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Bargain hunting for horseflesh

In Kentucky next week the first of the summer yearling sales will put future champions on the block for a lucky few

Experts estimate, and conservatively at that, that only three out of every five Thoroughbreds born ever get to the starting gate. Only one out of five ever succeeds in winning a race, and one out of 10 may eventually win a stake race. And yet, in the face of these discouraging odds, hundreds of newcomers join the ranks of owners every year. To satisfy them in the furiously competitive game of equine supply and demand, nearly 20% of the 9,000 Thoroughbreds born annually pass through the sales ring in a yearling auction.

Yearling sales have come a long way since the first accurate statistics were compiled over 40 years ago. Back in 1910, for example, in an era when most sales were private, over-the-fence deals, only 550 head passed through a regular auction ring. They averaged a piddling $325 per horse. Last year 1,783 yearlings went through U.S. sales rings, costing their buyers $8,953,550, or an average of $5,021.62.

Beginning next week in Lexington, Ky. the auctioneers expect that 1959 will bring a new record in their total annual sales. And the country's two major auction companies already have reputations tough to beat. Lexington's Breeders' Sales Co., which conducts its 16th annual auctions July 27, 28, 29, still holds the mark: 235 yearlings in the 1957 sales averaged an amazing $11,789 (the 145 colts in that sale averaged an even more amazing $13,667). The Fasig-Tipton Company, whose swankiest sales will be held at Saratoga August 10-14, hopes to surpass last year's average of $8,671 for 240 yearlings, while at Del Mar in California on August 3 and 4 the progressive California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, whose sale is also conducted by Fasig-Tipton, figures to top the 1958 figure of 90 head going for an average of $7,111.


Each of these two major companies is as different from the other as is the diamond-studded lady who attends the one from the hard-boot ex-jockey who is a ringsider at the other. Fasig-Tipton Company, headed up by bespectacled Humphrey Finney, conducts its Saratoga business in an atmosphere which combines Royal Ascot and Deauville with all the potential wealth of the Thoroughbred industry in a gay holiday mood. The Saratoga race meeting is in progress during August. It draws people with money, and Fasig-Tipton graciously relieves them of large bundles of it.

In the enclosed air-conditioned pavilion of the Breeders' Sales Co. in Lexington are to be found horsemen from all over, ranging from the local farm managers through packed rows of bankroll-bulging Texans and bargain-hunting Californians. The majority of eastern owners prefer to send an agent or trainer to Lexington.

These who go to Saratoga's sales go for both the sales and the fun. Those who go to Lexington go strictly on business, for no other U.S. sales have managed to satisfy their customers with so many major winners in so brief a period.

Item: Of the slightly fewer than 900 horses which have earned over $100,000 in the entire history of American racing, no fewer than 86 were bought at public auction at the Breeders' Sales Co. Keeneland ring. Some 29 of these have already won over $200,000 (a figure reached by only 18 horses who changed hands one way or the other through the Fasig-Tipton Co.).

Item: Since 1945 four of the winners of the Kentucky Derby (Hoop Jr., Jet Pilot, Dark Star and Determine) were acquired from the Keeneland ring.

Item: Although no horse has won racing's Triple Crown since Citation did it in 1948, the Breeders' Sales Co. scored a unique "triple crown" victory in 1954 when three of its sales products—with a total purchase value of only $45,300—won racing's three major classics. Determine ($12,000) won the Derby; Hasty Road ($23,100) the Preakness, and High Gun ($10,200) the Belmont and the 3-year-old championship.

Item: At the 1956 Keeneland summer sales Trainer Sherrill Ward paid a world record $63,000 for a yearling filly for his patron, Mrs. Josephine Bay Paul. They named her Idun. To date she has won $329,842, 2-year-old filly honors in 1957 and the 3-year-old title last year.

And there are plenty of other bargains, too: Oil Capitol, a $15,000 purchase, won $580,756. Clem, for whom Mrs. Adele Rand paid only $8,500, won her $535,506. The great sprinter Decathlon cost but $15,500 and won $269,530, and the 1955 Garden State winner Prince John cost only $14,300.

