Adaptable Hanover Shoe Farms mainstay discusses his role at the farm and at Harrisburg
Dale Welk always stands out in a crowd. For one thing, he’s a mountain of a man at 6 feet 5 inches. For another, he’s a redhead. And finally, there’s that towering stack of hats perched upon his brow. Those hats may be invisible to the naked eye, but rest assured, they’re there.
The 61-year-old Welk has been a cornerstone for decades in the operations of the famed Hanover Shoe Farms at both the farm itself and at the sales companies they own and/or operate. He first started working there as a teenager on summer break from school. By his own admission, at one time or another, he’s performed pretty much every job that exists at the farm or at a sale.
The massive Standardbred Horse Sale, a week-long sale of yearlings, breeding stock and racehorses held every fall, runs like a well-oiled machine. Yet, with hundreds of moving parts, hundreds of horses and hundreds of people involved both on site and remotely, putting on the sale requires work and attention to detail for the majority of the year.
As director of operations, a big part of the responsibility for success or failure of the sale rests on Welk’s shoulders. That doesn’t seem to weigh him down in the least. Quite the opposite, really—he thrives on the challenges and the action.
He’s quick to give credit for the sale’s success to his wife, Georgia, and to his posse—make that crew—many of whom have worked alongside him for as long as he’s been in this role.
It’s evident this is a man who loves his job. It’s rare that he’s not doing something related to the sale or the farm. In fact, part of this interview with Anne Doolin was conducted by phone just prior to the Harrisburg sale, while he was unloading semis with forklifts providing background music.
HB: Did you have family that worked at Hanover Shoe Farms?
Welk: I sure did. My (late) dad, David, was here right at 50 years. I had two brothers that worked here a year or so, and my son, Dale Jr., worked here for about four years.
HB: Was it a given that you would work here, too?
Welk: Not necessarily. I started out working here during the summers when I was 14. And our school offered a work co-op program my senior year where I went to school half the day and worked at the farm half the day.
HB: When you graduated, did you go to college or go right to work?
Welk: June of 1976, I came right to the farm to work full time. I loved the farm, loved the horses, knew all the people—so it was pretty easy for me to make that decision. When I started out, I was basically maintenance. I did some work with the horses, with the blacksmith and such, but in the beginning, it was mainly maintenance. You know, weed-eating, more weed-eating, mowing, painting fences. Back then, we actually whitewashed fences.
HB: When did you start working your way through the ranks and what was the progression in your responsibilities?
Welk: I’ve always said there are only a few jobs I haven’t done here. I kind of worked my way through maintenance, then started working more on the horses—helping trim the foals, grooming yearlings, prepping them for the sales. As the progression went on, I was doing more maintenance than working on horses other than during the sales season.
In 1988, Clyde Sterner, who was the maintenance supervisor, announced his retirement. He spoke to Mr. Simpson [John F. Simpson Sr., the farm’s president at that time] and Peter Boyce, who was the farm manager, and wanted me promoted into the maintenance foreman slot.
The following year, I was promoted into working for Standardbred (Sales Company) doing the setup for the sale.
HB: Give us an overview of your annual schedule.
Welk: When I’m at Harrisburg, at that point I’m already working on next year’s sale. I’m doing my hotel contracts and things like that. I do those year-to-year, right from the sale.
Afterward, we get back home with all the equipment—about nine semi loads. We get back, and then it’s billing time and going over all the billing for equipment we rent, stalls and things like that. That takes a few good weeks until all that’s settled.
Mid-December to mid-January, it’s quiet as far as the sale. At that time, I’m working mainly for Hanover on things like getting trucks lined up for the breeding season and foaling season; making sure everything equipment-wise is operational in the breeding shed.
In January, we start getting entries for the sale. And then, and throughout the year, I’m in contact with our vendors. It seems like those people change quite often. The guy that was their salesman this November won’t be anywhere near there next November. I try to keep in touch, so I know who I’m going to be dealing with.
