Holding Court

There are three times I can remember my eyes filling with tears over something that happened during the course of my love affair with Thoroughbreds:

* While working in my office at the Daily Racing Form Oct. 4, 1989, Gus Koch of Claiborne Farm called and informed me Secretariat was dead. As I told my co-workers, tears ran down my cheeks.

* Sitting in the stands at Belmont Park Oct. 27, 1990, I watched as Go for Wand broke down right in front of me. Crying was unavoidable.

* I was nervous as I sat in the tack room Nov. 4, 1991. The most horrific thing I had ever heard of had occurred the night before and I waited for the man to whom it had happened. Bob Courtney drove up in his Mercedes, walked in, sat down, and cried. The man I respected more than any other in the industry was sitting in front of me crying. I couldn't help myself; I cried with him.

I've been moved to tears by the greatest horse I ever saw in person, a filly that truly captured my heart, and a man who to me represents in his life an image that can be summed up in one word--genuineness.
Courtney was one of the first persons I met when I started covering the Thoroughbred industry more than 20 years ago. To date, a finer person has not crossed my path.

It was recently announced that Courtney would be honored Nov. 1 as the honor guest of the Thoroughbred Club of America. If you are a breeder and/or owner of Thoroughbreds, you would be wise to attend the dinner and hear Courtney speak. If you are new to the game, take this advice: go.

You won't hear a polished speaker, nor a man to whom speaking comes easily. But you will hear wit, wisdom, and horsemanship from a man who has gleaned much during a lifetime spent raising and selling horses.

You will also no doubt be entertained with stories; Courtney is always ready with a story.

In his tack room that day at the Keeneland sale was one of the few times Courtney had a story that he didn't want to tell. But he knew I was just doing my job.

The night before, something had spooked a group of weanlings in a field at Courtney's Crestfield Farm--probably deer, he thought--and caused them to bolt through a fence. The problem was the fence was not to keep them from another paddock. It kept them safe from Interstate 64.

When Courtney was summoned to the scene, carnage was what he found--nine weanlings struck by a tractor-trailer. The scene would have choked up anyone, even a man known as a hardboot. To those who know him, Courtney would be better described as a softboot.

Courtney has always been a man you could speak to quietly about industry matters and gain useful background knowledge. For a journalist, persons such as that are both rare and invaluable. He never told you things he shouldn't, and never betrayed anyone's confidence. Rather he simply was honest and forthright. He knows how to be no other way.

An original investor in Fasig-Tipton Kentucky when it clearly needed the backing of local breeders, Courtney spoke openly with concern years later when he thought a new ownership group (now gone) was leading the parent company in the wrong direction. He was, of course, correct.

When the first meeting was held at the Keeneland sale pavilion as mare reproductive loss syndrome became apparent, I asked Courtney what he thought was causing mares to abort. Courtney is not a scientist. Not an agronomist. Not a vet. He's just a sound-thinking man who possesses good horse sense.

"In my 40 years on this farm, I've never had caterpillars like this," he said. "I think it's a mistake that they're only worrying about the grass."

Though no cause has officially been determined, research leads many to believe the caterpillars were a contributing factor.

I've circled Nov. 1 on my calendar. One should not pass up any chance to listen to the wisdom of Bob Courtney.