SI Vault
Is it crooked or straight?
Jerry Kirshenbaum
September 27, 1971
The legs of yearlings go every which way at Keeneland's poor man's sale, but smart buyers have found the last two Derby winners there
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September 27, 1971

Is It Crooked Or Straight?

The legs of yearlings go every which way at Keeneland's poor man's sale, but smart buyers have found the last two Derby winners there

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James E. (Ted) Bassett III, the boyish president of Keeneland racecourse, calls it "our bargain-basement sale." To J. B. Faulconer, Keeneland's public-relations chief and commanding general of Kentucky's 100th Army Reserve Division, it is a place to shop for "unpolished jewels." For another way of putting it, hear horse racing's No. 1 commercial breeder, courtly but plain-spoken Leslie Combs II. Parading the other evening through the brightly lighted lobby of the Keeneland sales pavilion near Lexington, the auctioneer's voice droning in the background, Combs confided, "You know, this is just a sale for the little people."

However they differ in expressing it, all would agree that last week's Keeneland fall yearling sale was, by the rarefied standards of the Kentucky thoroughbred industry, a uniquely plebeian affair. Offering 1,097 horses to buyers, nearly one-third of all yearlings on the block in 1971, the annual four-day event had a shirt-sleeve bustle utterly missing from the smaller, genteel peddling of high-priced yearlings conducted last month at Saratoga. The contrast was almost as great with racing's other blue-ribbon auction, the July sale right there at Keeneland. Unlike July shoppers, horse buyers at the most recent sale were not wooed or wined at the staid Idle Hour Country Club, nor did any of Lexington's horsy set apparently feel the need to import their favorite dance bands from Palm Beach—or even Cincinnati—for the occasion.

If such breeders as Combs and Warner Jones even bothered to be on hand, it was only to dispose of merchandise, often inferior or even damaged, left over from July. With most September-sale animals going for under $10,000 and seldom more than $30,000, Keeneland gladly gave itself over to what Sales Director Bill Evans called "a whole different scene." The crowds that moved through the horseshoe-shaped, 750-seat pavilion included trainers enjoying the experience of buying stock for themselves rather than wealthy clients, and so-called cowboys—"the boys in the big hats and pointed toes," sniffed one Kentuckian—looking for $700 horses to race on dusty Western tracks. Conspicuously absent were the Nelson Bunker Hunts and Frank McMahons, owners capable of spending up to $510,000 for one colt, as McMahon did in his record purchase at last year's Keeneland July sale. That yearling, a brother to Majestic Prince named Crowned Prince, is being touted as the 1972 Epsom Derby winner.

Still, the affair did have its own recently acquired glamour. As nobody in attendance needed reminding, it was at this same sale that the last two Kentucky Derby winners were purchased, Dust Commander in 1968 for $6,500 and Canonero II a year later for $1,200. These were certainly flukes, yet Canonero in particular gave horse buyers who believe in miracles—and like horseplayers, most necessarily do—new faith. Although the previous 24 fall sales yielded nothing faintly resembling a Derby winner (Keeneland's summer sale has produced six and Saratoga five), Keeneland played on that faith with advertisements solemnly avowing that every horse in this year's September sale was "a potential Derby winner." In the same vein, the Daily Racing Form called it "the Derby sale."

In what seemed to be a generally shared obsession, Canonero's picture was on the cover of the bulging three-volume sale catalog and his exploits on the minds of such buyers as Dr. Jerry Adkins, a 36-year-old surgeon from Mississippi, who came to Keeneland to find "that bargain horse who'll make a for-tune, just like Canonero." In many ways a typical fall-sale customer—the small owner hoping to get bigger—Adkins began studying pedigrees of available yearlings when the catalog arrived in a large carton at his home in Biloxi three weeks ago. He arranged to make the trip to Lexington with Leo Gabriel, who trains five of the doctor's eight racehorses at Chicago's Hawthorne Park, and Gabriel's wife Betty.

Tirelessly inspecting horses before each day's session in Keeneland's elm-shaded barn area, where the real selling at any yearling auction is done, Adkins made jottings in a small notebook and snapped Polaroid pictures of animals for review later back at his motel. In the market for horses in the under-$5,000 range, he rejected a Bold Commander colt in expectation that "he'll go too high"—he went for $8,000—then ruled out another colt as too small, explaining, "Some people like small cars, but I drive an Olds 98 myself." Next he and the Gabriels stopped at a barn housing the consignment of Richard M. Richards, a youthful partner in a small Kentucky breeding operation of the kind that sells virtually all its yearlings in the fall auction.

Attracted to one of Richards' crop, a Groton filly with a pedigree of promise, Adkins asked Gabriel about the animal's conformation. "Her left foreleg is turned in," the trainer replied, a diagnosis that the horse's breeder, standing in earshot, could only affirm. "That leg goes with her," Richards shrugged. "There's no extra charge." He brightened slightly and added: "Of course, Canonero had a bad leg, too."

Inside the packed sales pavilion the next day, Dr. Adkins, studious behind his horn-rimmed glasses, watched as George Swinebroad, a large, bluff man who estimates he has sold $800 million worth of horseflesh in his half century as an auctioneer, ran the yearlings under the gavel nearly twice as fast as he does in the July sale. As each horse was led in turn into the sales ring below him, Swinebroad's tongue galloped along: "I got 35...35...35 hun'erd.... Will you give me 4,000...? Hey, what a filly! I got 4...." Adkins did not join in the bidding for her, but the crooked-legged filly brought $5,000, a price that later drew from Richards a satisfied smile.

After bidding unsuccessfully for several horses at the two opening sessions, Adkins finally bought a filly for $2,700 and a colt for $3,000. The colt had a 30-inch scar across his chest, the result of having run into a paddock railing in May, but the doctor decided to buy anyway. "I looked him over pretty carefully," he said, as if discussing a patient's recovery prospects. "He might have lost some muscle there, but I don't think that it should affect his running any. I hope not."

As such deliberations suggest, horse trading, an exercise always fraught with risk, is nowhere trickier than at the fall sale. Before Keeneland's July auction, yearlings are carefully screened and accepted for sale only if their pedigrees and physical attributes are of high order. At the fall sale, however, about the only assurance the customer receives is that the horses are not blind. The rule is otherwise caveat emptor, as one novice buyer, Paul Kebert, a Pennsylvania construction man, was only too painfully reminded. Declaring his intention to "get me a couple of horses," a mission inspired by his recent involvement with a new racetrack under construction in Erie, Kebert breezed into Lexington in a candy-striped sport coat and snapped up nine yearlings for a total of $37,300. Horsemen generally have to wait at least a short while before learning that an investment has gone bad, but in the case of a filly he bought for $6,000, Kebert got the word as soon as he had his new acquisitions inspected by an expert. Advised that the filly had a faulty knee that would almost certainly prevent her from running, Kebert said gamely, "Well, I guess you pay for experience."

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