The lure of latching on to any such bargain among the 315 yearlings going under the hammer at Keeneland next week will attract potential buyers from every financial level.

To prepare for their arrival Breeders' Sales Co. officials have been hard at work all year. One of the toughest jobs was eliminating all but 315 of the original 678 who were nominated for this sale by March 1. The process, conducted by Executive Vice-president George Swineboard and General Manager Bill Evans, is not simple, nor can it ever hope to satisfy every local breeder.


First step in the process of elimination and selection is to grade each entry A, B or C according to pedigree. "The A grade," says Swineboard, "includes yearlings with an impeccable pedigree. These are by top sires and out of the best mares—either stakes winners themselves or having produced stakes winners or winners of top class. In the B grade we usually find older sires that are possibly on the downgrade, or young sires who have not quite established themselves. The dams in this category must still be near the top. The C grade is almost an automatic throw-out. When we do take a C yearling, such a one must be almost perfect in conformation."

From the paper-work chores the Breeders' Sales Co. crews go into the field to inspect each yearling for soundness, conformation and general health.

After selection each yearling is examined by a veterinarian, and a second examination is mandatory 10 days before the sales. If the animal is found to be unsound at either of these inspections he is automatically withdrawn. "On the whole," says Leslie Combs, who for 10 straight years has been the leading consignor at the Keeneland summer sales, "Keeneland is still the best buyer's market to be found."

The Breeders' Sales Co. usually has a strong hold on its consignors and doesn't like to see them skip the team. Most of them never try. Formed out of necessity because of restricted wartime travel in 1943, the company held its first sale in 1944, taking over where Fasig-Tipton left off. Actually the Breeders' Sales Co. is a nonprofit cooperative as well as being a corporate partner of the Keeneland Race Course. Today there are 58 voting members of the cooperative and 268 contract holders, who have agreed that all their horses for sale (except horses in training) will be sold exclusively through their own company for a period of 10 years. One contract holder admits that he might prefer to sell at Saratoga but that his 10 years aren't up yet. "At the beginning," he adds, "the 10-year idea was a good one because we had to be sure of some money coming in so as to build up the facilities for conducting a sale at Keeneland. But now I've decided that maybe nobody should be told where to sell any more than he should be told what he has to buy."

During the next few weeks, with the horse market higher than it has ever been before, prices at both sales will be fantastic. "But let no one tell you," warns one breeder thoroughly familiar with the available stock at both Saratoga and Keeneland, "that one sale is positively better than the other. A few individuals in each sales represent the best that the commercial breeder can muster. These will go for those fantastic prices, and, in the main, will comprise the page in The Racing Manual of alltime flops. From the residue of both sales will emerge a few Cinderella 2-year-olds, a small percentage of which may find their way to fame."

"And it's fame that every horse buyer is really looking for," adds Leslie Combs. "He can picture himself right now walking into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. Well, it's no cinch, I can tell him that. If breeding potential winners was so easy, I'd be sending more than 28 yearlings out of my 1958 crop of 42 foals to the Keeneland sales next week."

Leslie Combs looked out across the rolling pastures of Spendthrift Farm and offered some advice to the 1959 newcomer to racing. "First, I'd figure to budget myself to a three-or four-year plan instead of going whole hog right off the bat. Say, plan to spend $100,000 a year for four years. Then I'd look for a top trainer who is completely honest. Go with him to a sale and let him divide the money the way he wants. Buy five horses or buy two, but get different types and different sexes. Remember, as you learn about yearlings in a ring, that too many people at sales try to pick out something wrong with each horse instead of looking for the good qualities. Lastly, remember that although it's a colt who may bring you fame if he develops into a good one, it's a filly who, by and large, may be far more profitable to you in the long run. If your colt is no good on the race track, nobody is going to want to breed him later on. If you have a well-bred filly, she doesn't have to be a great race horse in order to justify your faith in her. The race mare who never wins a race can still become the mother of a champion."