A Day At The Spa: Aug. 7, Horse For Sale

Joe Palmer once wrote of the Spa, “Saratoga applies an anesthetic, of tranquil shaded lawns, of big white quiet houses, of a leafy and mellowed antiquity, and morning after morning of golden serenity…”

Evenings, however, bring another feeling – one of frantic energy, and of adrenaline, and of the intensity of short, fast-paced hours. No place in Saratoga emphasizes this more than the Fasig-Tipton sales grounds, where the vigorous pursuit of Thoroughbred yearlings at auction began with yesterday’s opening session for the two-day select sale.

The Saratoga sales present a typical racetrack mix of business and pleasure. Hardcore buyers slouch inside the pavilion and loiter near the walking ring, well-marked catalogues in hand. The socially inclined stroll over to the outdoor bar, take a seat, buy a few drinks, keep an eye on television monitors to watch hip numbers of interest. Those without financial impact – the fans, mostly – come and go in a steady flow of pedestrian traffic, as do the horses.

And, as usual, the horses are the center of attraction. They roll through the walking ring, stand quivering in the chute, pose inside of the pavilion, stride back to the barn. Some stand, some pace, some whinny – most peer anxiously from side to side, pulling at the leather shanks held by their handlers. They are walking bundles of cash, or at least their consignors hope they will be.

Some oblige, as did last night’s sales topper, an Unbridled’s Song colt out of the champion race mare Riboletta that brought $1.05 million when purchased by Darley Stable agent John Ferguson. Others fail to meet their reserve and will be sold privately, or kept by their owners, or run back through a different sale.

Inside the pavilion, where the action takes place, the spotters spend the night in full swing. They have been trained to recognize bidding patterns, key players, and the ever-slight body language of the agents who prefer to maintain a low profile. At the same time, they play a significant role in increasing the tempo of the sale. They pace, shout, hold their hands open to shrug at bidders, clasp fistfuls of air when they get a response.

“275? 275? 275?” asks the auctioneer.

“Hep, hep, hep, hi-ya!” they reply.

The serious buyers pretend to be unimpressed. They yawn, look away, joke with their friends. When they actually bid it is with condescension, as if they’re doing the sales company a favor – which, in fact, they are.

Those who chose not to buy are careful to avoid eye contact. Sit still. Don’t scratch. When a horse costs more than the average American's house, you don't want to become the accidental owner.

The auctioneer and his colleagues are relentless in their pitches, use sales terms designed to hook prospective buyers and draw them in.

“She’s a real racy filly out of a real racehorse.”

“Folks, there’s a lot more money in that horse than we have on the board right now.”

“Take a look at this wonderful pedigree, that’s something you’re never gonna lose.”

“What a great walk, good bone, and a most attractive one he is, too.”

“Out of the blazingly fast race mare…”

“And that breeding can get you any sort of runner…”

As Angel Cordero Jr. would say, “Good, bad, and mediocre,” they’re all here.

Finding the good? Now that’s the real challenge.