Just a few words of wisdom from the former yearling manager at Castleton Farm
by Richard G. Stone
It doesn’t take very long for a good horseman to assess a yearling’s conformation.
That’s one of the many lessons I learned in my 22 years as the yearling manager at Castleton Farm in Kentucky. Castleton is now a Thoroughbred operation, but it was one of the major players on the Standardbred breeding scene during the 20th century.
I’ve experienced the highs and lows of selling yearlings. In 1983, I oversaw the preparation of Laugh A Day, a $625,000 yearling filly. That was the record sale price for a Standardbred for 16 years. But just a few months after Castleton sold Laugh A Day for a record price, I oversaw the preparation of a yearling that Castleton sold as agent for $100. So I’ve been on both ends of the selling process.
I showed yearlings to the legendary Billy Haughton many times. One difference between Billy and other yearling buyers was that he would usually look at every yearling Castleton was selling, not just the ones he’d pre-screened based on pedigree.
Billy wasn’t reluctant to look at a yearling that didn’t look so appealing on paper because he might find it appealing in the flesh.
Billy could look at all of the Castleton yearlings-often 100 or more-because he was an experienced and expert horseman in evaluating conformation. It didn’t take him long to determine if he wanted to bid on a yearling or not. In those cases, he might give the yearling a little extra time and examination.
I saw many trainers and owners who would spend 15 minutes or more looking at a yearling. That was their right, of course, and we at Castleton accommodated our customers. But I often thought that they spent so long because they really didn’t know what they were looking for or looking at. I think some of them-and I won’t name anyone-were trying to impress observers (or themselves) with their efforts.
The buyers and the sellers at a yearling sale have two different objectives, of course. The buyer wants to get the best possible yearling at the best possible price. The seller wants to get the highest possible price.
To get the highest price, the seller must know the strengths and weaknesses of each yearling. If the yearling is a good colt but has some weaknesses in the pedigree, we talk up what an outstanding individual he is. We might say, “Best foal the mare has ever had.”
The buyer can read the catalog page and see if a mare has produced disappointments; it’s not the seller’s job to point that out.
Conversely, if the yearling has a great pedigree but poor conformation, we might say, “This mare has been a terrific producer. Her foals all make money at the races.”
It’s not the seller’s obligation to emphasize that the yearling’s feet point north, south, east, and west.
Looking at yearlings takes time, but a buyer’s investment of time prior to the sale often pays dividends after the sale.
Not everyone wants to look at 100 yearlings as Billy Haughton did, but I remember one Hall of Fame trainer coming to the farm with a prominent owner to look at some of Castleton’s blue-blood yearlings. The trainer and owner looked over the creme of the Castleton crop.
When we were finished showing the headliners, the trainer asked, “What else have you got that you think I should look at? Anything I might be missing?”
That’s a good policy. The people at the farm know the yearlings better than anyone, and there might be an outstanding yearling that would easily get lost in the shuffle. This trainer gladly looked at any colt or filly we thought had special merit, but the owner was only interested in the blue-bloods he’d picked out on paper. He actually turned his back when the other yearlings were shown and didn’t even look at them.
Buyers should not be afraid to ask the sellers if they have an outstanding individual that might be overlooked. A sharp buyer can often find a diamond in the rough that way.
Smart buyers don’t show up on the day of the sale when everything is hectic and look at yearlings. The smart buyers will look at yearlings well in advance of the sale at the breeding farm. Some will do it several times. Again, this can pay dividends.
I heard a story about a trainer who visited a major breeding farm (not Castleton) before the sale and saw a yearling he liked that had a boggy hock. He saw that yearling again at the sale arena and the hock was normal. It had obviously been drained. That is not an illegal or unethical practice.
When the trainer mentioned that, the farm manager smiled and said, “It pays to look at them before sale day.”
I recall hearing one breeder tell a buyer, “It’s my job to conceal a yearling’s flaws. It’s your job to find them.”
We often dealt with bogs or horses stocking up in their legs prior to sale time because we shipped our yearlings from Castleton to Tattersalls so far in advance of the sale. The yearlings weren’t getting the exercise that they were accustomed to getting at the farm, so they would start to get a little boggy. It wasn’t enough that you needed to drain a bog, but just enough to detract from the yearling’s appearance.
I would tell the yearling grooms to get those horses out at night and walk them through the aisles of the yearling barn to help reduce the stocking up.
Yearling sales really aren’t all that different than beauty pageants: the contestants in pageants coif their hair and put on make-up and their finest clothing to look their best. That’s what sellers do with yearlings.
It’s often been said that a normal horse will never look better in its entire life than it does when it’s in the auction ring-that is, until it appears in the winner’s circle. That’s the way it should be.
