The Million Dollar Minute

The Million Dollar Minute
Words by Cara D. Clark
Photos provided by Keeneland
Imagine an NBA drafter spotting a five-year-old Michael Jordan and knowing the kid would dominate professional basketball one day. The analogy may strain credulity, but that’s the outcome Thoroughbred buyers at the Keeneland Yearling Sale are hoping for when they bid for greatness. The true gambling in the state of bourbon, bluegrass, and blue bloods comes long before 1,500 pounds of horseflesh spring from a starting gate and hurtle around the track. The high-risk action in the “sport of kings” begins when these magnificent creatures are still practically babies, albeit oversize ones, in the Lexington, Kentucky, sale ring each fall.

Just last year, thirteen horses sold for more than $1 million each in a sales pavilion that is an international melting pot with one common denominator: a love for these marvels of muscle and sinew that reach 40 miles per hour on the flat. Like a horse race, spending that much money is fast, intense, and all about quick reactions—these horses sell in 45 seconds. The stakes are high, but the bids are subtle—the tip of a cap here or the flick of a wrist there, amounting to hundreds of millions on the hoof.

“We’re not like Sotheby’s or Christie’s with the paddles bidders raise,” says Christa Marrillia, chief marketing officer for Keeneland Associates. “We have amazing bid spotters as part of the best auctioneer team in the world. There’s so much excitement when a horse comes in the ring and the big board lights up—$1, $2, $3 million and beyond. It’s serious commerce.”

Keeneland is the world’s largest Thoroughbred auction house and holds three sales a year, the largest of which is the September Extravaganza with 4,000 horses catalogued for buyers from fifty countries and six continents, all hoping the gavel will drop on their bid for the next great champion. The 2018 sale begins on September 10 with the top of the crop of yearlings headlining the show. Oblivious to their value, they saunter and skitter into the ring to be valued, even coveted, based on their bloodlines. It’s all about sires (fathers), dams (mothers), and antecedents who have proven themselves on the track. 

At a sale that brings the ruler of Dubai together with acclaimed chef Bobby Flay or titans of industry, like the owner of Under Armor, racing enthusiasts and members of the public study these untried one-year-olds colts (males) and fillies (females). It takes deep pockets to bid on these big babies, but the sales are open to the public and the eye candy is free.

Bidders pay from $1,000 to $15 million based on the identifying number on the horses’ hips and the blood galloping through their veins, as the auctioneer’s steady, singsong chant tallies the bids. 

“They’ve never even been ridden,” Christa explains. “The bidders are relying on a team to help them make a decision. Hopefully, they’re buying the next Kentucky Derby winner. One of the reasons people come to Keeneland is that we sell more Grade One winners than any other sale.”

Many of those iconic names that raced first to the wire and into the history books made their debut with a lithe dance through the excited crowds around the auction. Keeneland has sold 21 Kentucky Derby winners over the years, including the 2016 champ, Always Dreaming. 

“Our sales team inspects these horses to be sure we’re attracting the absolute best to our sale,” Christa says. “It’s frontloaded with absolute superstar horses. We have wonderful quality throughout the sale, but the first few days are electric.”

It’s hard work for the horsemen who have groomed glossy coats to a mirror sheen and for handlers trying to keep four iron-shod hooves under control, but it’s fun for the spectators who enjoy the show and an elevated epicurean experience. From a raw bar to stations with locally sourced fare, executive chef Mark Therrien embraces the opportunity to diversify culinary offerings for guests and pros.

A prelude to the sale is the Jefferson Street Soirée—set in an area known for trendy restaurants, bars, and breweries—where music, food, and attractions celebrate the September sales kick-off that leads right into the fall-season race meets in October. 

Keeneland’s storied 14-day sale includes special events for those who work hard and play hard, where Southern hospitality is on show alongside the yearlings. The historic venue allows visitors to go behind-the-scenes of racing and sales operations, watch Thoroughbreds on their morning workouts, or sign up for Horse Country Tours—look at life outside the pageantry of the track for these coddled equines. 

From the broodmares to the foals and all types of terminology between, Horse Country offers visitors to Central Kentucky the equine equivalent of a Napa or Sonoma wine country tour. A trek around the farm delivers insight into the hard work that goes into stoking the hot-blooded horses known for their performance on the track. It takes talented teams to provide the level of care needed to achieve the rank of equine nobility, and glimpsing life before the fanfare of the track makes a fascinating complement to a visit to the Lexington sale. 

A visit to the bluegrass state this fall may be your chance for a brush with destiny. After all, these high-strung youngsters will be eligible to run for the roses when they’re just two years old. That’s what makes Thoroughbred racing not just a sport for the aristocracy, but an adrenaline-rush for everyone sampling Keeneland’s fall fare.