Fasig-Tipton's decision to consolidate its 2020 select yearling sales into a single Kentucky auction and forego trade in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., due to the COVID-19 pandemic is historic, but it's not wholly unprecedented.
In fact, this summer's re-shuffled auction schedule connects the circle for one of the bloodstock industry's most seismic flashpoints.
The Fasig-Tipton yearling sales in Saratoga Springs have been a cornerstone of Thoroughbred industry's commercial and social calendars since 1917, with horses initially shipping by rail from central Kentucky to be offered to the sport's elite buyers.
That balance was interrupted during World War II when the Office of Defense Transportation informed Kentucky's breeders that the railroads would not be available to them ahead of the 1943 Saratoga sale, owing to a shortage of railroad cars and priority in freight going to war-related items.
The war had already wreaked havoc on Saratoga's auction ecosystem the previous year, when the average sale price plummeted nearly by half to $944 per horse ($14,767 adjusted for inflation).
With the railroads no longer at the horsemen's disposal, James C. Hagerty, executive secretary to New York Governor Thomas Dewey, released a report recommending the Saratoga sale be held elsewhere. Hagerty offered the suggestions of Belmont Park or Madison Square Garden.
Kentucky's horsemen were already pondering a local alternative to the Saratoga sale, and then-New York-based Fasig-Tipton already had a presence in the state offering breeding stock, making the two sides ideal partners. The new date would be Aug. 9-11, 1943, and the new venue was a tent in the Keeneland paddock.
Keeneland was itself navigating uncharted waters in 1943. The track was deemed a “suburban” plant by the government – one without public transportation – and it was asked not to operate a race meet in order to preserve fuel and rubber for the war effort. Unable to race at its own track, the Keeneland Association leased the Churchill Downs property about 70 miles west to host its spring meets from 1943 to 1945, and Keeneland cancelled its fall meets altogether, meaning activity on the property was about as quiet as it is today.
Keeneland had a fledgling history in the auction realm at that point. The company hosted its first paddock sale in 1938 under the management of Fasig-Tipton partner E.J. Tranter, but the track was strictly a venue, not an auction company, and this was apparent in Lexington's infrastructure at the time.
Even with a few months to prepare, the city would be hard-pressed to host all of the high-end bidders, their associates, and others expected to attend the relocated sale while also handling its responsibilities tied to the war. Thoroughbred auctions were not new to Central Kentucky; it was the scale of of this one that posed the challenge.
In response, attendance was limited to direct participants of the auction, and outside spectators were told to stay home, going against the grain of the Saratoga sale, which has established itself as much as a place to be seen as it is a place for commerce. The sale's consignors provided lunch and dinner for the buyers in the Keeneland grandstand during the auction's sessions, meaning freeloaders had to be kept to a minimum.
“We will have no more than just enough food to take care of the out-of-town buyers in the restaurants, and we do not want spectators to come to the sale under the impression that they, too, can procure meals under the limited food rations that we have,” a representative of the consignors told the Louisville Courier-Journal ahead of the sale.
The Fasig-Tipton sale was going to be a forced fit with Lexington, but there was conflict over the move within the auction company itself.
In his autobiography “Fair Exchange,” eventual Fasig-Tipton president and chairman Humphrey S. Finney said the Kentucky breeders implored the auction company's then-owner Katherine I. Tranter – the widow of E.J. Tranter – and secretary Ed Shields to use one percent of Fasig-Tipton's five-percent income from the sale on advertising to help entice buyers to the new location. Tranter and Shields refused, which left a bad impression with the horsemen who backed E.J. Tranter when he wanted to build a permanent pavilion in Saratoga Springs in the 1910s.
Though the circumstances were unprecedented, the sport's biggest breeding operations put horses in the catalog. Claiborne Farm founder Arthur B. Hancock Sr. sent 57 entries to the sale, while others selling under the tent included Leslie Combs of Spendthrift Farm, Warner Jones of Hermitage Farm, Charles Hagyard who co-founded Hagyard-Davidson-McGee Clinic, and Marchmont Farm's Charlton Clay, along with Hartland Farm and Mereworth Farm, among others.
The sale also featured the dispersal of J.O. “Jack” Keene, the original owner of the Keeneland property, who died at the Detroit Fairgrounds in May. Though it took place during a yearling sale, the 50-horse draft featured Thoroughbreds of all ages and purposes.
