Tom Caldwell was destined to command the room, whatever room that happened to be.
His square jaw, broad-shouldered frame, and booming voice gave him an authoritative presence as Keeneland's head auctioneer, but on a slightly different path it would have given him the same level of clout in the courtroom – either in real life or onscreen as Perry Mason.
Caldwell was born in Delaware, Ohio, but his family's ties were set firmly on the West Coast, with his father and grandfather both selling livestock in southern California. Tom followed them to the auctioneer's stand in 1947, and started selling racehorses a decade later.
It was during that time that Caldwell attracted the attention of George Swinebroad, then Keeneland's director of auctions and lead auctioneer. Swinebroad was in southern California to handle the dispersal of studio head Louis B. Mayer – the second “M” of MGM Studios – and the brash salesman made a detour to one of Caldwell's auctions on a recruiting trip.
“George came to the side of the ring and had this note handed to Dad up on the auction stand,” said Cris Caldwell, Tom's youngest son. “As Dad recounted, it said, ‘Boy, I need to speak to you.' At that point in time, that ‘boy' – my Dad – was 6'4” and 230 pounds, and he was nobody's boy. He wrote back on the bottom of the note, ‘If you want to speak to me, you can wait until the sale's over.'
“That just infuriated George to no end, but he did have to sit there and listen to Dad,” the younger Caldwell continued. “I guess it was about two and a half hours before the sale got done, as Dad recounted, so he had to sit there halfway in admiration and halfway pissed off because he was burning up half his day.”
In that time, Swinebroad watched Caldwell move the stock and flip seamlessly between speaking English, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish to cater to the melting pot of buyers that surrounded him. When the sale was over, Swinebroad greeted him with an invitation to join his team starting with the Mayer dispersal.
“He said, ‘Boy, I'm gonna tell you one thing. If you come to work for me, I'm gonna make you the best there ever was,'” the younger Caldwell said.
Mayer took a liking to Caldwell at the auction, and brought him to MGM Studios to groom him for marketing himself to film executives. It wasn't long before he was offered a potential role of a lifetime as the lead in the Perry Mason television series, which was eventually filled by Raymond Burr for the show's nine-season run.
That first introduction to Swinebroad at the stockyard auction had led Caldwell to a life-changing fork in the road.
“Dad had actually wanted to be an attorney,” the younger Caldwell said. “I think that's why they were going to choose him for the Perry Mason role, because he had studied in college to be an attorney before he got too busy with his father and working as an auctioneer. He gave it a hard thought. He started at Keeneland around 1957, and he turned that role down because he had to choose whether he was going to be an actor or an auctioneer.”
Caldwell still managed to earn his Screen Actors Guild card for his roles as auctioneers in the films “Casey's Shadow,” “Bluegrass” and “A Nice Little Bank That Should Be Robbed.”
Caldwell spent 19 years working under Swinebroad, offering a smoother, slower chant against Swinebroad's gritty, aggressive cadence – the even-keeled yin to the confrontational yang of his boss. Eventually, his two sons Scott and Cris joined their father on the Keeneland staff, and the pair are still on Keeneland's auctioneer team today.
The elder Caldwell assumed Keeneland's lead auctioneer spot rather suddenly, following Swinebroad's death in 1975. He wouldn't miss a Keeneland auction for the next 25 years.
Caldwell dropped the hammer on North America's first seven-figure yearling a year later – the $1.5-million Secretariat colt Canadian Bound. However, his career high-water mark came in 1985 selling Seattle Dancer – a half-brother to Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, by Nijinsky II – whose $13.1-million price tag is still the most ever paid for a year – ling at public auction.
“There was a lot of individual laughter and some nervous laughter amongst the crowd, because that's never been done before for a horse ever,” Cris Caldwell said. “It was very stilted and started and stopped. There were a lot of sales talks and jokes from the auction stand by Dad. There was standing room only. You could not move. The whole back hall was completely full. Most of the center and side aisles were filled halfway down or all the way down with people, either standing or kneeling.”
Away from the sale ring, Caldwell and his wife Mary maintained the aptly-named Gavel Ranch in Eagle Point, Ore., a 205-acre property that remains in the family. At its peak, the ranch housed a 50-head broodmare band and two stallions, along with Quarter Horses, Standardbreds, and cattle. They also raised four children, who Cris joked were bred for careers using their voice, benefitting genetically from their auctioneer father and their mother, an opera singer.
Caldwell died of pancreatic cancer in 2001 at age 72, just missing out on some Gavel Ranch's greatest graduates, including multiple Grade 1 winner Brother Derek and stakes winner Don'tsellmeshort, both campaigned by Cecil Peacock.
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