On Monday morning, I sat in the upper level of the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion and watched as three humans and three horses were inducted into the Hall of Fame. I was touched, as I wrote on Tuesday, by the humanity and the humility of the event; as several publications have noted, the unplanned theme of the day seemed to be love and care of the horse—obvious, perhaps, but not clichéd, and certainly not unnecessary to note.
Approximately thirty-two hours later, I was sitting in the virtually the same spot in the Pavilion, watching high-priced yearlings go through the ring as wealthy men vied with each other for the right to take one home.
Growing up in Saratoga, I was always aware of “the sales.” There was often something a little awesome about them, a bit of the rich and famous on display, evoking both envy and scoffing on the part of the locals. “That much for a HORSE?” This especially from those of us who followed more closely harness racing, the sport whose horses and horsemen stuck around all year, racing in January, long after the Thoroughbreds had departed.
In the 1980’s, I worked for several summers at Fasig-Tipton, in one of the offices and sometimes in the pavilion; it was the go-go 80’s, and it felt as if the money flowed into the F-T coffers and consigners’ pockets as liberally as the Cristal we quaffed at Siro’s, on the company dime, into the wee hours after another successful—record-breaking?—session. Heady stuff, and I was young enough to be seduced by the magic.
Twenty years on, it’s harder to see that romance (maybe because it’s a lot harder to stay up all night drinking Champagne). Those of us who are occasionally troubled by elements of racing in which business and money come first find comfort in the beauty of the horses, in their joy on the track, in their majesty. Those things are in short supply at a yearling sale. Are those baby Thoroughbreds gorgeous outside their stalls and in the walking ring? Oh, yes, they are. They are magnificent, they are full of promise, they are the cream of the crop. This is, after all, the Saratoga Selected Yearling Sale.
And the point of all of it is that they are commodities. They are mixtures of genes and black-type pedigree; they are the sum of what their relatives have accomplished; they don’t even have names, identified only by a sticker on their hips. “What did you think of #132?”
And they are terrified. In crowded, unfamiliar surroundings, they are besieged by noise and lights—announcers announcing and people yelling and auctioneers steadily pattering and repeatedly bringing down the mallet. Their eyes are wild, their movements jerky; they don’t like this. More of them than I count defecate in their nervousness.
In the audience, shrewd eyes survey them—not for the first time, but maybe for the last. “Is she worth another $25,000?” “Nah, let her go.” “Think we could re-sell him?” “God damn it, I’ll outbid him.” Nothing matters but the possibility of profit: not the romance of racing, nor its history, nor the colorful personalities that make the sport so great. “Is he worth it?” is all that matters.
Two of the three humans inducted into the Hall of Fame were people of color: Edgar Prado and Milo Valenzuela. In the audience at the sales…white, and male. New and old Kentucky (OK, and New York and Florida, and sometimes California) names and faces. If you think that racing is a cozy little club, come to the sales; your sense will be confirmed. No people of color bidding, few women. In the results from Tuesday night, one woman was listed as a purchaser; two farms that bought yearlings, Live Oak and McMahon Thoroughbreds, are led at least in part by women. That’s about it.
There were people of color at the sales, mostly on the ends of shanks as horses were led into the ring. And oh, yes, the man in the white jacket whose job it is to clean up the ring (read: pick up the poop) after all those nervous babies have gone through it? He’s black.
The announcers and auctioneers talk about the horses in Southern drawls and English accents; I didn’t hear any Spanish, as I did when Edgar Prado took the microphone on Monday morning, thanking the backstretch workers who helped him get all those wins.
Wealth has never been democratic, and Thoroughbred racing is no exception. We can talk all we want about expanding the fan base and being inclusive and hearing more voices…but as affirming as it is to recognize those who have contributed to the sport with induction into the Hall of Fame, let’s not confuse those contributions with any real influence. The power of the sport is in the pocketbook.
And if you believe, as Jane Smiley writes in A Year at the Races, that “racing is repeatedly redeemed by the horses themselves,” don’t go to the yearling sales. Wait until those babies are known by names and not by numbers, until they are older and more confident, until we can see them doing what many of them love to do. Yes, it will still be about money, but, to quote Smiley again, “…the horses come out of the gate and run around the track, and beauty and unpredictability seize the imagination.” Not a black man in a white jacket, cleaning up million-dollar horseshit below two white guys dressed in tuxedos.
In 2011, I re-visited my impressions of the sales for The Saratogian.