Updated: Thursday, December 23, 2004 7:29 AM
Posted: Tuesday, February 17, 2004 8:36 AM
By Frances J. Karon
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
There are probably few among us who've been to a single major Thoroughbred sale at which Joss Collins was not in attendance, and, quite frankly, the concept is going to take some getting used to. The image is indelible: the striped shirt, catalogue in hand and another tucked in behind at his waist, so serious as he strode around meticulously inspecting such vast amounts of horses as to make us lesser mortals go cross-eyed. Over the years, the sparse "thatch" covering his head grew grayer, but Joss never showed signs of slowing down and was even active at the Keeneland January sale just a few weeks before his death. He was the hardest working guy at any sale and, lest anyone be fooled by his grumpy sales persona, he loved every minute of it.
His character was as colorful as that famous shirt, the great intensity of his seriousness accentuated by the larger-than-life sense of humor that radiated from his eyes. He loved to laugh, be it at himself or at a well-executed gag. Joss once spent two days talking up a blind date he had arranged for me at a dinner party at his house in Kirtling, with so much hype I could be forgiven for expecting to find Leonardo DiCaprio waiting for me. My "hot date" turned out to be Philip Payne-Gallwey, a man more than twice my age! But that was Joss--Philip had been instrumental in the purchase of the yearling Nureyev, and he knew I would get a big kick out of meeting someone who had been so involved with my favorite horse. He just had to have a little fun with me along the way.
Discretion was the key to Joss, and this trait prevented him from indulging in the degree of self-promotion his success warranted. He preferred to buy and sell horses, not himself. One could talk to Joss about anything and never worry the conversation would go any further. He was honest and loyal, a good listener, and an even better adviser.
Like anyone who knew him, I have many wonderful Joss stories. None of my memories is so telling of the quality of the man himself as when I was at my worst. I had an opportunity to go around the sales in Newmarket with a "flashier" agent, and, I'm ashamed to say, I took it. When the job fell through days before I was to leave for England, I was beyond hope. Joss was the first person I called. He never said a word about what I had done, just came up with a perfect solution and then somehow tried to convince me I was doing him a favor. His only concern was for the other bloodstock agent involved, and he sent me a fax: "Try not to kill him. It's bad for business!"
At the sales, Joss never demanded to be treated with respect; he didn't need to. People reacted to him with genuine affection and admiration but also with a very professional demeanor because they understood how important it was that Joss Collins get a good showing of their horses, even if it was 7:30 in the morning and still dark outside. He judged people much like he did his horses, irrespective of pedigree, and was on a first-name basis with nearly everyone, heavy hitters and grooms alike.
Joss got at least as much enjoyment out of signing tickets for the inexpensive pearls he'd find buried deep in the catalogue, stabled in the dreaded wall boxes at Tatts or Barn 49 at Keeneland, as he did out of his big-money purchases. He got special satisfaction when these horses went on to win, as they invariably did, and in many ways they provided greater testament to his talent spotting than the pricey individuals everyone wanted.
"As usual flying by the seat of my pants on a wing and a prayer," he once wrote in a letter to me. Who could ever believe that Joss Collins didn't always know exactly where he was going and what he was doing? Eulogies make ordinary men extraordinary, but Joss truly typified all the superlatives: to put it at its most basic, Joss was the best friend anyone could have in any situation.
Things just aren't going to be the same without the man in that striped shirt. We'll all miss him. FRANCES J. KARON has worked at Walmac International near Lexington since 1990.
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