Thursday, July 19, 2001

Keeneland sale

Gambling on promise of speed

        If they'd been selling cars, you'd notice plenty of obvious design flaws.

        Fuel inefficiency, for instance. Wild horses graze 18 hours a day just to keep meat on their bones. Their stomachs are not only inadequate, they're touchy. This can kill them because — unlike cats, who can barf anytime they feel like it, especially when you're expecting company — horses are unable to send anything back up their ridiculously long necks.

        Then there are safety hazards. No seat belts, no roll bar for human passengers. And flight is the only protection horses themselves have. No sharp teeth. No claws.

        Engineering is also flawed. Bones the size of your index finger support a thousand pounds of animal. Skinny legs end in a single toe. But they surely do get around on those legs. Gloriously. Only someone with a heart of stone could fail to be thrilled by the spectacle of a racing horse.

Payback doubtful
        That's what is for sale at Keeneland's famed July yearling auction. Speed. And the exhilaration of gambling on a long shot. Buyers paid more than $63.2 million for 89 horses Monday and Tuesday nights. Those yearlings will have to win a lot of races and make a lot of babies to pay their new owners back.

        And they often don't. Seattle Dancer, who went for a record $13.1 million in 1985, won only $164,728.

        The yearlings are still babies, not fully grown, with no track record of their own. Just overachieving parents. They don't have names, and some have no manners. A couple tried to bite the handlers, who were wearing the signature green Keeneland jackets. Spotters for the auction wore dinner jackets. There were coats and ties and cartwheel hats in the barns and in the audience.

        A little pomp and plenty of circumstance.

Savior of Calumet
        Bidders came from all over the world again this year to this beautifully maintained horse compound, just outside Lexington. Some arrive in private jets. Henryk de Kwiatkowski, who owns Calumet Farm, came from just down the road. He bought the historic home of Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation in 1992 for $17 million at public auction, promising to preserve the farm's intricate fences and rich history.

        Born in Poland, Mr. DK, as his employees call him, escaped from a Siberian work camp in 1941 and made his millions as an aircraft broker.

        “He saved Calumet,” says Vaughn Dyer, the farm's broodmare manager. He and Manuel Macias, the yearling manager, waited in the barn behind the sales ring Tuesday, ready to show off their remaining sale yearlings to prospective buyers.

        Vaughn's favorite, a filly, was sold the night before. “She was plain, a bay with a few white hairs. She has a nice family,” he says.

        He knows her mother personally. Very personally. He was the one who pulled the filly down the birth canal and helped her on her feet for the first time.

        “I wish we'd kept her,” he says. “The greatest thrill is seeing them born, handing them over to Manuel, watching them learn to race. Then standing in the winner's circle.”

        Jet planes. Oil money. Lumber money. Mystery money. Bidding by cell phone. Trailers with X-rays of important bones and joints, affidavits of clear airways. Financing. Breeding syndicates. And finally, in the center ring stands an impossibly beautiful creature, surrounded by people who bet their fortunes on it.

       E-mail Laura at or call 768-8393.

Spirited bidding at Keeneland sale

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