Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bunny In Kentucky! Part Two: Fasig-Tipton

The realm of Thoroughbred auctioneering has been generated off the prospect of prosperity.  Be it for the hope of profit, or the aspirations to grace the record books, gambling with such colossal sums of riches on these untested youngsters delights the senses with the possibility of success. 

The yearling sales began anew at the exquisite Fasig-Tipton auction ring situated in Lexington, Kentucky.  There is not a more fitting scene for the selling season to dawn than the backdrop of such grand history in Thoroughbred auctions.

Fasig-Tipton, established in 1898 by William Fasig and Edward Tipton, is North America’s oldest auction company.  Its first headquarters were located in Madison Square Garden, where they sold upscale road and carriage horses, as well as Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds for the purpose of racing.

Following Fasig’s death in 1903, office assistant and former stablehand, Enoch James Tranter, took his place and modified the catalogues (that originally listed back to the thirtieth dam) to display less of the distant generations, so buyers could be better informed about the details of the immediate family’s race and produce record.  Fasig-Tipton led the way as the first auction company to require certificates of health and pregnancy at broodmare sales.

The great auction company launched its renowned Saratoga Sale in August of 1917.  The auction quickly became known as a place to purchase quality horses with the sale of Man O’ War the year succeeding its creation. 

However, the Saratoga Sale was put on hold during World War II when breeders could not freely ship their horses around the country. In 1943, Fasig-Tipton pitched a tent at Keeneland Racecourse located in the breeding hub of the nation, and conducted the sale which included the 1945 Kentucky Derby winner, Hoop Jr.

Even when the Saratoga Sale resumed, the yearling auction in Kentucky remained in place.  Keeneland took over the sale from 1963 to 2002, the year in which the sale ended.  It was not until 1972 when Fasig-Tipton once again conducted their own July yearling sale at their training center on Paris Pike.  This coincided with the relocation of  the Fasig-Tipton headquarters to Kentucky.  Just three years later, the entire operation moved to its current location on Newtown Pike in Lexington, the same year Seattle Slew was sold. The auction, held under their recently renovated sales pavilion, grants an impressive list of graduates that includes horses such as Genuine Risk, Unbridled, Rainbow Quest, and Mine That Bird.

I have been a student of sales catalogues and glued to my computer watching live telecasts - when available - from my home. We arrived at the gorgeous entrance of Fasig-Tipton on a brutally warm, humid afternoon. As we parked, I felt excitement tighten in my stomach as I spotted yearlings being led around the barn area.  


Anxious to see my top selections with my own eyes, I made a bee-line straight for the Taylor Made consignment.  The Taylor Made shedrow was the place to be, and not just because they had an ice cream cart featuring six different flavors!  The army of Taylor Made soldiers was uniformly dressed in shirt and tie, looking dapper even in the oppressive heat.  The barns were tastefully decorated with lovely large planters, farm signage, and posters promoting the many successes of Taylor Made. 
There were two “welcome centers” on each side of the barn to accommodate anyone’s request to see a particular yearling.  It is just as simple as ordering Chinese food; tell them the number and the horse is quickly brought out for you to critique. The oval gravel walkways that separated the barns had multiple yearlings being shown for numerous potential buyers.  Every person was exceptionally friendly, and projected a professionalism that you would expect from such a top notch sales agency, regardless of the sweltering heat.

Many other consigners also worked very hard to present their yearling prospects: Gainesway, Paramount Sales, Eaton Sales, to name a few.  The grounds were bustling throughout the day with consigners showcasing as many yearlings as possible before the big sale day.

Auction Day

The sales pavilion is a building that I imagine will not just impress at first glance, but will garner the same reaction for decades to come. The structure stands as a fitting venue for the exchange of fortunes. The outside of the building had the appeal of a stable that I would expect to find on a royal estate in England.

We entered the building from the side, which brought us into the hallway surrounding the room my mother deemed, “The Selling Theater”. The outer wall of the hallway is a gallery graced with photographs of accomplished horses that have treaded through the historic Fasig-Titpon sales ring, offering me the opportunity to absorb some Thoroughbred racing history.

The inner wall was smartly designed with a succession of windows that is a visual extension of the selling theater. This accommodates visitors coming and going from the theater; a place where one can stand and chat with others while still watching the action of the sales ring.