Over the three days of trade, a total of 312 horses sold for $929,850 ($13,873,308 after inflation), and an average of $2,979 ($44,446 after inflation); an unmitigated triumph, considering the previous year's Saratoga sale averaged under four figures.
Southeast-based construction businessman Fred W. Hooper purchased his first Thoroughbred at that sale – a Sir Gallahad colt bred by R.A. Fairbarin – for $10,200 ($152,183 after inflation). Later named Hoop Jr., the colt went on to win the 1945 Kentucky Derby and Wood Memorial, and he finished second in the Preakness Stakes, kicking off for his owner what would become nearly six decades as one of the sport's most prominent figures.
The sale received positive reviews, which laid out the groundwork for the auction calendar we see today.
After seeing the success that a major Kentucky-based yearling sale could produce, a group of the state's leading horsemen assessed their surroundings and realized they could save some time, money, and grief staying close to home. The Courier-Journal said the cost to ship a train car of 10 to 12 horses was $450 ($6,713 after inflation) before factoring in expenses for manpower and bringing home any horses that didn't sell.
The horsemen also hadn't forgotten Tranter and Shields declining their request to use part of the company's commission to advertise the sale. Tranter sold her stake in the company by the end of 1943, but the damage had apparently already been done, leading to what would become the formation of Fasig-Tipton's greatest rival.
By the end of August, just weeks after the sale's conclusion, a group called the Keeneland Summer Sales Consignors was introduced, with Hancock revealed as permanent chairman. Intended to serve as the voice of the sellers in dealings with Fasig-Tipton, the group was originally limited to breeders who sold yearlings in the displaced Saratoga-to-Keeneland catalog in 1943.
The organization announced its intentions to establish an annual yearling sale in Lexington, held on the Monday of the last week in July, and appointed a committee of Hancock, Combs, Hal Price Headley, and T. C. Piatt to figure out the financial details.
In November of that year, the group chartered as the Breeders' Sales Company, with Hancock once again at the helm. A sale pavilion constructed across town on Paris Pike in 1929 was dismantled and moved piece-by-piece to Keeneland to establish a permanent base. In the aftermath of the delirious debut sale at Keeneland, local papers speculated whether Keeneland might build hotel rooms in its clubhouse for future auction-goers.
Breeders' Sales Company held its first auction at Keeneland in July 1944, a year after the original sale under a tent, and the debut effort produced a gross of $2,286,000 from 437 horses sold, then a record income figure for a yearling sale. The organization continued to handle auctions at Keeneland until 1961, when it merged with Keeneland Association to become a single corporate enterprise.
Fasig-Tipton left the Kentucky yearling auction market to the home team for the time being, and the Saratoga yearling sale remained suspended through 1945. The Saratoga marketplace didn't take long to regain its luster at the conclusion of the war, though, and the Select Yearling Sale remains a high-point on the auction calendar when it's not being displaced by a pandemic.
In 1972, nearly three decades after the relocated tent sale at Keeneland, Fasig-Tipton laid down roots in Kentucky, establishing a permanent outpost in Lexington and hiring full-time employees to staff it, while the headquarters remained in New York at Belmont Park. The company fully relocated its central office to Kentucky in 1988.
North America's two largest Thoroughbred auction houses have been located on opposite sides of the same town since then, each the other's greatest source of competition for horses, buyers, and sellers. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the two entities back to something of a touching point.
When Fasig-Tipton announced it would be consolidating its select yearling sales to Sept. 9-10 in Lexington – just a few days before the Sept. 14 start of the marathon Keeneland September Yearling Sale – Keeneland president and CEO Bill Thomason was quoted in Fasig-Tipton's press release, stating that the two companies have been working together to plan out the reconfigured 2020 yearling auction calendar and establish the best safety protocols possible for their participants.
The two companies are often quoted together for industry-wide initiatives in the racing and sales arenas, but seeing the two next to each other in a scheduling announcement affecting just one of the businesses marked an unusual display of corporate cooperation.
A global crisis and a cancelled Saratoga sale were the catalysts for a sea change in the bloodstock industry 77 years ago. Back then, it was battling the Axis Powers and funding the effort. Today, the challenges are preventing the spread of COVID-19, wading back in a rattled economy, and doing it all from a safe distance in a world that's moving online at a lightning pace.
If history repeats itself like it tends to do, the combined force of two industry cornerstones could once again alter the course of the business.
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