The first horses Walt Robertson sold were while sitting on a tractor. While it was moving. "I practiced (auctioneering) while riding on Dad's tractor mowing his fields," Robertson said. "I sold a lot of horses on that tractor."
Today, more than 30 years later, Robertson still sells a lot of horses. Only now, he occupies a seat on the rostrum at Fasig-Tipton, the country's oldest equine auction firm. More importantly, for the past 10 years, he has also served as president of the Lexington-based company.
His auctioneering style is an assemblage -- part George Swinebroad, part Laddie Dance, part Ralph Retler -- but the horsemanship is all Jim Blount Robertson. His late father was a true horse trader. And a damn good one.
Jim Robertson's grandfathers were both mule traders and he was a well-known Saddlebred trainer. He also bought and sold upwards of 100 horses a year and regularly held sales at his farms. Walt Robertson was born in Pineville, Ky., because his father was training at the time for Minton Hickory Farms, a top Saddlebred operation owned by Nola Minton.
Training Saddlebreds took Jim Robertson to California when young Walt was only six months old. Six years later, the family was back in Kentucky, first in Mount Sterling, then Louisville, and finally Lexington, where he purchased a farm on Tates Creek Pike. The Jim B. Robertson Farm had a 300-foot long barn where, for 20 years, the owner would hold at least one sale a year. His sons were always there to help.
"Horses is what we know," Jim Robertson would tell Walt and his brother, Jim Jr., who goes by Jimmy. Both never forgot those words. Walt Robertson spends every day conducting horse business. His brother does too. Jimmy Robertson, like his father before him, once ran the Rock Creek Riding Club in Louisville. He now operates Infinity Stables in nearby Simpsonville.
Jim Robertson died of cancer at age 66 in 1992, two weeks after watching his son auction famed Calumet Farm.
Fresh out of college, with a business administration degree from the University of Kentucky and a horsemanship degree from the University of Jim Robertson, Walt Robertson took a job at Swinebroad-Denton. He admits his family connections helped him land the position, and with his credentials and desires, there could not have been a better place to land. George Swinebroad was a legendary auctioneer in horse country, and his partner, J.T. Denton, took a keen interest in Robertson.
"He was the best anyone knew," Robertson said of Swinebroad, who died in 1975. "The presence (in the auction stand) was a big part, but also he knew his product and knew all the players. He really understood the game.
"J.T. Denton took me in," he added. "I was so fortunate to get to work for George Swinebroad and J.T. Denton."
From Swinebroad and Denton, Robertson said, he learned that to be successful in his line of work, you must be "a horseman, a people man, and an auctioneer. If you're lacking in any one, it's a loss. You have to meld the three."
Because the firm handled so many estate property sales, Robertson obtained his real estate license. He also began working the ring at Keeneland and Tattersalls.
In 1972, when breeder Archie Griffin retired, Robertson auctioneered for the first time. He sold tack, not horses, but it didn't matter. Walt Robertson was hooked.
"Oh, absolutely, I knew right then this is what I wanted to do," he said. "I was so excited by it; so intrigued by it."
Robertson has worked for Swinebroad-Denton ever since, 10 years ago purchasing the real estate brokerage and auction firm with partners Ryan Mahan and Tom Biederman.
Having worked the ring and bid spotted at countless auctions, Robertson did his first horse auctioneering at a Saddlebred sale in Kansas City in 1972, not long after he and his wife, Corky, were married. They have two children, one now applying to medical school, the other to law school.
In 1975, shortly after Swinebroad died, Ted Bates, then general manager of Fasig-Tipton Kentucky, hired Robertson -- but not to fill Swinebroad's seat. At his first sale, which included Seattle Slew, he called horses to the auction ring.
"When I first knew about Walt, he was a protégé of Swinebroad," said Bates, who left Fasig-Tipton in 1978 and now operates his own farm. "I respected Swinebroad's opinion, and I appreciated the talent and potential Walt had. Fasig-Tipton was always in need of a new, gifted auctioneer. It was a good day for Fasig (when it hired Robertson)."
Robertson moved up to bid spotting at his next Fasig-Tipton sale, and within a couple of years was a member of the company's team working the prestigious Saratoga auction. In 1976, he sold his first Thoroughbred, and remembers every detail. His close friend, longtime bid spotter Bill Robbins, remembers it as well.
"It was at the end of a sale, and (Fasig-Tipton president) John Finney let him audition to see how he would do," Robbins said. "Walt's wife was there with a tape recorder. It was an old, cheap sale, and the very first horse he sold...the upset price was $500. Walt started at $2,000, then went to $1,000, finally was just trying to get any bid he could. It was to the point that no one would bid.
"Walt was getting ready to hammer it down as 'no bid' when I saw a guy waving from inside the bar. I had never taken a bid from the bar, but there he was, an old farmer in there bidding. I didn't know him; I just hoped he would come and sign the ticket.
"I took his bid and later I told Walt, 'Boy, I saved your ass; I got some old farmer out of the bar to sign the ticket.' Walt said, 'That old farmer was my dad.' "
Robertson, 52, remembered another part of the story. "I was only asking for $500 and Bill put my dad in for $600," he said chuckling.
From that auspicious beginning, Robertson began to see more and more mike time, first at the smaller regional sales, then at the major yearling and breeding stock auctions.
"The amount I learned from Ralph Retler and Laddie Dance during that time was immeasurable," Robertson said. "It was a hell of an apprenticeship following them around for 15 years."
In the early 1980s, Jack Jones, who had replaced Ted Bates, was in need of an assistant general manager for Fasig-Tipton Kentucky. He hired Robertson, who would later become manager. In 1991, he was named president of the entire company.
"Fasig-Tipton has certainly been helped by the changes in the industry," Robertson said. "We got pretty fat, like the rest of the industry. It took us awhile to adapt."
Fasig-Tipton's mission, Robertson said, is really quite easily summed up. "To sell each horse to its highest efficiency.
"It's not rocket science," he continued. "It's customer service. It's not leaving stones unturned. Our competition, in Kentucky and the regional markets, is strong. Competition is good. It feeds off each other.
"You have to find good horses, know good horses...hopefully talk the owner into bringing him to your sale. You recruit good horses, and put them in the right sales."
The one thing Fasig-Tipton has that is right for every one of its sales is Walt Robertson.