Behind the Sale - by Dan Liebman

It takes only a minute or two to sell a horse at public auction. The animal is led into the ring, the announcer makes a few comments, the auctioneer rattles his chant, and the hammer falls.

Simple. Easy.

Not exactly.

In 2002, The Blood-Horse presented “A Day in the Life of a Racetrack,” followed in 2005 by “A Day in the Life of a Breeding Farm.” For this issue, writers and photographers spent time “behind the scenes” with the people responsible for putting on a single day of the Keeneland November breeding stock sale.

Of course, those same people are responsible for all 15 days of the auction, and for many, their work begins months before the first horse is led into the ring.

And they are there in good times and bad, which doesn’t necessarily refer to whether the market is up or down. Sale company officials and employees perform their functions for one-day sales and two-week auctions, for short sessions and lengthy ones, under sunny skies and in inclement weather, with million-dollar horses and thousand-dollar ones, as well.

So far this year, more than 17,000 horses of various ages have been listed as sold at auctions in North America. That doesn’t just happen. Many people make it happen.

There are those you see, like the bid spotters, and those you don’t, like the office staff. There are those who work outside—unloading the horses, clearing the muck, and scooping the poop. There are those who work inside—running the repository, cooking and serving the food and beverages, working the bid board, and cleaning the bathrooms. There are those who don’t work for the sale company—attorneys, advertising agencies, and vanning companies.

Sale company officials often refer to themselves as simply the conduit by which a horse passes from seller to buyer. They represent both parties in the fair trade of stock. Well, these are the men and women who help the sale company fulfill that mission, working on behalf of both consignors and buyers hoping all go home happy, although knowing that at any sale, there is no way everyone will walk away happy.

Just like selling cattle, corn, or soybeans, the sale company provides the arena for the Thoroughbred breeder to bring his product to market. Yes, the sale company is motivated by a big incentive—its commission—but it relies on repeat business, so service is everything.

More than 20 sale companies have conducted auctions in North America this year, with varying degrees of success, differing levels of stock, and various numbers of employees. But the bottom line is the same, and that is to sell horses.

Everyone knows the breeding of Thoroughbreds has become more commercial, with seemingly more persons wanting to sell a horse than race a horse. That is why Keeneland, the biggest Thoroughbred sale company in the world, cataloged record numbers this year in September and November. However, large catalogs in a time of a global economic downturn translated to significant decreases in business and many horses left unsold or worse—unwanted.

How quickly has the economy turned?

Well, a feature conceived a year ago on a behind-the-scenes look at a Thoroughbred sale ended up occurring at a sale that saw huge decreases in business. That, however, only better helps illustrate that sale companies do not determine the market. The men and women that help breeders bring their crops to market are bright, cheery, and helpful whether the gross, median, and average are up or if the gross, median, and average are down—way down.

At Keeneland during the November sale, company officials were also working on the January and April 2009 sales.

There is always the next sale, and the people behind it.

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