The nucleus of the facility is the sales ring which is surrounded by rows, in a semi-circle, of movie-theater style seating. There is beautiful wood paneling on the walls and ceilings; a feature consistent throughout the entire facility.

At the 10:00 AM start time, Fasig-Tipton Director of Marketing and Sale Announcer, Terence Collier sat high atop the podium with the auctioneer, just as you would find a Captain and his First Mate at the helm of a boat announcing the rules of battle. Of course, all said with the utmost courtesy.

Mr. Collier launched the sale by inviting Hip No. One into the ring. He implored the onlookers to have some sympathy about being the first to go and recognize she is worthy of a strong selling price. The advice energized bidders up to eighty thousand dollars, but the bidding fell short of the seller’s reserve.

The engine was started and the sales vehicle was now purring along. The sale was driven from the auctioneer’s podium which was centered towards the back of the auction ring between two large wooden sliding doors.

There was a well-choreographed process that repeated itself throughout the day with rhythmic smoothness. The large solid “in” door (stage left) silently glides open, and the yearling is quickly handed off to a sharp dressed Fasig-Tipton handler for the sale presentation. The original consigning handler inconspicuously slides behind the podium to the “out” door (stage right) waiting to regain possession of the horse once the gavel finalizes the deal. And the wheels on the bus go round and round. There was only one exception – an apprehensive youngster refused to walk through the door into the sale ring. Handlers overcame the delay by backing the horse into the ring. Who thinks this horse will be a lousy gate loader?

Fasig-Tipton has created an environment not unlike a museum would when displaying masterpieces. The atmosphere is dedicated to promoting the best look for the horse. The lighting is complementary and each beautifully groomed animal looks worthy of the stage. I could even imagine my thirty year old Northern Dancer grandson would look quite spiffy up there!

While in the ring, Mr. Collier politely introduces each yearling to the crowd by highlighting a few pedigree positives, after which the auctioneer proceeds into his montage of vowels and consonants connected by those all-important numbers. The handler is patient and gentle with the youngster as most respond with some level of nervousness in reaction to the circumstance. Circling on the mauve synthetic shavings, one will occasionally whinny, no doubt alarmed by their isolation from the other horses as they look out at the spectacle of the audience. Add to that the spotters noting bids, yelling and flailing their arms as if they were an umpire calling strikes.

Soon after the start of the sale, my mother elected to stay in the comfortable, air conditioned theater, while I was excited about venturing out to the walking ring where most of the people chose to observe the sale. The walking rings were set up to “conveyor belt” the prospects in an uncomplicated manner to the auction ring.

While one yearling was in the sales pavilion, the horse on-deck would be waiting its turn in the alley just behind the door to the auction ring. The inside walking ring held the two to three consecutive hip numbers that were to follow. The further most outside ring held the next four to five consecutive hip numbers to those in the inside ring. As a horse would step into the auction ring, the next would take its place in the alley. The next appropriate hip number from the outside ring would then fill the void in the inside ring, and so on and so forth. Clockwork!

I was fortunate enough to capture a bar stool on the rail of the inside walking ring. I placed myself in position where I was able to get a good look at each prospect walking directly towards me giving me the chance to observe how each yearling tracked.  I spent hours in this spot for it allowed me a wonderful opportunity to examine the yearlings one last time as they made multiple laps…and I feared losing my el primo bar stool. My mother kept me stocked with water and food. I even ate my Subway sandwich ringside to keep my position safe. I am not sure whether this was proper etiquette but it was worth the risk!

This vantage point also offered me the opportunity to catch some bidding action. The center of the walking ring featured a podium with two spotters able to receive bids from this location and multiple television screens in order to observe the happenings in the selling theater.

I am fortunate to have experienced this sale as the first auction that I have attended. Not only was it inspiring to see so many lovely yearling hopefuls, but also to observe the highest levels of professionalism in sales, both in the consignors’ conduct and with the Fasig-Titpon facility and staff.

Not wanting to leave out any details from my visit to The July Sale, I am following up with a separate article highlighting my Bits N’ Bunny picks and how they fared in the sales ring.  

1 comment:

  1. Bunny, E.J. Tranter was my great uncle and I have many newspaper articles about him along with photos. He died in 1938. I am currently looking up info on his family tree and found your blog. Very interesting!