An era in the Thoroughbred auction business ended Wednesday afternoon in Lexington, when 86-year-old Robert E. Courtney Sr. of Crestfield Farm sold his final horse as a consignor. Courtney, who announced his retirement late last year, sat in the center of Keeneland's sale pavilion watching as a Maria's Mon-- Endless Sea yearling filly brought $29,000 from Hy Pointe during the third session of the January horses of all ages sale. Courtney and his wife, Evelyn, bred the filly in partnership with John Congleton and Delong Farm.
"I won't be selling horses anymore; my son (Robert E Courtney Jr.) will have to sell them," said Courtney, his voice breaking. "I'm through doing that. I've done all I could do. It's time to quit. Sure, I'm sad to go. I've been at it a long time, but it's time to go, and I know it's time to go. I've seen my friends stay too long, and I'm not going to stay any longer than this."
An announcement from the Keeneland auction stand recognized the Maria's Mon filly as Courtney's last sale horse, and after she sold, the small crowd in the pavilion applauded. Courtney's sons, Robert Jr. and Tom, were with him when the filly went through the sale ring, and so were Tom's wife, Kathy, and their two children, Brooks and Clark. Brooks served as photographer, snapping pictures of his grandfather with various family members. Robert Jr.'s daughter, Caitlin, was unable to attend because of her college classes in North Carolina.
"You haven't got time to listen to all the memories that I've got," Robert Courtney Sr. told reporters. "All old men are loaded with memories, remember that. That's what we live on is the memories. But I've always tried to live in the future, so I'm not going to live in this past; it's behind me now."
Courtney said he was thinking "good-bye" as the Maria's Mon filly was being sold. "I was hoping she would bring more, like always," he added.
Asked what advice he would give to Robert Jr., who will remain in the auction business and continue to operate another family nursery, Stonebridge Farm, after Crestfield is sold, Robert Sr. said: "Stay the course; that's all I can tell him. There are going to be ups and downs, a hell of a lot them. The game is different from when I got in it," he continued. "It was a lovely business. I can't say it's quite as much fun as it was then. We enjoyed it, but now it's all the bottom line. I got into it to try to make a living. That's all I was trying to do, make a living and raise a good horse. Now all they want to do is make money. It (the horse business) beat the hell out of banking. I didn't have to worry about other people's money. It's more of a pleasure watching a horse than it is watching dollars. Dollars are very dull."
Courtney said he would continue to attend sales in Kentucky and other Thoroughbred business functions.
"It just won't say Robert Courtney (in the sale catalogs when horses are sold)," he said. "It will say Stonebridge or Robert Jr."
Courtney planned to celebrate the official start of his retirement by taking his wife out to dinner,
"Don't worry, he'll still be around," Robert Jr. said, adding that his father still owned "four or five" broodmares.
Robert Sr.'s retirement coincided with the decision by his longtime client, Jaime Carrion, to get out of the Thoroughbred business. A dispersal of stock owned by Carrion was included in the Crestfield Farm consignment at the January sale.
For Carrion, Courtney raised champions Meadow Star and Action This Day . Courtney purchased the mare Hasty Queen II for $11,000 and sold more than $1 million worth of yearlings produced by her, including Fit to Fight, who was a multiple grade I winner.
Courtney was among the breeders that founded Fasig-Tipton Kentucky.
"He's truly a jewel, and I will miss him greatly," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "When I came to this country in 1982, he was one of the first few people I met. He's always been available for free, sage advice, and it was always good advice. He is a wonderful man, and I'm glad he'll be around the community and we'll get to see him on a regular basis. I'll miss him selling with us (at Keeneland), but it's on to the next generation with Robert Jr., who will do a very good job."