Remarkable moments in sale history
story by Dean A. Hoffman
Just as two minutes of a harness race can encompass excitement, drama and unexpected thrills, so can the two minutes that a horse is in the sale ring. Much like a race, you really don’t know what will happen during an auction. Auctions are far more exciting, of course, when a very special horse walks into the ring and the fireworks explode—and that has happened countless times in Standardbred history. Horses with the big sales tags don’t always become superstars, of course, and in this list we’ll even feature an overlooked filly that earned 1,438 times her purchase price. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but simply a sample of when harness racing history was made not on the racetrack but in the ring.
Victory Song & Bombs Away
She was a young woman born with deep pockets and an absolute passion for horses.
Frances Dodge was the daughter of John F. Dodge, who founded the Dodge Motor Car Co. with his brother early in the 20th century and rode the rise of the auto industry in America to become one of the richest men in the country. He died in 1920 at age 55 during the flu epidemic when his daughter was just 6 years old.
She began riding and showing Saddlebreds as a young woman, but she also took a fancy to trotters. After her marriage to Jimmy Johnson in 1938, Frances received her inheritance of $10 million ($181 million today) the next year.
In 1940, she rode the fabled champion Greyhound under saddle to a trotting world record that would last a half-century.
World War II restrictions put a heavy damper on racing, but it didn’t dampen Mrs. Johnson’s burgeoning enthusiasm for harness racing. In the early fall of 1943, while the war was at a pivotal point in the Pacific and in Europe, she sent her agents to Lexington to buy the best horses they could find.
At that time, the best you could find were yearlings by Volomite, the dominant sire in the breed on both gaits. His flawless son, Volo Song, had won the 1943 Hambletonian, and the Volomite pacer King’s Counsel shared honors as the best sophomore pacer with Adios.
Walnut Hall sold its yearlings then in what is now the “Big Barn” at the Kentucky Horse Park, and when Victory Song, a full brother to Volo Song, came into the ring the first night, he brought an astonishing $37,000. (That’s $530,000 in current dollars.)
But Mrs. Johnson still had money in her checkbook. The next night she also bought the sales topper in Bombs Away at $36,500. He was by Volomite out of the Hambletonian winner Isolola’s Worthy. The underbidders on both sons of Volomite included Col. E.J. Baker, the owner of Greyhound.
The Walnut Hall consignment that fall of 41 yearlings sold for a total of $203,975, and Mrs. Johnson’s two purchases, Victory Song and Bombs Away, brought 36 percent of that total.
The ill-tempered Bombs Away was a top 2-year-old, while Victory Song had soundness issues. The roles were reversed as sophomores as Victory Song blossomed, despite losing the Hambletonian in a narrow decision to Chestertown. He later captured the Kentucky Futurity and the next year became the very first Harness Horse of the Year.
Both high-priced colts stood at Castleton Farm, which Mrs. Johnson had purchased and refurbished into a showplace. Victory Song enjoyed greater success despite limited fertility and died at age 19. His best were Noble Victory, Dartmouth and Senator Frost. Bombs Away sired such remarkable daughters as Air Record, Sis Bomb and Air Medal.
Adios was sold twice at auction in his life, with the second transaction fetching 10 times more than his original price.
He sold for $2,000 as a yearling in 1941, just as America was girding for involvement in World War II. He proved to be a fast, slick-gaited pacer who could turn off his speed just as fast as he could turn it on.
Early in 1946, Adios was sold privately to movie mogul Harry Warner (Warner Bros. Studio) and L.K. Shapiro. Later that year, Shapiro decided to start a California breeding farm with Adios at its head and purchased seven mares. Adios ultimately went lame and bred mares in 1947 and ’48.
He got scant patronage in the Golden West, and Warner consigned him to an auction at Tattersalls in Lexington in early October 1948.
Concurrently, a young Pennsylvanian named Delvin Miller was making waves on the Standardbred tracks and wanted to establish his own breeding farm in his native western Pennsylvania.
Several top pacing prospects were available and Miller sought advice from his mentor Dr. H.M. Parshall, who had raced against Adios often.
