Fascinated by the coverage of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic trip to the moon, we wondered how The Blood-Horse chronicled that voyage back in July 1969. Neil Armstrong’s walk on the lunar surface late in the evening of July 20 didn’t get the column inches in print it did in general publications. After all, the Keeneland July yearling sale started the next day.
Editor Kent Hollingsworth wrapped up the sale in the issue dated July 26:
“Within minutes on the afternoon of July 21, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lifted off the moon and the yearling market opened at Keeneland. They returned toward earth.
“The yearling market at Keeneland had gone into lunar orbit last summer when a filly was sold for $405,000 and the average price for 248 selected yearlings whirled at a record altitude of $30,671.
“The average for selected yearlings came down, not a splashdown, but at least more toward earth this week, to a more sensible, more realistic, sounder level.”
The 1969 July sale was the first at Keeneland under the “new” sale pavilion, which had been constructed at a cost of $700,000. Trying to tie the two events together, we sought the input of the man who would know: James E. “Ted” Bassett III, the former president and chairman of the board at Keeneland. He had become the assistant to president Louis Lee Haggin II in January 1968.
“Are you asking me if there is a connection?” he asked incredulously. “I don’t know, but the opening of the pavilion was our first step in major construction here at Keeneland.
“The impetus for it was that John Finney had just built this brand new one at Saratoga and we had this old framed white house seating about 75 people.
“We had just merged with the Breeders Sales Company and half of their board of directors sat on the Keeneland board so there wasn’t any major issue other than, ‘We want to build a pavilion like Saratoga.’ That started all of our building projects.
“It showed progress could be made at Keeneland,” he said. “Here’s a man on the Moon and Keeneland is building a new pavilion.”
At the time we’re not sure which was a bigger lift.
We shared with him the copy of the 50-year-old edition of The Blood-Horse, and Bassett marveled at the coverage of the sale.
“Where did you dig this up?” Bassett asked. “Look at some of these pictures…Jack Knight…George Poole, trained for Sonny Whitney…Mary Fisher…Eddie Taylor…Sonny Werblin. Arnold Winick was a player in those days. God almighty.
“Everybody says in their time ‘those were the great days’…they were really. The July sale was a mega event. It wasn’t only a mega event for Keeneland, but it was a mega event for the community.”
Bassett’s recall of the ’69 sale wasn’t total (the sale-topper came in at $210,000), but he remembered the bidding for the record $405,000 Sea-Bird filly the summer before.
“Charlie Engelhard was bidding against newcomer Wendell Rosso on the yearling and it stopped at $395,000,” he said. “(Auctioneer) George Swinebroad handled this one. George stopped the bidding and asked, ‘Hey Charlie, what’s the matter? Can’t you afford $5,000?’ So, he bid $400,000. That was the new record. Everyone thought that was it. Rosso popped up and bid $405,000.”
Bassett, a relative newcomer to the sales game, was put in a tough spot by sale director Bill Evans: finding out how Rosso planned to pay.
“Nobody knew who he was,” Bassett said. “How were we going to get $405,000? Bill said to me, ‘That’s your job.’
“I went up to Rosso and said, ‘My name is Ted Bassett and I want to thank you for your support this year, but the sales department wants to know how you are going to pay for this.’ He really flared up and looked at me, and he threw down four $100,000 certified checks and I was mystified. I got down on my hands and knees and picked them up and said ‘thank you.’ ”
A lot has changed in the last 50 years. Today’s technology has advanced light years from the days of the Apollo space program, and so, too, has the “old” Keeneland Association.
Let’s check back for the centennial.