Commentary: Holding Court

Commentary: Holding Court
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Dan Liebman: Editor-in-Chief
A contemporary of Bob Courtney’s was asked how he would best describe the 86-year-old owner of Crestfield Farm, who retired from selling horses following the Keeneland January sale.

“If you asked 100 people who the most honest guy in the sale pavilion is, all 100 would say Bob Courtney,” he said.

Well, it’s more a statement than a description, but it comes damn close to telling you all you need to know.

A few years ago, sitting and chatting with Courtney at the Crestfield barn while September yearlings were being shown, a prospective buyer inquired how much it would cost to purchase a certain hip.

“We’ll find that out when he goes through the ring,” Courtney quipped.

More sage wisdom has come from the lips of Bob Courtney than most others who have toiled in the brutally hard game of breeding, raising, and selling Thoroughbreds. And, though quite the sage, he could always make you laugh.

Asked about a lifetime in the industry, Courtney said: “You know, I met a lot of great people along the way and only met one son of a bitch. That man thought he could screw me. And you know what, he was right.”

Courtney hails from an era when a top stallion covered, at most, three dozen mares, no one had to hit a home run at the sales to stay in the game another year, and most importantly, all it took to seal a deal was a handshake.

He bought his first mare in 1941 (and still owns a few). But he feels the game has passed him by, and he wants to leave it on his own terms. Most of his former clients and partners are gone now, and he and his wife of 59 years, Evelyn, want to move to the city and enjoy the years they have left.

Those that had mares at Crestfield were more than just clients; they were also friends. And with Courtney, they all made money breeding and selling horses.

Today, he said, everyone wants to breed horses, but no one wants to race them. In other words, too many matings are planned not to produce a good horse, but to produce a horse that can be sold to someone else.

Courtney concentrated on breeding to proven stallions, raising runners, and getting every dollar he could for a horse in the auction ring. He was good at it, too.

It was Courtney who told me you could tie a good yearling to a tree and the buyers would find him.

It was Courtney who told me a man should never decide to skip a year in the breeding shed with a mare. The mare will let you know, not the other way around, he would say.

It was Courtney who made the calls to form a group to start Fasig-Tipton Kentucky, a move that changed the auction landscape for the better.

It was Courtney who came up to me after the first meeting regarding mare reproductive loss syndrome and insisted rather than the grass, the researchers had better look at the caterpillars.

It was Courtney who closed the door of the Keeneland tack room, put his face in his hands, and cried while I interviewed him as he recounted his foals getting loose on the interstate by his farm, nine hit by a truck and killed.

For decades, he arose at 5:30 each morning and walked the farm, standing at the barn when the help would arrive. Because it was Courtney who told me the best thing a farm owner could do was put his footprints on his land.

He also told me the only thing a man leaves behind is his reputation.

There is little doubt of the reputation of Robert Estill Courtney Sr. There is also little doubt he left indelible footprints on the Thoroughbred breeding industry.

 

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