With subtle moves honed from their lifelong experience with horses, Keeneland's ringmen quickly transform exuberant yearlings that enter the sales ring into docile creatures. Their strategy is to become friends with each yearling for the two minutes or so they are together on stage.
Ron Hill is one of six men who gently parade Thoroughbreds at Keeneland during the bidding process. At the September Yearling Sale, he shares the duties with Cordell Anderson, Larry Anthony, Aaron Kennedy, Ernest Nichols and Eric Salmond on a rotating basis in which they work in pairs in one-hour shifts. As they alternate, one horse is greeted at the entrance as the just-sold youngster exits.
“It is exciting because you never know which one is going to be a (successful) one,” Hill said. “That is why our crew does just as a good a job on the first day as we do the last day. We do our best every time we handle a horse.”
When a Keeneland sales graduate makes the big time, videos and photos often circulate on the Internet and social media. Hill takes great pride when he sees images of him holding such future stars as multiple champion Beholder (sold at the 2011 September Sale) and champion and Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Nyquist (sold at the 2014 September Sale).
In the back walking rings, yearlings are led by people who work for the consignors who then hand them off to a ringman at the back door of the sales ring. Even the most well-trained yearling might get stage fright when entering the bright, noisy area. The ringmen's task is to comfort the horse so it looks its best to prospective buyers.
Hill graciously shared some trade secrets.
“When the yearlings walk in there, they are looking for a friend,” he said. “I let them stand there for a moment and take it all in. I wait for the horse to take the first step. I don't want to move him – I want him to move himself. Then we have a little rapport.
“Another thing that helps is our black leather gloves. They can smell the previous horses on the gloves. I give them my hand and then they start to follow me around. After that it is usually all good.”
Sometimes Hill will offer a few soothing words to the horse, but there is one technique he will not use.
“I never look a horse in the eye,” he said. “To a horse, that is a challenge. I was told that when I was a little kid.”
Hill traces his horsemanship to the pony he rode in 4-H while growing up in Urbana, Ohio. A friend introduced him to the Thoroughbred world, where he spent nearly four decades as an exercise rider throughout the country. Prior to pulling on the signature Keeneland green ringman jacket, Hill served as a showman for consignors.
When not at Keeneland, Hill does other horse-related work that includes accompanying horses on international flights. Except for a short-term factory gig as a teenager, Hill has spent his entire life with horses.
“After that, I knew what I wanted to do and I have been with horses ever since,” he said.
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