Running on Empty - by Joe Hickey

Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aug. 11, 1972 — From inside the darkened recesses of Primrose Path, where the power players and wannabes sit down with Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam to schmooze and make deals, a cry rose above the revelry, “You guys better sharpen your pencils.”

A round of laughter ensued; everybody got the message.

Windfields vice president Joe Thomas and I walked on, knowing full well we were the butt of the taunting.

There wouldn’t be martini lunches at Old Bryan Inn, nor delectable dinners at Chez Pierre or Wishing Well this August. Instead, we kept a self-imposed low profile, eating at the Spa Diner while sharing a bat-ridden room on Calvin Coolidge-era mattresses in Mrs. Vogel’s Union Avenue garret.

Black Friday. It was the night that Windfields Farm ran aground. Threw craps. Bombed—done-in by announced reserves. E.P. Taylor had utilized that sales format with marked success for years at yearling sales in Canada, where the buying public looked to the great breeder for guidance as to a racing prospect’s worth.

He had gambled and won at a pre-priced farm sale in 1962, when buyers passed up year-old Northern Dancer at his $25,000 reserve. E.P. gambled and lost in 1968 when Nijinsky II, carrying an announced reserve of $60,000 at Woodbine, was purchased for Charles Engelhard for a Canadian record $84,000. Two years later, Nijinsky II became the only English Triple Crown winner since Bahram in 1935. E.P. Taylor never got over losing the greatest racehorse he ever bred, just as Ogden Phipps rued the day he lost Secretariat on a foal-sharing coin flip to Penny Chenery.

When Windfields entered the U.S. yearling market as a consignor in 1971 at Saratoga, the format was to sell with announced reserves. Results were mixed: seven of 10 yearlings with combined reserves of $250,000 brought $452,000, topping the sale in average. It was worth a return engagement.

Showings leading up to the Friday night sale were disappointing, chiefly because our marquee colt—a Dr. Fager half-brother to Northern Dancer—had been scratched after being cast. We needed a “talking horse”—or a barker out front.

Seated behind Mrs. Taylor in the Humphrey S. Finney sales pavilion—named for my mentor—I could see the muscles in the boss’ jaw twitch as he bit down on his pipe stem when the first two Northern Dancer colts left the ring without drawing a bid. Joe Thomas slouched lower in his seat.

The Nearctic—Eastern Melody colt at $25,000 drew two bids, opening and closing. Tartan bought the Nearctic—Flaming Issue colt at the $35,000 asking price. Then the bottom fell out.

A Viceregal colt out of Fleur (she was later to produce The Minstrel, an Epsom Derby winner syndicated for a record $9 million) didn’t meet his asking price of $60,000. “Good,” responded Mrs. Taylor. “I didn’t want to sell him, anyway.” Her husband flushed and all but disappeared in a plume of smoke. “Winnie, will you please stop that…”

When the Buckpasser filly failed to attract a bid, Mrs. Taylor was on her side. “She’s such a lovely filly. I’m glad she’s going home.”

“That’s enough, Winnie.”

When the 1972 blood-letting was over, only four of 15 Windfields yearlings were sold after five bids. The consignment leader at $100,000 was a small, unfinished March 15 foal by Northern Dancer—Lady Victoria, by Victoria Park, that Jim Scully’s Thoroughbred Productions bought for Zenya Yoshida. The blaze-faced miler was a multiple group winner in France, including the group I Prix de la Foret.

Retired to stud at Yoshida’s Shadai base in Hokkaido, Northern Taste raised Japan’s breeding industry to an international level. As the Lexington of the Pacific Rim, he reigned as Japan’s leading sire 11 consecutive years and topped the country’s broodmare sires a number of times before Sunday Silence dethroned him.

A resilient risk-taker all his life, E.P. Taylor did not bruise easily. He survived a torpedoing during WW II, and in his 70s walked away from an earthquake in Mexico.

Footnote: Among Windfields’ leftovers from the 1972 Saratoga sale was Canadian champion-to-be Lord Durham. Windfields returned with announced reserves in 1973 and 1974, leading all consignors both years.

And the glory years at Keeneland July were still to come.

Joe Hickey, who lives in Easton, Md., has been a publicist, writer, breeding farm administrator, and racing commissioner.

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