Class

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.

16 thoughts on “Class

  1. “Wealth has never been democratic…”, true but I would imagine that the consignors don’t care who signs the check when the gavel falls, as long as it doesn’t bounce.There is wealth among people of color. I would imagine that they are not in numbers at the sales because they learned a long time ago that no matter how much money one throws around in order to buy its trappings, you can’t buy class.Brilliant piece.

  2. Great Literary prose as usual. There are a myriad of reasons we do not see many people of color in the ownership ranks and upper echelon of this sport. The color line has been broken in other major sports in the ownership and management ranks and it can be done in racing-look at the Hispanic explosion in baseball-not just with the players but with Management/Ownership-Angels Owner Art Moreno, Omar Minaya-General Manager of the Mets, Detroit vice president and assistant general manager Al Avila, Philadelphia assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and Los Angeles senior vice president and general counsel Sam Fernandez. For those with interest of getting in the sport and being an owner/buyer/agent-Keep pushing and it will be done-the only color anyone really cares about is Green.

  3. I don’t mean to sound cruel or flip, but the power of LIFE in is in the pocketbook, too.That power ultimately dictates where I can send my kids to college, the type of car I can drive, where I can afford to live, even what I can afford to eat and drink.Every human being can determine how big their pocketbook can be by gaining a proper education and going out to make their mark in the world.It is too late for me. My lot in life has been cast, much of it due to my own stubborn and myopic ways. It’s not too late for my kids — or anyone else for that matter.That said, I don’t understand the class/color line theme of today’s post. Many people of color have money, but they don’t choose to participate in the sport/industry.Why? That is for people way smarter than I to figure out.

  4. Well written, but a bit of a bummer. I’ve gone to the FT NY Bred Yearling sales (and am going on Saturday). My recollection is of a different crowd then you describe, perhaps due to the lesser quality of the horses offered. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by it, and it was an experience I’d never had as a lifelong horse fan. Perhaps some people will enjoy the sales, even though it appears that you didn’t.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to comment. As is the case in other sports, people of color have made “management” inroads, in that you’ve got people of color as trainers, but for a sport whose foundation has long been black and Latino people on horses’ backs and on the backstretch, it makes me uncomfortable that there are so few people of color in the power organizations of the sport. I could certainly speculate on why people of color don’t get involved, but I don’t think that one person’s opinion will get us very far. I am not convinced that a good education and drive are always enough to overcome social and cultural forces.I’ll be there Saturday night, too, and I’ll be interested to see whether the crowd make-up is any different. I was surprised at the strength of my reaction on Tuesday night; in the past, I’ve enjoyed the sales, and I still do, but I am also troubled by them.

  6. Great post. It seems to me that there isn’t so much an interest in excluding non-whites as simply an interest in perpetuating a kind of old-boy, establishment mentality. And I think a lot of people, colored or white, are unwilling to buy into that, even if they are plenty wealthy and connected.

  7. I feel the way you do when I go to Knicks’ games. Great white majority cheering mostly people of color.I love this HBO documentary on the old Oakland teams, Raiders, A’s—cheaper 70s seats, more minorities in the crowd. Very cool.

  8. I was there Monday night and really enjoyed it. As a novice (or less) it was fun to try to guess which horses would bring a good price. It helped to attend with a couple of conformation experts.It’s truly an exercise in capitalism and free markets. I hope that isn’t what disturbed you. I really don’t have a problem with wealthy white men, many have worked hard to get where they are. And don’t forget, several million dollars of that horseflesh went to a wealthy Arab man. Maybe some Cristal before or during the sale would have helped (though you’d go broke quickly drinking at the bar behind the sales ring).

  9. Great post! Very thoughtful. As a fan of the sport who pays attention to the big picture I relate to the conflicted feelings in your reaction to the sales. Thanks!On a lighter note — any chance we might see your TV appearance with Seth Merrow on YouTube. I know someone out there has a copy!

  10. Reading your post reminded me uncomfortably that white Americans once sold black people like this in our country . . . I’ve always been struck when opening my media guides at the sea of well-dressed white guys in racetrack management — the few women are usually in secretarial roles (the MJC racing secretary is Georganne Hale. The head of mutuels, I believe, is black as is the on-track physician) . . . I remember MC Hammer made a terrific splash when he started racing horses (which expedited the loss of all his money). He brought excitement to the game when he raced the brilliant Lite Light. Who can forget her head-to-head battle with Meadow Star in the 1991Mother Goose? (It’s on Youtube and Leroy Jolley says it’s going to be “The mother of all gooses” and it is!)Hammer’s flashy and fun presence, however, clearly did not bring wealthy blacks into the sport. You crafted an excellent and difficult post that could be the beginning of a conversation. I know plenty of racists around the racetrack (now there’s a pregnant pun), but I never have seen it overtly manifested in powerful executives. You just don’t seen a lot of color or women in the upper level. — J.S.

  11. As an owner/breeder ‘of color’ and Caribbean immigrant, I confess to being perplexed when discussions of this type occur in the USA, since the culture from which I come is quite different.However, my two cents worth : There are many women in serious positions in the breeding industry, some being powerful farm owners. A woman owned and ran Hollywood Prak for a very long stretch of time.And one does not have to go too far back to remember the millions spent by Satish Sanan at Saratoga sales. Indeed, if it weren’t for their legal shenanigans, the Midnight Cry stable might still be calling the shots with HOY Curlin.Now about Sheikh Mohammed (man of color)…..oh well that story is for another day.

  12. Great points about the sheikhs and Sanan. And as several of you have noted, both women and people of color hold important positions in the industry.Still, though, the scene at the sales doesn’t LOOK that way. Anyone who didn’t know about the folks to whom you’re referring would have no way of knowing that anyone except white men are involved. Wonder why that is?Carlton–great to meet you last week!

  13. 5 years late with comment but tonight the first time I’d ever actually viewed streaming live video of the sales.

    Could not watch more than a minute. As Teresa said, it’s just immediately evident that the poor horses are terrified up there being on display. I didn’t like seeing that and won’t be watching anymore.

    Normally a pretty big fan of all things quantization. But not in this case. Not one bit.

  14. Ah, the old boy system alive an well. I was particularly impressed with the post that said everyone can control the size of their pocketbook. What a crock! The old white male still dominates and I have been told that we should be glad that these horses are bred and raced because it takes all that money to do it. Yes, but the commodities that don’t make it will be disposed of in ways that we don’t like to think about, and even those that do make the bigtime will run out of options. This is, indeed, life. These terrified yearlings have reason to be terrified. Life will not be kind.

  15. I was glad to stumble across this on Twitter! I feel much the same about sales, regarding the horses (I tend to have tunnel vision when it comes to my fellow humans, and barely notice whether someone is x or y–whether this is a good trait or bad, I have no idea!) But as someone with deep interest in pedigrees, I also enjoy the chance to see the flesh-and-blood offspring of well-known (and not-so-well-known) horses. But as a horse-lover and owner of a Nervous Nellie Throughbred mare, I also see the fear of these young horses and feel sorry for them.

    I partly prefer bloodstock sales for this reason–the mares tend to be calmer and more curious and/or impatient about the process than fearful.

    One sale I’ll never enjoy is the under-tack sale of yearlings and 2-year-olds. I don’t see the point of pressuring a young horse to run the fastest furlong of his/her short life–what does it tell you? In the end, it’s pointless. I could go on and on about under-tack sales but I’ll stop here.

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