Horse Power: The Annual Sale at Keeneland

Joe Pugliese
by Guy Martin - December 2012/January 2013

For twelve days each September, racing’s elite arrive in Lexington to bid on yearling Thoroughbreds

>See photos from the story

“Have you seen the best horses? Well? Have you?” says the irrepressible George Bolton, as he hauls Ben Haggin and me up short on the finely groomed gravel between a couple of barns behind Keene-land’s sales pavilion. “I’m talking about the horses that would surprise me if they didn’t go big. Three or four of them. Because I can show them to you now.” 

Haggin and I demur, chuckling at all this casual bravado, and stand around sort of scuffing at the gravel with our boots. To understand the bold impropriety of Bolton’s greeting, we have to take a step back and parse the ordinarily silent combat done in the run-up to a big horse auction. Keeneland’s September Thoroughbred yearling sale is beginning in three short hours, so the three dozen barns nearest the sales pavilion are roiling with hundreds of people—buyers, sellers, trainers, agents, and, not least, uniformed grooms coaxing today’s 132 superskittish, extremely shiny colts and fillies in and out of their stalls for go-sees. Irish, Russian, Japanese,  and United Arab Emirates syndicates are full on the prowl. Sheikh Hamdan of Abu Dhabi’s 747, parked across the street at the airport, dwarfs the Lexington terminal itself. All of the horses—and, despite their professional exoskeletons of calm, most of the people—are freaking out. 

Haggin, a principal of Woodford Racing, a prominent Lexington syndicate, is here to buy. Bolton, a San Francisco–based financier and stable owner, is too. Haggin’s polished Kentucky discretion adheres to Keeneland’s code, which is a cross between a Southerner’s understated, laconic air and full-on British military omertà, operational silence. In a paddock on sales days, everybody studying the horses being paraded before them speaks sotto voce in clipped, epigrammatic sentences, which—even if picked up by an FBI long-distance directional microphone—would still be impenetrably encoded interchanges between that buyer and his or her team of vets, trainers, and partners. Some buyers don’t utter declarative sentences in a paddock at all, preferring to make notes and ask a few questions, letting the consignors and sellers do the talking. The unstated rule is, miscreants and opponents abound, so talking demonstratively at volume about a horse in a paddock is like telling a man what’s in your hand before the ante at five-card stud.      

However. As any executive or regular patron of Keeneland’s fall sales can also tell you, the beloved iconoclast George Bolton takes transparency to the max. The Bolton theory of pre-sales analysis runs something like this: All this not-talking about horses sticks in my craw, so let’s talk about some horses, shall we; here’s what I think, real loud, and yes, by the way, in case you were wondering, in an hour I’m buying that horse.

We’ve seen a lot of pretty horses this morning, I say to Bolton, which is paddock code for, we can’t know anything about the best; nothing’s under the hammer yet.    

For Bolton, who is forty-nine—a former part owner of Curlin, the 2007 Preakness winner and two-time Horse of the Year now standing to stud at $40,000 a pop on Lane’s End Farm just outside Lexington—my ham-handed attempt at diplomacy is just so much weak tea. It’s clear that we haven’t seen the best.   

“Well, come on,” he says breezily, “let’s go pull some horses out.” 

Despite his hilariously casual smashing of paddock rigueur, Bolton is the kind of buyer Keeneland loves to see: one with a fifteen- to twenty-head stable running at the nation’s best tracks-—Santa Anita, Belmont, and Saratoga. Not least, he has reams of razor-sharp, well-researched horsemanship in his head and in the piles of notes he carries as he darts from stable to stable. He’s attired in black sneakers, no socks, khaki shorts, and regulation white polo shirt under a ragingly bright purple V-neck—he looks like he’s just polished off a tennis rival in straight sets and is about to be brought a perfectly chilled glass of white wine by the pool. Keeneland has neither tennis court nor pool, but Bolton has the brio to make you think that a pool with its own bartender is somehow never far from wherever he’s standing. Which is to say, he’s an anomaly at Keeneland in another way: He has none of the dusty, shit-kicking, horse-worn look that horsemen everywhere have, no matter what their station—not even in these last urgent hours before the sales begin.  

“Could we see number seventy-two, please,” Bolton says to a groom as he strolls up to the barn. Colts and fillies are identified at Keeneland by the so-called hip number, on little round adhesive stickers affixed ever-so-gently to the yearling’s hips. The groom returns with a sleek dark bay colt. Its sire was the Preakness-winning Bernardini. 

Bolton strides up to the animal and points to the withers—the nape of the colt’s neck. “You’ll see the line from the withers to the front of the shoulder is good, at a rather flat, extended angle, which means he’ll have some reach, which is what you want for the stride. He’s not fully formed—none of these horses are, but you can still tell a lot. If you look in the book you’ll see that he’s also got some good stakes winners in his pedigree, but! What worries me here a little is that his legs are a little bit skinny—by which I mean the bones—so that you’d have a question about whether the horse can stand up to the stresses of racing without getting injured.”