I have watched thousands of horses auctioned at yearling sales over the years and, except for when the price is astronomical, the spectacle now seems very routine. But when a bay daughter of Jacinto and Lark's Reward went through the ring at the Keeneland Yearling Sales last week, the bidding seemed anything but routine. As the auctioneer was chanting, "Sixty thousand? Do I hear 60,000?" the bid-spotter was looking directing at me, awaiting a response.
Anybody who plays the horses for enough years inevitably will be smitten by the desire to own a thoroughbred, and for me that urge finally became irresistible this summer. Since well-bred fillies are becoming widely regarded as an excellent hedge against inflation, and the depreciation schedule for thoroughbreds will warm the heart of any accountant, it was easy to rationalize the purchase of a racehorse as an investment rather than an indulgence.
Good bloodlines aren't cheap, and so I started soliciting friends to form a syndicate that would buy a filly at Keeneland. My pitch was a model of restraint: "You probably aren't going to get much action for your money; this filly might never get to the races. The expenses are going to be staggering; it costs $48 a day to keep a horse in New York. But . . . (I would pause dramatically) for our money we are going to buy a filly who has the potential to be a champion."
People couldn't reach for their checkbooks fast enough.
My bankroll assembled, I began poring over pedigrees of more than 3,000 yearlings who were going to be sold in Kentucky over a two-week period. My friend Tom Gentry, the prominent breeder, had given me one piece of advice: "Research the dickens out of them." And I did.
The catalogues at horse sales tell you just about everything about an animal's bloodlines except the things you want to know. Pedigrees are popularly judged by the amount of "black type" in them, since the names of horses who have won or placed in stakes races appear in boldface, but a potential buyer has to look at the black type critically. The catalogue said that the dam of one of the Keeneland yearlings previously had produced a stakes winner who was listed thusly: DISTANT DANCER (c. by Distant Day). 11 wins, 2 to 6, 1981, $51,966, Florida Breeders' Futurity. That sounds pretty good until you do your homework and find that Distant Dancer was a $3,000 claiming horse.
I compiled a list of yearlings whose sires were well-established but currently unfashionable and whose dams already had produced good nonblack-type offspring. When I got to Keeneland, I enlisted three experts to check the conformation of the yearlings in whom I was interested, and learned quickly that judging a yearling is only a little less subjective than a Rorschach test.
Amanda Skiffington, the assistant to my future trainer, P.G. Johnson, looked at one of my candidates and winced, saying, "She's back at the knee -- that's an unforgivable defect." Gentry would look at the same animal and say, "She's not too bad; Kauai King looked worse." Amanda could say of a yearling, "Her conformation is very correct, but I just don't like her." Gentry inspected a filly, pointed out her offset knees, enumerated her other defects and concluded, "I love her! I love her!"
That daughter of the young stallion Raise A Cup was one of two fillies in the sale who fit my pedigree requirements, had the proper conformation and (most important) looked as if they might be in my syndicate's price range. The other was a daughter of Jacinto, and they were the ones I would bid on. A knowledgeable breeder had warned me, "If you look too eager, or if they spot you for a rube, they'll run the price up on you so fast your head will spin." Since I was displaying as much sang-froid as the typical 5-year-old does on Christmas eve, I asked Gentry to do the bidding for me.
One of my partners, Newsweek columnist Pete Axthelm, had flown to Lexington for the occasion, and we followed Gentry to an inconspicuous corner as the filly was being led into the ring. "Sixty thousand is our limit," I told him. The bidding quickly escalated to that level and beyond, but unbeknownst to me Gentry kept going to $72,000. When the price got to $77,000, and the auctioneer was asking for $80,000, Gentry said, "Don't lose this filly! I'll put up the rest of the money."
"Let's do it!" Axthelm implored.
"No," I said.
The British Bloodstock Agency bought Raise A Cup's daughter for $77,000. "You know," Axthelm said, "there's a lot of potential for hatred here. If this filly wins the Epsom Oaks, you're going to be reminded of this." Inasmuch as Axthelm will write off friendships with people who tout him off an 8-to-5 shot at the track, I knew this to be true. But that night we shared our mutual dejection, feeling like two kids who had just been told that Santa Claus was not going to come.
There was still hope, however; the Jacinto filly was going into the ring the next morning. This time I was on my own; Axthelm had left for Las Vegas and Gentry was busy selling his own yearlings. My heartbeat sounded like a jackhammer but I tried to put on a blase' front. I made eye contact with the bid-spotter, and signaled my intentions with slight nods of the head as the price escalated.
It seemed I had only one other rival for this filly, and I could only hope that his resources were not quite as formidable as those of the British Bloodstock Agency. My unseen foe bid $55,000, and I nodded to indicate $60,000. That was my limit, and I could only hope it might be my rival's limit, too.
It wasn't. The other bidder quickly offered $62,000, and the bid-taker was asking whether I wanted to go to $65,000. I shook my head plaintively as the gavel fell and the daughter of Jacinto was led out of the ring. This routine sale of a medium-priced yearling had taken about two minutes, but it had crushed weeks of planning, studying and dreaming.
I have an ominous feeling -- though perhaps one that is common to underbidders at auctions -- that I have not heard the last of the daughters of Raise A Cup and Jacinto. If either grows up to be a champion, I will be forever haunted by the realization that I should have bid a little more, by Axthelm's abuse, and by the visions of what might have been. "We could really have given out some great interviews at the Kentucky Derby," Axthelm pointed out. So true, so true.