Highs and lows at Keeneland
Updated: September 22, 2011, 11:54 PM ETBy Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com
LEXINGTON, KY -- The Russians are coming.
Mike McMahon prepares for this in the middle of a crowded lunch room, multitasking between roast beef on rye and the reserve on a thoroughbred his partnership will sell later that afternoon. It is 1:18 p.m. at the Keeneland Sales Pavilion in Lexington, session four of the September yearling sale. "We could put it at twenty-five; he'll probably bring thirty," the bloodstock agent says. He takes a bite of sandwich. His cell phone buzzes to life. "Igor? Yeah. Where are you, man?" Somewhere in the bluegrass, Igor Kassev is driving around wearing a black T-shirt that has "Levis" emblazoned across the front under a black leather jacket with "Cirque" embossed upon the chest. The some-English-speaking escort of the non-English-speaking Khaz (who "is trainer," as Igor puts it) is trying to find the sale and thus McMahon, who will help them pinpoint and bid on promising prospects. "I'm at Waffle house," Igor says. "Can you help me get to Keeneland?"
Courtesy Joe DiOrioJamie Hill (left) and Mike McMahon at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
On the sales scene, there's a lot of that -- non-religious horsemen suddenly praying for more money and a smooth transaction.
McMahon, his wife, Hill, and their various associates gather in their "lucky spot" near the right side in back of the pavilion. This corner, where five clocks mark the time in Sydney, Tokyo, Lexington, London, and Dubai, is crowded with international types; men who follow the filly's movements with sharp, appraising eyes. "They're coming in for her," Hill says. "I wasn't nervous before, but I am now." There is a brief delay while the auctioneer straightens out pricing details of the previous sale. Then, the moment of truth as bidding begins. McMahon and Hill watch the numbers climb: $25,000. $50,000. $75,000. $100,000. Hill is giving a play-by-play to a partner on his cell phone -- "One twenty-five, one fifty," he says. Natanya looks ill; "I can't handle the pressure, I was about to throw up in the pavilion," she said earlier, recalling their high sale in 2009. They've set the reserve at $250,000, and at $240,000 it sticks, no one bidding despite the auctioneer's coercions. "Come on, guys," McMahon says. "Oh, we're about to get let down." Suddenly, a final bidder ups the ante by $10,000. The hammer falls. The filly is sold. It's hard to be disappointed in $250,000. The partners paid $125,000 for her, doubled their investment. A quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money. You could buy a house. Maybe disappointed isn't the right word; underwhelmed, perhaps? "I'd been thinking four-to-five all day," Hill admits, as in four or five hundred thousand. "How could you have all those guys on her and not go that high?" He's still thinking of potential bidding wars that could have ensued, the skyrocketing price they were hoping for. All-in-all, however, it was a successful day. When the fourth Spruce Lane horse is sold during session six, total sales from the group will reach $590,000. McMahon and Natanya have made back their $50,000 with interest, Hill and his wife, Kathryn, have seen a return on their $25,000, and Hill's parents got back more than the $50,000 they put into the group investment. About twelve other partners will get a check as well. "We're in the black," McMahon remarks. "We just didn't have the home-run horse this time."
Courtesy Joe DiOrioThe Dynaformer filly brought $250,000.