Friday, September 17, 2010
Keeneland -- The View from the Trenches
For the past few years, I've been lucky enough to work as part of the EQB buying team at the Keeneland September yearling sale. EQB, run by my friends Jeff Seder and Patti Miller, has one of the best records in the business for picking out a high percentage of stakes-quality horses at reasonable (whatever that means in the horse market) prices. Everyone can find the million-dollar horse at a sale. But finding the $150,000 horse that's just as good requires a bit more skill.
EQB certainly has the credentials. Among its recent purchases, are Ahmed Zayat's Eskendereya, Zensational, Mushka and J Be K; George Strawbridge's Eclipse Award winners Forever Together and Informed Decision; Ken Ramsey's General Quarters; Bruce Lunsford's Madcap Escapade; and Bill Heiligbrodt's Lady Tak.
This year, EQB is not buying for Zayat, but has a new client, someone who's been in racing for years but is now looking for his Kentucky Derby horse. He's given us a pretty big bankroll to work with, but wants it spent wisely -- no Green Monkeys or Seattle Dancers.
So, how do you find the $200,000 -- or even $50,000 -- Derby horse?
First, by trying to work harder than anyone else. We're probably the only group that actually looks at every horse offered in Books 1 through 4 of the sale. That's 3,185 horses in the catalog, maybe a few less than 3,000 after scratches. To look at that many, and pick out the good ones, requires a fair bit of work, and a fair bit of organization. Besides Patti and Jeff, the EQB team includes two spotters, who do the first looks at every horse and produce short lists for Patti to check, someone to hold the horses in the stall when Patti does ultrasounds of their hearts, a vet to review the records in the repository and scope horses, the invaluable Angie to run the computer analyses of the heart scans and to integrate all the data, and me, to coordinate what everyone's doing and to try to keep everyone sane in the chaos of the sale.
Horses in the sale are spread out over 49 barns, and a lot of success depends on just making sure that someone goes to every one of those barns. We start every morning by dividing the barns up between the spotters, then Patti and I start with second looks at horses identified the day before by the spotters, narrowing the lists down, looking for a racy, two-turn kind of horse, with a big stride and no obvious flaws. Sometimes we get help from those consignors that we trust to be honest and just point us in the direction of the horses that they know are serious candidates; some consignors, on the other hand, try to give us a "short list" that consists of everything in the barn.
The horses that survive these second looks go on the list for heart scans that same day. Somewhere between 2 and 4 pm, Patti gets started doing the rounds of the barns again, with "George," the ancient but still functional ultrasound machine. The scans are done somewhere around 9 or 10 pm, and then Angie stays up until early in the morning processing the data. Then it all starts all over again.
The next morning, the list is cut down further, after the vet reports on flaws that we just can't live with. Then we consult with client, get some guidelines for how much we can bid on those horses that are still on the list, and, in between looking at horses for the next day or two of the sale, run back to the sales pavilion to bid on today's list.
Eating is a challenge, especially since the consignors have gotten a lot less generous in putting out lunch at the barns. Pat Costello's Paramount still offers healthy sandwich wraps, and a couple of barns have pizza for the customers, but the lavish lunch spreads of days gone by are nowhere to be seen. Surviving on cookies and coffee is probably not to be recommended, but that's what's there when you get hungry.
Still, we've been doing pretty well so far, with 17 horses bought, for $3,070,000, over the first six days of the sale. That makes us the 3rd leading buyer to date, and the one among the top buyers with by far the lowest average (just over $180,000 per horse) price. So far, so good.
Now, on to Book 3.