If a bystander didn't know any better, he might think the cars that packed Fasig-Tipton's Newtown Paddocks parking lot on Monday afternoon were an indicator of a major sale on the Lexington, Ky., property. A list of the names in attendance would have likely brought the same conclusion.
Instead, the gathering of Thoroughbred industry members, from Fasig-Tipton executives and farm owners to barn workers and showmen, packed the pavilion to pay tribute to prominent horseman and Fasig-Tipton senior vice president William E. “Bill” Graves, who died on May 30 after a short illness.
The celebration of life drew upon stories of his horsemanship, humor, and movie-star sense of style, and many of the event's speakers noted the opportunity in front of them that Graves would have loved to seize.
“Billy would have wanted me to go home, get the trailer, and bring a couple [horses] over here, see what they would bring,” said Michael Levy, a Graves protégé.
There were tears, as would be expected, but they were balanced out with laughter as co-workers and confidants shared anecdotes of their time with Graves, whose knack for a practical joke or a witty phrase was widely known.
The light mood was practically a last request by Graves, who during a long-ago discussion about funerals, assigned Bayne Welker, Fasig-Tipton's vice president of sales, to one day tell one of Graves' go-to jokes at his service.
The butt of the joke was Fasig-Tipton account executive Dennis “Danny” Lynch, whose repartee with Graves was referenced frequently. The nickname was bestowed upon Lynch 22 years ago by Graves, a serial nickname-giver, in retort to Lynch's failed attempt to get “Banjo” to catch on as Graves' handle.
“We would fight and argue over everything, sometimes just making things up to argue about, always ending with Billy roaring that wonderful laugh of his,” Lynch said. “One thing we seldom disagreed on was horses. We were partners in dozens of horses over 20-odd years, and not one argument. In matters of the horse, if you didn't see what Billy saw in the horse, you were probably on the wrong side of that animal.”
Just as heavily referenced was Graves' meticulous fashion sense. His expensive suits were ammunition in the eternal back-and-forth between himself and Lynch. Levy described an incident en route to a Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale where a woman pulled Levy aside in an airport and asked for Graves' autograph, mistaking him for the actor Richard Gere.
“I always felt like an unmade bed around Bill Graves,” said horseman John Williams. “Me, with a pulled-over shirt, jeans, and red-winged boots. And there's Bill, with a starched-collared monogrammed shirt, with two folds on his cuff just-so, ironed jeans, custom-made pigskin boots, Ray-Bans, and of course, that gold Rolex.
“Those trappings never seemed over-the-top for me with Bill,” he continued. “Rather, they seemed like they were absolutely made for Bill Graves. That's the way he should be presented.”
While the event celebrated the life and achievements of Bill Graves, it was just as much a tribute to his relationship with his son, Brian, director of public sales at Gainesway.
The theme of Bill passing his knowledge on to Brian, and others, was a common refrain during the proceedings, and it was reflective of the room, filled with generational horsemen. Frank Taylor of the Taylor Made operation sat next to his son, Joe, named after the family patriarch and celebrated farm manager. Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm, a third-generation member of the industry, was one of the first to embrace Brian at the end of the event.
The younger Graves credited his father for being a constant teacher in each stage of both their lives and careers, starting with show horses in Virginia, to Thoroughbreds in Kentucky, to the auction process at Fasig-Tipton.
“My dad would often quiz me on the conformation of various horses as we worked,” said Brian, who spoke between a pair of tack boxes and a blanket bearing his father's gray and gold logo. “He would always tell me to quit talking about what was wrong with the horse and tell him what was right about the horse.
Brian interned with Fasig-Tipton after his father took a position with the company, and the two worked closely together in the years that followed, both as a consignor and sale executive, and as partners in pinhooks. The younger Graves took pride in their ability to grow their respective companies in unison, especially with high returns during the Saratoga sales.
“I spent a lot of my life where I wanted to be, which is by my father's side, and that's exactly where I was at the end,” he said. “With my father, I have no regrets.”
Joe Nevills covered Thoroughbred auctions for Thoroughbred Times and Daily Racing Form from 2011-2018
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