So that’s the first quarter. Then we start working on getting equipment ready for mowing and such. I also approve repairs on houses and barns and fences.
In early April, we start setting up my trips to go look at all the yearlings. It’s usually between 1,300 and 1,600 miles over two or three months. I start the beginning of May and it goes into July. Somewhere in there, I do find time to go to Missouri to go turkey hunting. That’s one of my vices. I have a friend that owns a lot of land out there and about eight or nine of us go out every year.
The consignors and the farms are great to work with. A lot bend over backward to get horses in and get them ready for me to look at. I probably enjoy the social aspect of that as much as anything. I think they enjoy it, too—they feel like they are on their turf, and if they have something they want to discuss about Harrisburg, I can bring that back here and talk to whomever I need to talk to.
Then everything gets crazy (late summer/early fall). I go up and help Mark (Ford) set up tents and oversee things for the Goshen sale. We do the setup and layouts for Hanover. I’m also contacting vendors for Harrisburg, getting the food lined up, getting my crew lined up. That time of year is pretty hectic as far as getting paperwork done, quotes in and quotes signed, getting scheduling done to get everything to Harrisburg and staged. Nine loads of shavings, eight loads of hay and being able to coordinate what barns everything goes to.
It’s really a big coordinating push. I work on it here. I work on it at home. Georgia and I talk something about the sale almost every night.
I have three notebooks, stuffed, from each sale. I’ll go through last year’s notebooks to make sure I have everything lined up: bid runners, camera people—the kinds of things that people don’t really know we oversee.
HB: What’s the number of horses you place in the sale ring there every year?
Welk: Now, it’s probably in the 1,400 to 1,500 range. I remember one year when my last hip number was like 2,360.
HB: Not counting prep work like ordering supplies, or stopping by to check on things, how many days are you there with boots on the ground?
Welk: Ten days before the sale. There are other shows there in other parts of the building up until the week before that have to be torn down. Then, we put so much rubber down, that’s a several-day job. We have to get things going because we have consignors coming in as early as that Wednesday before to start setting up their consignments. We’ve had yearlings there on Thursday. Usually Friday and Saturday are the big ship-in days.
HB: When do you start tearing down after the sale is over?
Welk: After one day, it’s about 75 percent down. Then another three or four days for clean-up. My crew is basically done a day, day and a half after the sale. Most of them have been there 18 days when it’s all said and done.
HB: Do you work in shifts overnight?
Welk: With the crew I’ve got, if we start getting behind, they’ll stay and work and do whatever it takes. We do get a night shift going, but that doesn’t start until the horses get there. We start at 7 a.m. And if we’re done at 4, 5, 7 p.m., it doesn’t matter. My crew is great like that. They don’t watch the clock. They take a lot of pride in what they do.
HB: As far as the equipment, mats, stalls and such, how much do you rent and how much is owned by the sales company?
Welk: The stalls are all rented, and the rubber mats we own. We move them around with a forklift and then the guys unroll them by hand. I’m glad we have a lot of young, strong guys as us older guys are slowing down. We like to keep the older guys there to teach the new ones. And it’s getting harder to get help. The young guys have trouble getting that many days off. Probably half the crew is retired.
HB: The guys and gals that are there doing setup and teardown, do they work with the horses, too? Leading yearlings?
Welk: Once we get the setup done, usually Sunday is a lull day. That’s when we plan out the week. It takes 10 guys and girls to lead yearlings. We also help with the tote system; we run the tote board; we provide a couple of runners off my crew. We also help in the office, information booths. When we start moving the yearlings, then we have check-in booths and check-out booths. And when we start moving horses, I have a crew of four or five extra that come in at night to water and feed and keep an eye on the horses. We pretty much do anything that involves operations at the sale.
HB: How long have you been doing the yearling inspections to determine who makes the cut to sell, and how did you learn how to do that?
Welk: Seven or eight years now. For a year or two, I went with Murray (Brown) and also Bob Boni—spent time with them at sales, and spent time with David (Reid) at sales. When I knew I was going to start doing it, I asked them what they looked at, and combined everybody’s ideas, then came up with my own.