“You don’t want just any horse,” Parshall lectured Miller. “You want Adios. Forget about those other horses. Get Adios. I guarantee you he’ll sire great fillies.”
Miller said in 1972, “Nobody could sell me on a horse like Doc Parshall because I had so much confidence in him.”
Miller had $6,000 of his own money and another owner agreed to lend him the balance needed to buy Adios. But that man overspent on yearlings at Lexington and had empty pockets. Miller found another friend willing to advance him the needed money and he began bidding when Adios entered the ring.
The bidding on Adios came down to Miller and a mysterious man dressed in cowboy garb. Miller was sweating when he offered $19,500 and sweating even more when the cowboy countered with a $20,000 bid.
Miller raised one finger to indicate a bid of $20,100, but auctioneer George Swinebroad took it as a $21,000 bid. Miller was hopping mad when Adios was hammered down to him. He insisted that his bid was only $20,100. But his protests went nowhere and he was forced to come up with $21,000.
He later learned that the cowboy was an agent bidding for Warner to assure that Adios would bring at least $20,000.
Miller wasn’t happy with the price, but he was happy with his stallion when the few early foals Adios sired in California proved to be stars.
Seven years later, Miller sold Adios to Hanover Shoe Farms for $500,000 and then Miller and friend Max Hempt agreed to buy back a one-third interest in the stallion.
Adios sired such greats as Bret Han-over, Henry T. Adios, Adios Butler, Adios Betty, Adios Boy, Adios Harry, Shadow Wave, Countess Adios, Bullet Hanover, Lehigh Hanover and more.
And Delvin Miller never regretted the “extra” $900 he was forced to pay.
She was a lithe little filly who simply got lost in the shuffle.
In 1964, 1,525 Standardbred yearlings by 301 different sires were sold at public auction through early November. Prices ranged from $60 to $65,000 with an average price of $3,667.
And then there was Fresh Yankee.
At the Standardbred Horse Sale in 1964, Fresh Yankee was Hip No. 628 in the overall sale. Ten horses earlier, Vernon Dancer paid a robust $17,500 for a Tar Heel colt. A few lots later, Paige West offered $12,000 for a son of Adios Butler, his former champion.
These colts were both consigned by Yankeeland Farm, the nursery started by New York Yankee slugger Charlie Keller.
But no one got too excited when a bay filly from the first crop by Hickory Pride sold for $900 to Sanders Russell of Stevenson, Ala.
Hickory Prides were hardly in high demand. That fall at the Standardbred Horse Sale, his 11 yearlings sold for an average of $1,164. Five horses before Fresh Yankee sold, a Hickory Pride colt sold for just $800.
No one could envision then, of course, what a remarkable sire Hickory Pride would be despite limited fertility.
The story of Fresh Yankee is now famous because she went on to international fame. Russell was supposed to ship her to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, but it turned out that the shipping would cost more than she had cost. So Russell took the cheap filly back to his farm in Alabama.
Fresh Yankee could not possibly have landed in a softer spot. Russell was a master horseman from a family of Southern gentry who had raced harness horses for decades. Just two years before he bought Fresh Yankee, Russell had won the Hambletonian and Yonkers Trot with A.C.’s Viking.
With Russell developing her deliberately, Fresh Yankee burst onto the national spotlight at Red Mile in 1966 when she upset Hambletonian winner Kerry Way in a sophomore stake. But she was just starting to make headlines—and she made headlines around the world of trotting for the next six years.
In her trans-Atlantic career, Fresh Yankee won admirers wherever she raced because she simply didn’t go many bad races.
In fact, she won or finished second in an amazing 52 consecutive starts against the best in the world. That included racing on all size tracks from all sorts of post positions.
She won the Elitlopp in Sweden, and the International Trot at Roosevelt Raceway when that big race ranked among the most coveted trotting titles in the world.
At the end of her storied career, the overlooked $900 filly had started 191 times with an 89-44-24 slate and $1,294,252. Not bad for a filly that few people wanted.
Laugh A Day
Richard Stone was the yearling manager for Castleton Farm in Kentucky in 1983 and he knew that the pacing filly Laugh A Day would very likely top the farm’s yearling consignment that year. She was a gorgeous lass, and had six-figure sale price written all over her. But what would the final price be?
