A Happening

By Cot Campbell
How to recruit and retain owners was the challenging subject of a panel on which I served recently at the Arizona Symposium on Racing.

So, how do you?

These are the prime necessary ingredients: glamour, recognition, tax benefits, and profit. In that order.

For the prospective new owner, the realistic outlook for profit should always be wary; the tax benefits are superb; the recognition not so hot (few media outlets nowadays bother to include the name of a winning horse's owner); the glamour of the sport is still there, but spotty.

And now one of the most glamorous happenings that ever existed-- anywhere--may not continue. I refer to the Keeneland July yearling sale. It may be an idea whose time has regrettably come and gone. Keeneland must do what is in the best interests of Keeneland; and maintaining a glittering dog and pony show for the industry is not, I am sure, part of its mission statement.

The necessary cancellation of the 2003 sale because of the paucity of blue ribbon yearlings ostensibly the result of mare reproductive loss syndrome; the viability and efficiency of the September sale held only 60 days later; and the earlier defection to September by one of racing's most powerful consignors--these are the nails that have been struck into the coffin of this magnificent, silver-spangled dinosaur. Interment may now be inevitable.

But I hope not.

There was nothing like it in its glory days--the '70s and '80s. If you were anybody in racing, aspired to be, or wanted to be at the right place at the right time with the glitterati, you had to be at the July sale. Ten percent of the swarming crowds were working; 90% were acting like they were.

Many of the major consignors--Spendthrift, Gainesway, Claiborne, Preston Madden, Hermitage, Bluegrass, Tom Gentry--threw lavish farm parties, and the consignments themselves looked more like El Morocco or the Stork Club. Getting a drink was not at all difficult. And neither Diamond Jim Brady nor P.T. Barnum would have stood out in the roles of customer and seller, respectively.

The two-day sale featured afternoon and evening sessions, and sandwiched between them were everything from cocktail parties to barbecues to dinner dances. There were literally elephants and camels to ride. Big name entertainers like Bob Hope performed. If you were a bona fide, varsity buyer, you didn't worry about room and board. This sale featured around 300 yearlings that would average $500-$600 grand. For the sellers it was worth going to a little trouble.

I can just see "Cousin Leslie" Combs, like a mother hen with his flock of chicks, alighting from limousines, after an intense pre-sale cocktail session at Spendthrift.

The Arabs didn't start showing in Kentucky until the mid-'80s, but the Japanese were there earlier, along with the mighty Robert Sangster/John Magnier/Vincent O'Brien Irish triumvirate. D. Wayne was in his heyday, with Klein, Beal, French et al. pumped to the max.

The July sale in recent years has still been exciting but nothing like the old days. There wasn't much in the way of entertainment--perhaps some quiet farm dinner parties for a chosen few heavy hitters.

The Arabs began after a few years to take a more hands-on approach to buying horses, and their English agents were eased out of the decision-making loop. While the elderly English majors, colonels, lords--as their titles tended to read--were desperately interested in "the entertainment package," their Arab sheikh bosses could not have cared less about parties. This fact may have sounded the death knell for the sumptuous and expensive bluegrass parties.

Times have changed. Some of the pageantry and elegance of racing--and, God knows everything else--has diminished. At Saratoga, the idea of gentlemen awaiting the approval of Alfred Vanderbilt before the removal of coats on a hot day is pretty ridiculous nowadays. Present-day racegoers often times are garbed as if they are going to compete in a track meet. It's a different, instant gratification, casual time.

Glamour today is in short supply...period. But the July sale sure supplied its share in its glory days. It was a happening...of major proportions. I would hate not to have it. It supplied an ingredient that brought many into racing.

Cot Campbell is president of Dogwood Stable.