Eagle-eyed, perceptive, theatrical and engaging. That's how I'd describe veteran bid spotter Pete McCormick, who's been a fixture at Keeneland sales for more than a quarter century. “I started a long time ago,” said McCormick, who worked for the late auctioneer Tom Caldwell and has sold horses, livestock, antiques, and other estate items over the years. He works other Thoroughbred sales throughout North America.
The clients who are regulars in McCormick's section at Keeneland – located between the press box and the auction ring – represent some of the biggest names in the business, and McCormick has been the spotter in some dramatic bidding wars over the years involving millions of dollars. He prides himself on getting the most for a consignor, whether it's a $5-million horse or one that sells for just $5,000.
What is the job of the bid spotter?
We are the auctioneer's eyes. We communicate between the bidder and the auctioneer.
Part of it is building relationships with buyers, isn't it?
Very much. I take a lot of pride in the relationships that I have with clients – the buyers and the consignors. They follow you from sale to sale. I do sales in California, Florida, Kentucky and Puerto Rico, among other places, and I see a lot of the same people.
How do you prepare each day?
I'm out here every morning before the sale starts. You build the relationships. You talk with the people that are out here, have coffee with them. You learn about them. I've met a lot of people and made a lot of friends doing this, not only here but all over the country.
Will buyers tip you off before a horse comes into the ring that they may be bidding on it?
Once in a while they will, and then you know for sure. But I can pretty much tell when someone is going to be on a horse. You watch these people, you watch so many different people, you can tell from their reactions.
What's the hardest part of what you do?
I can't really say there is a hard part to it, because I enjoy this as much today as I did when I was 20 years old. I'm one of the very fortunate people in this world that really enjoys what they do for a living as much as I do.
What's the strangest thing you've had happen?
Without mentioning names, I had a gentleman who bids a particular way – he's done it for years. He sits on the aisle and bids with his foot. He taps his foot on the ground. At one particular sale I couldn't figure out why he was bidding on this horse, because you get to know your clientele and what caliber of horse they buy. He's out there like this, bidding with his foot. I sold him this horse, and when I sent the ticket up to him, he says, “Pete, I've got a problem. My foot just went crazy.” I came to find out he got a twitch in his leg. There was no problem; we sold the horse to the underbidder. This was a very polite gentleman. He went to the office and said, “What took place out there was not Pete's fault,” and he explained to them exactly what happened.
What are some other discreet ways people bid?
Eye contact. There might be the slightest nod or the slightest movement, and that's it.
Do you follow the horses that you sell?
I do. I've sold several recent Kentucky Derby winners. I read the Blood-Horse to keep up. When I was young, I took every publication I possibly could. I wanted pictures and names of people. It was kind of like going to school. I'll have friends I've sold horses to call me up and say, “Pete, that horse is running today,” and I'll watch one of the racing channels.
Speaking of the Blood-Horse and other Thoroughbred publications, do you keep track of how many times your picture has been on the cover when a top-priced horse has been sold?
No. But do I get teased about it? Yes.
Have you ever had strangers stop you and say you look familiar as a result of being in so many photographs?
I've had it happen. I left Lexington right after the November sale one year and went to Ireland. I went down to the bar in my hotel to have a beer, and there's this guy who kept turning and looking at me, and I was noticing it. A few minutes later he came over with this magazine and there's this huge photo across two pages of the Keeneland auction ring and I was right there. He's says, “Is this you?” It was quite nice, actually.
What is life like in Onalaska, Wash., where you live?
It's a very small town about halfway between Seattle and Portland. I was born and raised in Southern California, but I really like the people in that area. I like the fact there are no trains, no planes, and I love the silence. I've got a little ranch there with a few cows on it. I am still active in the antique business. I used to have an antique sale every week. I also have passion for collecting watches and clocks. I love to fish and hunt. I've got a boat, and there are lakes nearby. It's beautiful country for that.
You're a little bit dramatic some times when you recognize a bid. Is showmanship part of what you do?
I've been that way forever. You'll notice I don't just come down to the bottom (of the aisle) and stand. I'm up and back, up and back. That's part of the relationship with the customers. I want them to be comfortable. A lot of time I'll get new people. I make a point if I see their name on a seat and know they're new people, I'll come up to them and introduce myself and let them know, “I'm here for you. Whatever I can do for you, please let me know. If you've never done this before, it's a good idea to let me know that we're getting close, or if you want some advice.” Even though the auctioneers here are very plain, people still get a little nervous and don't realize what's being said. I usually sit (newcomers) down in front and talk to them, let them know exactly what's going on before they do it. When they're done, I want them happy and comfortable.
There are a lot of times when I've seen you make a point of thanking a bidder, even if they didn't buy the horse.
It's the Pete way. I believe in the words “thank you.” Maybe it's because I've done a whole lot of things for people in my life and never heard the words “thank you.”
You also seem to have a lot of verbal interaction.
There are many times when I know (the hammer) is coming, I'll say to a bidder, “One more time.” John Oxley was sitting just below the press box once and we were at $650,000 or $700,000 and John said, “No.” I told him, “No. One more time and you'll get it done,” and he bid on him. The reporters all saw what happened and asked him, “You said 'no,' why did you bid again?” He said it was “because Pete said 'one more time.'” After I read that story in the Blood-Horse I changed the name on my email address to “onemoretime.”
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