Virtually all the major trainers and owners looked at Laugh A Day, along with some who probably didn’t have the money to buy a baloney sandwich. But sellers have to accommodate all prospects at a public auction.
I recall speaking with Canadian breeder and owner A.M. “Mac” Cuddy when Laugh A Day was being shown to prospective buyers. Cuddy had champagne tastes in pedigrees and the bankroll to back it up. I suspect—but don’t know for certain—that he was one of the bidders, but the man who had the final bid at $625,000 was Lloyd Arnold. That price in today’s dollars is $1,581,000.
Arnold had the last bid, but not the last laugh with Laugh A Day. Although she was a sister to the superstar pacers Tarport Hap ($688,664) and Tyler B ($687,388), Laugh A Day was a disappointment in every way.
She earned only $38,555 on the track while getting a 2:00.1f mark.
Nor did she redeem herself in the breeding ranks. She was obviously bred to top pacing studs and had 13 foals. Two of them earned a bit more than $300,000, but the others were quite ordinary.
It would hardly be fair not to include a broodmare in this list, so let’s feature the resplendent Winky’s Gill. After all, she sold for a whopping $800,000 in 1986 at age 6.
Winky’s Gill was a daughter of Bonefish, and proved her ability in her freshman season when she trotted to a world record for trainer-driver Hakan Wallner and owners Castleton Farm and Ulf Moberg.
As a sophomore, Winky’s Gill was deemed good enough to challenge colts in the Hambletonian. She set the fractions for driver Wallner in her elimination heat but couldn’t withstand the Beissinger Stable entry of Joie De Vie and Astro Hill. In the second heat, she was shuffled back to eighth at the three-quarter pole, but finished with a flourish to grab second behind the winner Duenna.
Winky’s Gill was bred to Super Bowl as a 4-year-old in 1984, and her first foal was named Supergill.
He was everything he was supposed to be and was hammered down as a yearling for $500,000. He won five of his six starts as a freshman and loomed as the heavy favorite for the ’88 Hambo. He didn’t win that race as his stablemate, Armbro Goal, was a better colt that season.
Winky’s Gill sold in October 1986 at Tattersalls for a remarkable $800,000. The purchaser was Castleton Farm, so it was really just buying out a partner, but $400,000 was paid to do so.
Winky’s Gill produced the splendid Winky’s Goal, a Hambletonian Oaks winner in 1993, but little else. She died at age 34 at Perretti Farms in New Jersey.
When I arrived at the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg, Pa., for the 2011 Standardbred Horse Sale, I encountered Murray Brown, who had been the Standardbred Horse Sale manager seemingly since the time Dan Patch was a maiden.
Murray greeted me by asking, “Have you seen him yet?”
I knew who the “him” was to which he was referring. It was Detour Han-over. Brown has been around enough horse sales over the decades to know how unpredictable they can be, but he told me with confidence that Detour Hanover would be the sale-topper. What he didn’t know, of course, was just how the bidding would go before it stopped.
Detour Hanover was a big, strapping dude, typical of many sons of Andover Hall. But this son of Andover Hall was special because he was a brother to Donato Hanover, a Hambletonian winner, who was then off to a gangbusters start in the stud barn with stars such as Possess The Will and Check Me Out in his first crop.
The fireworks started when he walked into the sale ring with bids coming from several sources. As the price soared, most bidders fell by the wayside, but Swedish owner Karl Erik Bender was left bidding against the Cancelliere brothers—John and Tom—of New Jersey.
The bidding soared past the previous high-water mark in the sport, and yet no one had claimed the title to Detour Hanover. In the end, the Cancelliere brothers won with an $825,000 bid as the crowd applauded their gameness.
Sadly, the sale price was not justified by the colt’s performance on the track. On the way to possible stardom, he took—shall we say—a detour. He earned only $25,375 on the track with a record of four wins in 11 starts.
He began breeding mares at age 5 and got eight foals from 17 mares. His first crop is racing now and his book was just five mares in 2016 and 2017.
Dean A. Hoffman is a former executive editor of Hoof Beats. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.