Yearling videos are one very obvious way for a seller to showcase the good and conceal the bad. Most breeders doing videos know what to show and what to avoid. They often shoot 5-10 minutes of video to get that 10-second burst where the yearling is at its absolute best. The bad footage never sees the light of day.
That’s why it’s essential to see yearlings on your own where the faults aren’t so easy to conceal. Go to the farms prior to the sale and see the yearlings for yourself.
Some buyers are dazzled when a yearling puts its tail up and trots through a paddock. Don’t be fooled. Any yearling can do that. Forget watching the tail and see where the yearling is placing its feet.
If you look at a yearling personally instead of relying on a video, you can get a better sense of that horse’s attitude, too. Does it do its work willingly, or is the yearling pinning its ears and balky? You want to see a yearling working willingly.
One note of common courtesy is that it’s always a good idea to call the breeder to make sure you can see yearlings when you arrive at a farm. You can make an appointment. Don’t show up at a farm or a breeder’s home and ask to see yearlings turned out after normal working hours. That’s not the right way to do it. Breeders want to show their yearlings to you, but not after the workers have left for the day. Call ahead.
From a consignor’s perspective, you should never put your best yearling in the first stall at the sale arena. Many people looking for that horse will go no further than the first stall.
If you have 10-12 yearlings to sell, think about putting your best in the middle of your line-up of stalls. That way the prospective buyer has to walk by several other stalls to find the headliner yearling. The buyer might notice one of your other yearlings that is standing in the aisle, look it over, spot the yearling’s hip number, and check out its pedigree. He might have come to your consignment interested in one yearling and discover he likes a couple more.
When we had slow times at the sale arena before a sale, I would tell the yearling grooms to get a yearling spruced up and ready, lead it out, and walk it around. That’s bound to attract attention, and the casual looker might just spot a yearling he likes.
You encounter some unusual situations when selling yearlings and you must try to accommodate the prospective customers.
I remember in 1982 that George Segal and his trainer Gene Riegle were quite interested in two pacing colts Castleton was selling. Gene asked that we bring them out together so that they could look at each colt and compare them.
One colt was Ring Of Light, a full brother to the first 1:55 juvenile Striking Image. The other was Castleton Flesh by Albatross. Segal and partner Brian Monieson bought Castleton Flesh and changed his name to River Rouge. That colt went on to get a 1:52m mark at 3 and earn $83,107. But Ring Of Light earned $623,160.
In 1986, we were loading yearling colts on the vans to take them from Castleton to the Tattersalls sale arena. A man came driving up in a rush at the last minute and asked to see our star yearling Supergill turned out in the paddock.
Supergill was a Super Bowl and first foal of the top filly Winky’s Gill. We knew he was bound to bring a lot of money at the sale.
I didn’t know the man, so I told him, “Sorry, we’re done turning them out. We’re in the process of shipping them to Tattersalls. You missed a chance to see Supergill turned out.”
Then Castleton manager John Cashman drove up and said, “Richard, forget all that other stuff you’re doing and turn that colt out for him.”
So I did as I was ordered. We turned out Supergill for this man. It’s a good thing we did, because the man was Tony Pedone, and he bought Supergill for $500,000.
Certain yearlings always attracted a lot of attention. I remember that when Lloyd Arnold came to Castleton in 1983 to look at Laugh A Day, there were dozens of people standing around watching the process.
Lloyd had the funds to buy her, but some of the others didn’t. I recall seeing one Lexington guy who probably didn’t have enough money to buy a ham sandwich, and he wanted to see Laugh A Day led out to inspect her.
We showed her to him. You never know who might be a bidder or buyer.
Yearlings like Laugh A Day that get shown repeatedly can get sour after having people poking and prodding them over and over. That’s understandable. Buyers should take that into consideration.
I hope that I’ve passed along a few common-sense tips that will help both buyers and sellers during this fall’s yearling sales.
Sale Price Means Nothing on the Track
I mention in this story that I supervised the preparation of a yearling that sold for $100 in 1983. The colt’s name was Husky Trainor, and Castleton Farm was the agent for Mrs. Trainor from northwest Indiana. We gave all of her horses the same first-class preparation that we gave to the Castleton Farm yearlings, but the reality was that the Trainor horses had very little appeal to buyers.
In fact, when Husky Trainor was in the sales ring at Tattersalls, the auctioneer simply couldn’t get any bids on him. He tried and tried, with no results. Finally, a guy walked up and yelled to the auctioneer, “I’ll give a hundred dollars for him!”
I was delighted.
The auctioneer then said, “Who’ll give me $125?”
I wanted to yell, “Just sell the colt!” And they did. That $100 offer was all that they got on him.
As I mentioned, a few months earlier I had supervised the preparation of Laugh A Day when she sold for $625,000. But $100 yearling Husky Trainor had the last laugh, because he actually earned twice as much on the track ($77,608) as Laugh A Day ($38,555) did.