You learn from all kinds of things. I guess all the years of grooming yearlings helped—I started at 17 or 18—I did that for 15 years or so before I took over the maintenance department. Spending a lot of time with the horses and watching them at Harrisburg, I’d see them go in the ring and see who sold for a lot.
Bridgette [Dr. Jablonsky, who is Hanover’s executive vice president and syndicate manager] does the grading for the Han-over yearlings.
HB: Are there any wild, outlandish or bizarre things that happened over the years that sticks out?
Welk: One of the ones that sticks out for me—many years ago, we got an air filtration system that we set up in the small arena to clean up the air. That’s back when we were still using straw. When it was bought, it was said to be portable. But when it showed up the first day of our setup, they had to bring a crane to set it up in the small arena. I called home and talked to the president of the company and he said, “Yeah, it’s portable,” and I said, “Yeah, anything’s portable if you have the right equipment. I just had to rent a crane.”
Then we switched to paper (for bedding) and one year that became a real travesty. They sent us recycled paper and all the dust off that—the place looked like there was a snowstorm. It took some talking, but that’s when I got them to switch over to shavings.
We had a guy that ran the crew for many years that played on the younger guys. He knew a lot of those guys really well and one time he put fresh manure in one guy’s jacket pocket.
So, the next day the young guy decided to get him back and he was going to just act like he was going to pull down the older guy’s pants. It was in the back walking ring. Well, when he did it, the guy’s pants actually did fall down around his ankles. The whole place was roaring. Vernon [auctioneer Vernon Martin] actually had to stop the sale. Everybody in the back was hollering and screaming, and Vernon said, “I’m not sure what’s going on but they’re having a good time back there.”
I think that’s what keeps the crew coming back. They do a lot of hard work but they also have a good time.
A more serious thing was the first year I did setup, I ordered tar paper. We put that down under the stalls because the floors are so slick. And the tar paper comes out of Canada.
Well, the Canadian truckers went on strike. And it didn’t show up. We can’t do a thing until we get that down. Luckily they did get a couple of scab drivers to bring it—two days late. The crew stepped up—they said if we have to work all night, we’ll do it and we’ll be right on schedule. And I worked right alongside of them. That’s how you earn respect. You aren’t given respect. I’m a firm believer in that. And if you earn their respect, there’s nothing they won’t do for you.
HB: You have mentioned several times about what a great crew you have and how long many have been working with you. Tell us more about that.
Welk: I took over the setup 30 years ago for the sale. I counted one day, and I think it was 34 guys and girls that have been with me all 30 years. That helps a lot. They know what has to be done and they take a lot of pride in what they do.
And they continue to stay with me. You have to earn that kind of respect. You work along beside them and you don’t tell them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself or haven’t done yourself. That’s the biggest thing.
I’ve had a lot of accolades and a lot of pats on the back for what happens at Harrisburg and other places. I’ve got a tremendous wife that helps with all that and I have a tremendous crew. I couldn’t do it without them, each and every one of them. I usually use the analogy that I have the lead shank—I’m the leader, but I need a horse on the other end. They make me look good.
HB: I know you have worked with rival sales companies’ leaders like David Reid, when Hanover owned the Garden State Sales Company. What are those relationships like?
Welk: I always go down to Kentucky [for the Lexington Selected Yearling Sale] just to support Randy Manges, David Reid and them. We’re all competitors, but we’re all friends, too. This industry is too small—we all need to support each other. I always like to go down [for opening night of the sale]. Randy has always been a great friend; I worked with David for a long time. And it’s good to go down there and see our consignors who are coming to Harrisburg.
The more we cooperate and get along, the easier it is for everybody. And, it looks better to the whole industry.
HB: In the years you’ve been doing this, have you seen any major changes in the horses?
Welk: Yes, overall conformation has improved dramatically. And attitudes—just getting along with the horses—they just seem a lot calmer than they were 10, 12, 15 years ago. I think they are handled more, and I think some of it is the breeding.
