The moment John F. Simpson Sr. laid eyes on the lead pony at the Indiana State Fair, he knew he had to own it. John Simpson knows horseflesh; he has driven two Hambletonian winners and he has won 1,467 races. What caught his fancy at the fair was the courtly manner of the Appaloosa stallion leading the trotters to the post. Simpson knew that placid stallions are as rare as those that whistle. He bought this stud for $2,000, no bargain for a horse that doesn't race or breed colts that can. Arriving home a week later, Simpson was stunned to hear that his stud had kicked down a fence and stomped silly every horse it could get near. "After a lifetime around horses you think you're half sharp," Simpson says, in embarrassment. In Indiana, the Appaloosa had been tranquilized.
Horse-trading stories make lively telling, especially today when so many amateurs are buying into racing. Del Miller delights in telling nonhorsemen about Traders Alley, a merchant's haven at the Jacktown Fair in Wind Ridge, Pa. Here cows and pigs and horses are peddled, and here a man Miller knows was recently offered a horse. It was pointed out idling by an oak. Walking over to the horse. Miller's friend saw that it was not standing alongside the tree but was propped against it—dead as a rug.
In Some More Horse Tradin' Ben K. Green, a Texas veterinarian-author, tells of some of the charming swindles pulled off in pioneer days. Green himself was not immune to bamboozlement. Once a Mexican breeder sold him two dozen fresh mounts that Green planned to resell to the U.S. Cavalry. The horses were saddle-marked, even though, it turned out, they had never been ridden. Another time a friend of his bought a plower that he soon discovered was chronically nauseous. The preacher who sold it had temporarily stopped the animal from heaving by feeding it turpentine.
Horse buying is still risky. There are wonderful ways to camouflage defects or inadequacies in standardbreds and thoroughbreds. A diuretic injection is capable of causing the fluid to dissipate from the tissue of a swollen leg joint overnight. The swelling returns in a couple of days, of course. A gimpy horse appears to walk without limping when the sound foot opposite the tender one is made equally sore. This can be accomplished by slitting the frog, a soft area on the bottom of a horse's hoof, and rubbing in grains of sand. Mustard dabbed on the frogs encourages a low-striding trotter to lift its hooves high and handsome. Sometimes sound horses have been disabled by prospective buyers and their accomplices, often to persuade owners to sell cheaply. A surefire crippler—lasting only as long as desired—is to wrap a horsehair tightly around the animal's foreleg, close to a tendon. The irritation vanishes when the hair is removed.
Laming and disguising lameness are only one facet of the game. An Ohio owner recently sold a 2:10 pacer for the price of a 2:00 pacer, stinging the buyer by staging a half-mile workout in a minute flat. It figured mathematically, but after going a half mile the horse was so tired it would have taken two minutes to go another half. A trainer in Ireland often unloaded swaybacks by brushing their backs until a light blister developed: with the swelling the horse appeared to have classic conformation.
"Modern medicine can cover most defects," says G. R. Greenhoff, senior veterinarian at Hanover Shoe Farms, a standard-bred showplace. Swollen joints are drained with syringes and steroids used to develop bulk and perk up dull appetites.
Yearlings may be sound because they have yet to pound the tracks, but the $1,000-hunch buy is rarely available today. At the Harris-burg sale last November, Hanover averaged $20,695 for the 166 yearlings it sold. Thoroughbred yearlings that passed through the wings at Saratoga and Lexington last summer were quite a bit costlier, averaging $90,705. Months before the sale, consignors like Hanover begin priming the horses to be sold. They are brought into barns for the first time since birth, fed grain to fatten them and corn oil to brighten their coats—and they are groomed twice daily. At night blankets cover them, smoothing down their growing manes. One trainer figures that by the time these yearlings are turned over to trainers at the track they must lose 100 to 150 pounds. "Horses look best beefed up and under good lights," says Hal Jones, the foreman at Hanover Farm. "It's natural for us to do our best to make them look good."
Seconds before entering the sales ring, the animal is buffed and its hooves are polished with water. The ring itself is slightly elevated and brightly lit. Grooms know how to jiggle their lead shanks to keep the horses looking alert. Small grooms lead small horses to make them seem normal sized.
The auctioneer sets a brisk tempo. Assistants scattered among the patrons hectically beckon for bids. If there is a lull in the bidding, the auctioneer may bark something like, "C'mon! Thirty thousand? Look at this colt! Sired by Albatross! Winner of 59 of 71 starts and more than a million dollars!"
Sires matter, but how much? That gets distorted in the heat of an auction. Albatross might have flown around tracks, but not all his get will. After all, in the Sullivan family there was only one John L.