Highs and lows at Keeneland

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?"

* * *

At eight o' clock in the morning, long before the Russians draw near, McMahon's partner Jamie Hill is scrolling through catalogue pages on his iPad outside Barn 33, the Hidden Brook consignment on Keeneland's tidy backstretch. It is the middle of September and these stalls are filled with horses younger than those that will run at the upcoming October meet. This is what Keeneland calls "the most prestigious thoroughbred sale in the world," a 13-day marathon of high hopes and shattered dreams.

It's a world of promise and potential. You can find a runner here -- like Animal Kingdom, who won the Kentucky Derby, or Shackleford, who took the Preakness, or Ruler on Ice, who stole the Belmont. You can also find a bunch of blue-collar thoroughbreds that will spend their careers in claiming or allowance races, far from the spotlight of major stakes.

Most buyers don't try to figure out which is which on their own; they hire advisors like McMahon and Hill to sort through more than 4,000 catalogued prospects. By the end of the sale, these men will have seen them all.

Longtime friends, the two were born and raised in the industry -- McMahon is a graduate of Cornell University, Hill went to Auburn. They began doing business together in their early 20s, but both completed significant accomplishments on their own. McMahon was responsible for moving a mare named Belle's Good Cide to New York; she had 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, the first New York-bred to win the Derby, at his parents' farm. Meanwhile, Hill was heavily involved in the syndication and launch of popular stallion Pollard's Vision, who produced 2010 champion Blind Luck in his first crop.

This June, 39-year-old Hill bought fifty percent of the bloodstock company that 40-year-old McMahon started in 2001 with his wife, Natanya, the resident veterinarian at WinStar Farm. They also sell breeding seasons and shares in stallions through their weekly email flyer, The Bottom Line, and manage Bourbon Lane Stable, a racing partnership whose most prominent runner is Bourbonstreetgirl (her next start is the Oct. 2 Miss Grillo at Belmont Park).

There's excitement, a buzz, around thoroughbred sales and what could be. These young agents exude it. Since 2001, their bloodstock company has sold or purchased 106 stakes horses, including 16 thoroughbreds who were graded stakes earners, and another 20 broodmares who produced graded runners after purchase. Still, they dream of finding "the big horse," one who can win the Triple Crown races or take home a year-end Championship.

* * *

Dr. Jim Hill knows what that's like. The well-known horseman purchased 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in partnership with Mickey and Karen Taylor, paid $17,500 back in 1975. Today he carries the traditional sales catalogue, and will scribble brief notations on the pages. He has an IPad, too -- in a shoulder bag, which he leaves in a consignor's office.

"I just can't use it," he says with chagrin. "Maybe someday I'll get there."

The elder Hill is shopping for his own partnership, Lake Lonely Racing, but contributes a thought or two on yearlings that are under his son's consideration.

"Too big and clumsy behind," he remarks. "That one? I couldn't afford him even if I liked him, which I don't. How much will she go for? I loved her, but not that much. Yes, that's a really good family, leave him on the list."

From a yearling's conformation, pedigree, poise, and movement while walking, agents hope to determine whether it can cruise to victory in the greatest races in the world. They're looking at bone and muscle and height and build, trying to make an educated guess as to which horses have talent. It's a murky science, like trying to determine if a sixth-grade basketball player has enough talent to make it to the NBA.

From eight to eleven, the Hills listen to sales pitches and study yearlings while McMahon goes off to do the same. With dozens of horses to review before today's session begins, it is vital to split the task of "short listing," determining which Thoroughbreds are worth the investment.

On the sales scene, there's a lot of that -- non-religious horsemen suddenly praying for more money and a smooth transaction.

The agents buy for various clients with various budgets. Some want only colts, some want only fillies. Some are interested in state-bred horses that can compete for higher purses where such programs exist. They also eye yearlings for Spruce Lane Pinhooking, the partnership entity they run, to buy horses and turn them around into the next sale.

Four such yearlings are selling at Keeneland under the Spruce Lane title -- three of them today -- although McMahon and Hill will sell 10 others for separate clients as well. Star of the show is Hip 394, a daughter of Dynaformer, the sire of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Even as the agents consider potential purchases, they're keeping an eye on their filly. She walks back and forth for prospective buyers in a nearby ring, and the buzz is positive. Key agents for big-money operations like Darley, Shadwell, Spendthrift, and G. Watts Humphrey have asked to see her.

