 7:00 and encountered a rather heavy-handed and dimwitted security guard whose job (for this week only) was to see that no evildoers had access to the Preakness horses.

   He had a clipboard, and he had been instructed to register each visitor's name and record the purpose of his visit to the barn area at Pimlico.

   John led off, told his name, spelled it several times, and informed the fellow that all of them had been invited to the barn of LeRoy Jolley. The guard painstakingly registered this information, dropping his pencil several times and making a few erasures in the process. The clock was now right at 7:00.

   Next Terence Collier's name was slowly recorded, but without any significant hitches.

   The third man was an Irishman named Peter Mulvagh. His brogue and unusual last name had the guard moving at a snail's pace. After several false starts, with laborious explanations about why this high level of security was essential, the guard registered Mr. Mulvah.

   But now the acid test was coming. The fourth gentleman was a Frenchman.

   His name was Jean Baptiste De Gaste.

   At this point John Finney could see that the opportunity to view Foolish Pleasure's work was slipping away.

   The guard leaned his head in the car and asked, "Now what is your name, sir?"

   John floor-boarded it, as he yelled out, "Tom Smith, goddamn it!"


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