How does a sale work at Keeneland? All horses are catalogued into books– “best” quality, most-desirable horses first (good pedigrees, nice physicals). Each book generally sells over two days, anywhere from 250-400 horses selling per day. Book One began selling today, and will continue tomorrow. With 5000 horses in the September sale, there are about 8 books! This January sale is much smaller, only 3 books to sell (less than 2000 horses). I work for Eaton sales (a very successful, respected consignor) and we will sell about 40 horses tomorrow, and another 35 or so on Thursday.
The consignment handles horses from a variety of owners, most of which are not disclosed to the general public. Prospective buyers come to the barns to examine the horses in the days (or hours) prior to the horses going to the sale ring. They select horses from the catalog (pedigree page) and request them taken out for viewing. A “showperson” (that’s my job) handles the horse out in the barnyard area, standing the horse up properly to show to its best advantage. Then the horse is led in a straight line for the buyer to observe the horse’s walk, noting any crookedness and length of stride. It is AMAZING to me that buyers can adequately assess a horse from simply its conformation and a brief walk; the whole examination takes about 5 minutes per horse, on average. People may come back for a second (or third) look at an animal, but on the whole it is a pretty quick process– especially compared to your typical event horse trial! We get to RIDE our prospective horses, handle them, jump them, etc…and we often aren’t risking hundreds of thousands of dollars on our purchases!
After a day or two in the barns for the buyers to look at, the horses go to the sales ring. This is an absolutely electric environment, mixing horses, people, hopes and dreams in a big pressure cooker. Horses enter a large covered ring, where a group of about 8 horses walk in a large “waiting pattern” circle. Buyers stand behind walls, inside or out of this circle. Then in the other half of the ring, horses are split off in to quarter-sections with two horses walking much smaller individual ovals; this allows buyers to step in and examine the horse. The horse then progresses to the pavilion circle, where two horses share an area about the size of a roundpen; people hang over the outer wall watching and evaluating. Occasionally they step inside the circle (no safety wall) for a closer look, or to speak to the consignment manager for more information. From the “roundpen,” the horse enters the final holding area directly behind the actual sales ring; one horse per holding area (there are two). Here, buyers can be lined four or five deep behind a half-wall; big screens show the action happening in the sales ring, and people are actively bidding (from “the back”) on the horse in the ring. The auctioneer’s voice is loud over the speakers, bid-spotters shouting out “HYA!!!” and there is marked tension throughout. You have a very tiny area (about 12′ wide, 25′ long, bordered by a full wall and a half wall) to walk the horse before it enters the ring. This is where I usually get body-slammed into a wall by a half-panicked horse unwilling to turn away from the “go home gap.” Oh well, part of the job! Then, the previous auction ends; a final top-off by a groom, and it’s time to lead your horse into the sales ring. (If they balk–many do– a squirt bottle to the butt is effective encouragement.) Hand the horse off to a Keeneland assistant, stand off to the side, catch your breath, and hope the horse sells well.
The trip around the sales area, from initial covered area to leaving “sold,” takes about 20 minutes. Aside from the brief moment being sold in the sales ring, you and the horse are walking the entire time. Walking quickly, walking sideways, trying to stand for buyers’ inspection (often horses WILL NOT stand, but run you over instead), trying to stay out of trouble, not get bitten, reared on, or kill oblivious bystanders. When one horse acts up, it tends to unsettle all of them. Even 20-year-old broodmares sometimes bow their necks, jig, prance, and drag around in the excitement. Surprisingly, most of the young horses (weanlings and yearlings) handle the atmosphere remarkably well. Of course a few will act up, but many of them parade around calmly trusting their handlers in such an unusual, tense environment. People say Thoroughbreds are crazy…but many of them are much more sensible than they get credit for.
So…this is what keeps me busy this week. The thoroughbred world is very interesting, and I have learned a lot. Good horsemanship can be learned in many places– sometimes it’s good to get out and experience the horseworld outside of eventing. If nothing else, I have become very good at handling difficult horses, and surviving a very stressful occasion remaining calm and in control. Always good life lessons!
Feel free to ask questions or comment on what you see in the ring. This sale, in particular, includes some racing/breeding prospects that are just the right age for a nice young eventer. It’s hard not to see that potential when I’m showing them sometimes! We have a couple young mares selling who would make lovely sporthorses…too bad they will be WAY out of that price range! ;) But there are definitely some in this sale (especially later books) with this economy, that will be cheap enough for event projects. Anybody interested??