Getting from place to place in the Keeneland sales pavilion can be tough during the hectic, crowded sessions of Book 1, but it was a good problem for Walt Robertson to have.
The retired auctioneer and sale company executive could hardly cover a few tiles on the floor before coming across someone in the Thoroughbred business that hadn't seen him in a while, each greeting him with a smile and an outstretched hand. Successful politicians would do anything to achieve the kind of visual approval rating Robertson had in his immediate vicinity as he walked down the sale pavilion corridor.
That kind of goodwill was the product of more than four decades selling Thoroughbreds. Robertson's body of work in the auctioneer's stand will most likely be remembered for his 35 years with Fasig-Tipton, but his career arc was bookended by a pair of important stints at Keeneland.
The auction bug bit Robertson early. His father, Jim Robertson, trained saddlebred show horses in Kentucky and started hosting an annual auction for them when Walt was in high school. The younger Robertson would help the auctioneers get set up, then work on the floor as a bidspotter.
In between sales, Robertson took it upon himself to get reps for his auctioneering chant, even if his bidders were helpless blades of grass.
“I don't know how many horses I sold sitting on a tractor mowing,” he said. “I guess everybody on the farm could hear me auctioning horses while I was driving a tractor, mowing the farm.”
Robertson attended the University of Kentucky, and left with a degree in business administration. In the meantime, he presided over stockyard auctions and picked up a job bidspotting at Keeneland under the revered George Swinebroad, who also took him on for the same position at his Swinebroad-Denton real estate auction company. In later years, Robertson would become president of Swinebroad-Denton.
“When I got out of college, the only jobs available were bank jobs, and auctioneering was more exciting than that,” he said. “I worked all the show horse sales in the United States, and that took care of about eight days, so I went to work for Mr. Swinebroad.”
After Swinebroad's death in 1975, Robertson moved across town to join Fasig-Tipton as a bidspotter, and he became an auctioneer there in 1977.
Robertson rose through the company's ranks, becoming general manager of Fasig-Tipton's Kentucky division, then taking over as president in 1992. Promoted by new owner John Hettinger, Robertson took the helm during a harrowing time in Fasig-Tipton's history, as the company recovered from near-bankruptcy and controversy stemming from the previous regime.
Helping redeem Fasig-Tipton's public image was difficult, but Robertson's method of doing it was simple.
“Just treat people the way I want to be treated,” he said. “It's not rocket science – just work hard for them and serve the customer.”
In that span of time, Robertson had a front-row seat to some of the Thoroughbred industry's most historic transactions, including the $16-million sale of The Green Monkey at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-Year-Olds In Training Sale. As head of Swinebroad-Denton, he dropped the hammer for the $17.175-million sale of Calumet Farm in 1992.
Fasig-Tipton was sold to Dubai-based Synergy Investments in 2008, and Robertson retired from his post two years later. He soon found, though, he wasn't ready to slow down just yet.
“I was off for a few months, got kind of stir-crazy, and got a call from [then-Keeneland president] Nick Nicholson, so I worked another five years,” he said.
After first arriving at Keeneland as a college-aged bidspotter, Robertson came full-circle to end his full-time working years as the company's vice president of sales. He retired from daily duties in 2015.
In particular, Robertson's departure allowed Wade Cunningham, then a recent Keeneland hire, more opportunities to move up from bidspotting to the stand.
“When we hired Wade, somebody needed to step back, and I was the one that needed to step back so he could step in,” he said. “There's really room for five auctioneers here, there's not really room for six. If I hadn't done it, how would he ever get time to be where he is today? It's really worked out, and that was the design from the start.”
So what does a retired auctioneer do with his time? He spends time with his grandchildren and keeps selling. The only Thoroughbred sales that regularly show up on his schedule are for the Texas Thoroughbred Association, where he assists sales director Tim Boyce. Robertson was part of the team that hired Boyce when Fasig-Tipton hosted sales at Lone Star Park.
“I've got five grandchildren that keep us running pretty hard,” Robertson said. “Three of them live in California, so we're out there quite a bit, and then we've got two of them that live two blocks from us.”
Even in retirement, Robertson still makes as many appearances on the stand as he wants to, doing about 20 auctions per year with sights on cutting that number down in the future. He presides over his brother's Saddlebred auctions, and he still handles real estate sales under the Swinebroad-Denton banner.
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