McMahon and Hill hope this filly will be the breakout horse, one who could bring as much money as the Bernardini filly McMahon purchased for $205,000 and resold for $725,000 in 2009. This is the sales gamble, even higher stakes than the purchasing side. You worry about setting a perfect reserve, about whether your horse will meet it. You worry about getting what you think the horse is worth, and making back what you've put in.

"You can't do anything about it now, just hope," Hill says.

* * *

Up in the sales pavilion, horses circle and whinny and rear and paw, wide-eyed, taking it in. This goes against everything in their nature, yet here they are -- in various states of trust and panic, composure and fear. The auctioneer's patter rises and falls.

The first horse McMahon and Hill will sell is Hip 261, a colt sired by a stallion named Scat Daddy. He enters the back walking ring well-mannered and alert, and the partners follow him up to the indoor ring, then to the chute where he waits, next on deck. At 12:28 p.m. the colt enters the sales ring and Hidden Brook consignor Sergio DeSousa gives last minute instructions.

"Pray," he jokes.

On the sales scene, there's a lot of that -- non-religious horsemen suddenly praying for more money and a smooth transaction.

The announcer gives his spiel, reciting the colt's pedigree and the accomplishments of runners in his family. Then the bidding starts, jumping by thousands per second. The Spruce Lane partnership bought this colt for $80,000. After less than two minutes, the hammer drops at $220,000. It's a fair price. There are handshakes, sighs of relief, all around.

* * *

Now, the Russians.

Early afternoon outside the sales pavilion, one horse sold and two left to go, McMahon sends a khaki-clad security guard in a golf cart down to one of the far parking lots to retrieve a less-lost but still disoriented duo. He returns with Igor and Khaz in tow.

Some clients are hands-off and will never visit a sale. Others enjoy the social scene but leave the main decisions up to their agents. A select few are knowledgeable horsemen who need help in certain areas.

Khaz fits the latter bill. Short but stately, in his late sixties, he is quiet-mannered with a brilliant white moustache and piercing blue eyes. He reportedly won a big race over there in recent times. He must get back soon to tend to his string.

"He needs not speed horse," Igor says with firm emphasis. "A horse for the long distance, yes?"

The problem here is that Khaz and Igor want to spend about $25,000 per horse on a day when the average price for a yearling is $152,649. Not to worry; McMahon sets up a few farm visits, and eventually the Russians will buy three horses privately. They decide to come back for the November sale as well.

Meanwhile, McMahon and Hill see Hip 349 through the ring. This is the Malibu Moon colt McMahon was trying to set a reserve on earlier in the day, and since interest in him has not been very high, they hustle up business with a good friend and agree to retain a quarter interest, to turn the colt around into a 2-year-old sale. He sells for $50,000.

* * *

Finally, it comes down to the grand finale. The Dynaformer filly enters the ring.

"We always thought this one would bring big money," McMahon says. "The others, it's win or lose, but if she sells as well as we think she could … "

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."

* * *

Even after the final horse sells, McMahon and Hill must make a quick trip through three other barns to look at horses for the next day's session. It isn't until 8:30 p.m. that Hill finally makes his way home and McMahon is back in the nine-stall barn on Spruce Lane Farm, shaking out straw to bed down stalls for the foals his parents are driving down from New York. Grazing in the front pasture are two yearlings that the pinhooking partnership purchased this August at Saratoga; in the side field are three more destined for the Fasig-Tipton October sale.

The end to a long day draws near. Headlight beams split the darkness and a big rig pulls around behind the barn. McMahon's father and mother, Joe and Ann McMahon, climb out of the cab and drop the trailer ramp. They built McMahon of Saratoga, the longest continually-operated thoroughbred farm in New York, and still stand seven stallions and own a sizable broodmare band. Their son continues the tradition.

These thoroughbreds, among about 85 foaled by the McMahons this year, are recently weaned and will be raised here, then sold in Keeneland's January sale. Wide-eyed and innocent, they skitter off the truck. The cycle continues.

The men keep guiding hands on backs and halters, settle the youngsters down in their spacious new home. It has been a 14-hour ride from New York to the heart of the bluegrass.

"You guys must be really tired," McMahon says.

He is talking to the foals.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.