HB: How about changes in the way farms and consignors do business? Any big trends there?
Welk: Not really. We’re all in the same boat though—everybody’s short on help. Things are a little more tight than they used to be even just getting the normal farm work done. It’s the same with the consignors at a sale. We just had that discussion at Fasig-Tipton. Everybody’s having trouble rounding up people to work the sale. This has been my toughest year. Even my main crew—some of the younger folks can’t come. We’ve been able to replace a few, but not all.
HB: How about the way buyers do business and look at horses?
Welk: They’re a little more particular, and years ago, you didn’t have as many big partnerships as you do now. Years ago, a lot of individuals bought on their own, but now with the sheer cost of everything, it’s easier to split it up.
HB: What about vetting before the sale? X-rays, scoping—are those more common?
Welk: It’s a lot more common than it was, and that’s entirely up to the consignor. Buyers talk to the consignors and the sales company stays out of it.
HB: Have you ever thought of setting up a repository like Keeneland has?
Welk: It has been discussed. It’s been talked about and talked through, and I’m not saying you won’t see it in the future, but at this point, we’re not going in that direction.
HB: I’ve known you for many years, and I’ve never seen you be anything but in a good mood. Do you ever lose your temper and blow up?
Welk: Yes, but I kind of grew out of that. Twenty years ago, little things would set me off. Now, you try to stay happy and stay focused. It reflects on everybody. If I’m upset, the whole crew is upset. I just really enjoy the people and the business. Of course, there are times I have to bite my lip, but that’s anybody in any job. You just bite your lip and go on.
Georgia probably hears the blowups more than anyone. Now and then I have to release some pressure. She listens and tries to talk me through it. She’s great with that. Having her in the setup office with me is great, too. She and a couple of the guys handle a lot of stuff and don’t really even bring it to me. They know it’s the kind of stuff that would aggravate me—small stuff.
HB: Once setup is done at Harrisburg and the sale is underway, except for trouble-shooting, is that a somewhat quiet time for you?
Welk: The last few years I’ve been working in the credit office while the sale is going on. It seems like every day there’s something [to deal with]. With a show this size, and a building this size, dealing with the people here with the building, which have been great, there’s always something. Like now [on site doing setup just before the sale], they’re putting a new loading dock on. We can’t use part of our dock, as we’re working around construction. It’s one of those deals where we try to work with them because they work with us. You could sit here and be mad and upset, but it gets you nowhere.
HB: Any regrets for making this career your life’s choice?
Welk: No. Not at all.
HB: Even with the 24-7? You don’t ever wish you had a job where you could take a month off completely?
Welk: No, I don’t. It’s strange. People say that to me and once in a while, I may say “I’m tired of this,” but I don’t ever mean it. I love what I do. I love the people I work with and the people I work for. And I really enjoy being around the consignors. Georgia always told me I should be a politician because I like people so much.
My specialty is trouble-shooting. My crew can handle what’s got to be done, but if something comes up or they have a problem somewhere, I can usually fix it. I’ve never been one to say “I can’t do that.” Russell [Williams, president/CEO of Hanover Shoe Farms] brings that up. I hardly ever say no when they have something they want to do. Most of it, I’ve never done, but we’ll try anything. I might say it’s going to be difficult, but I don’t remember ever saying we can’t do that. Whatever comes up, you take care of.
HB: Is it a bit of an adrenaline rush putting out brush fires?
Welk: Some of it is. Some you get a little rush from it. You get a lot of satisfaction from it. When the sale is over, even though sometimes it’s stressful with things going on, I’ve actually sat and been kind of emotionally upset that it’s over. The guys and girls that work for me are gone, the sale is over.
Then the adrenaline drains out, even though there’s still a lot of work to do. We have trailers to unload at home, equipment to put back. Then I start thinking, another five or six months—it’s time to go look at yearlings again.
Anne Doolin is a freelance writer living in Kentucky. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.