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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Brush with horses...

Living in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky means being surrounded by the horse industry, especially Thoroughbreds. Picturesque farms dot the landscape, and horse barns are brightly lit around the clock in midwinter to encourage early foaling. (All the registered foals born in a season will turn one year old in January, so being born in February instead of April could give a two-year-old a real edge on the racetrack.) I've never been involved with or knowledgeable about the industry though, beyond picking up such tidbits from friends, making an occasional visit to the Kentucky Horse Park, or touring a local farm like the world-renowned Claiborne.

That changed a few years ago when I took a part-time job as a bookkeeper for Ashleigh Stud Farm. Suddenly I had a behind-the-scenes look at a working thoroughbred farm, and was privileged to get to know the farm owners, ex-jockey Frank Ramos and leading consignor Jackie Ward Ramos. Hard work and high risk are balanced, in their case, by a true love of horses and racing. One cold, rainy evening an alarm went off in the office and everyone took off for the foaling barn, including me. What a privilege to witness a new little foal coming into the world! Another foal was lost to a sudden colic that season, underscoring the risky nature of the business. I learned a lot in my two years there, including much about the months-long process of preparing horses for sale, training them for the track, and the myriad details involved with consigning horses for sale at Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton.

Yesterday I got a peek at another part of the industry with a brief visit to the Kentucky July Selected Yearlings Sale at Fasig-Tipton in Lexington. The fast-paced chant of the auctioneer was broadcast over the grounds as we walked around the crowded sales pavilions. Serious buyers had already performed close inspections in the long rows of stables. Just before entering the auction ring, each horse was led through several paths and show rings, allowing a final look at their conformation.

My friend and I found a spot on the rail of the final show ring with our "bibles" in hand -- the sales catalog containing details of about 500 horses in the sale. He offered several interesting pointers about what the buyers are looking for in each horse -- but to my untrained eye, they all looked sleek, powerful, and magnificent. Some were fractious, kicking their heels and flinging their heads, excited by the crowd and the noise. Hmmm... this one brought $12,000 under the hammer, but that one brought $80,000... while I'm trying hard not to scratch my suddenly itchy nose or otherwise deliver an unintended signal to the bid spotters! We were "just looking" and managed not to buy anything, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

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