Book Review: Fair Exchange, by Humphrey S. Finney

If you grow up in Saratoga, you can’t escape Humphrey S. Finney. Much like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg overlooking the ashes, Finney’s been there, on East Avenue just north of the track, hovering over the sales, since 1968, ; even if you don’t know who he is or why there’s a pavilion named for him, you associate him with horses, and particularly with horse sales.

During a trip to Lexington last March, I detoured to Midway for a late lunch following a morning trip to a breeding farm. I ate at the charming Quirk, a café/gift shop with great coffee and desserts, and then ventured downstairs to the bookshop beneath.

Perusing the racing section (of course there was one), I came across Fair Exchange: Recollections of a Life with Horses, by Humphrey S. Finney. I’d never heard of it; it was published in England in 1974, and it was in perfect, unused condition. It was $10, and I picked it up, browsed, and put it back on the shelf, mindful that I’d already exceeded my vacation budget.

Walking out of the shop empty-handed, I wheeled back suddenly: a book about Thoroughbreds, brand-new, for $10? It would have been fiscally irresponsible NOT to buy it.

In the early 80’s I worked at the Fasig-Tipton sales in Saratoga; John Finney, Humphrey’s son, was the head of the company then, and there was something regal about him, as though any man as well-versed in Thoroughbred blue blood as he was had to himself have royal blood in his veins, though perhaps that was just my younger self in awe of the venerable leader. Fair Exchange tells quite a different story of the elder Finney; in later life he would rub elbows with such luminaries as Louis B. Mayer and the Aga Khan, but his beginnings in England were humble. The son of a clergyman, he was a less than stellar student, and his interest in horses began as a child, thanks to his grandfather; it soon overshadowed any other obligations in his life:

My schoolmasters began to notice a coincidence between my absence from classes and the dates of race meetings and sales in the vicinity. Once when I was marked “present” on the day of an important turf event, a member of the faculty asked, “May I assume that the races were called off?”

Following his dismissal for poor attendance and grades from the Agricultural College at Preston, Finney set sail for New York to begin, as he put it, his “professional life with horses.”

He worked on various farms in the Midwest, eventually heading east and landing at Laurel Park Stud before settling for ten years at Sylvester Labrot’s Holly Beach Farm. He exercised horses, judged horse shows, and served as stud manager, in addition to working for the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. He got his first job in the auction ring when he went to work as an announcer for Fasig-Tipton at Pimlico in 1937.

In a chapter entitled “The Siren Song: Fasig-Tipton,” Finney recounts the history of the sales company founded by William B. Fasig in the 1890’s. The company auctioned horses in the greater New York area before buying land to establish the Saratoga yearling sales, the first of which took place in 1917. Finney notes that no sales were held at Saratoga from 1943 – 1945 because World War II prevented breeders from shipping their yearlings, and in 1943, the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale was held at the Keeneland Racecourse, a decision that the company might have lived to regret:

The Kentucky breeders asked Fasig-Tipton to spend one per cent of their five per cent income from the sale on advertising, because they feared that buyers would not come to Lexington. [Fasig-Tipton owners] Mrs. Tranter and [Ed] Shields refused, with the result that the men who had backed Tranter in 1917 formed a breeders’ cooperative and held their own sale. From this came the Keeneland Sales Company—a thorn in the flesh of the old organization.

In 1952 Finney was named executive vice-president and general manager of Fasig-Tipton, re-locating from Maryland to New York to fulfill his new responsibilities.

Each chapter of Finney’s life is as much about the horses with whom he works and that he sells as it is about Finney himself. He regales us with details of the dispersals of the horses of movie producer Louis B. Mayer and of William Woodward, he for whom the Woodward is named. Finney assumes that we love the details of breeding as much as he does, discussing sires and dams and crosses and race records as if such precise and esoseric knowledge is common, as if we are as familiar with it as he is. He lists sale prices and reserves, noting the bargains and the over-spending, syndication prices and horses’ earnings. He writes as if there were nothing more important, more encompassing, than the bloodstock business—and for him, there wasn’t.

Not all of his ventures were successful; after working with Finney on the sale of some of his family’s horses in the 1950’s, the Aly Khan proposed selling fine works of art during the week following the Saratoga sales, as a way to help Saratoga’s well-heeled visitors pass the time after the yearlings were sold. Among the works on offer were those by Renoir, Picasso, Cézanne, and Dufy, and Finney describes the sale, which took place on August 16th, 1960:

Each painting was displayed on an easel. It was like having a horse in the ring, and Canfield’s Casino seemed an appropriate place for an art gamble.

The catalogue did not give the complete pedigree of the artist, nor the prices brought by other creations of his brush. In a word, very little in the way of past performances was available. The headline in the New York Times the day after the auction, gave a rather harsh, but honest description of the sale. It said: “Famous Paintings Left at the Post at Saratoga.”

According to Finney, on the day of the art auction, more than $1 million was bet at the races, and the yearling sale the week before brought nearly $3 million. But the Saratoga public clearly preferred the risk of the Thoroughbred to the relative stability of the art, which went for a paltry $91,900. Finney put it simply: “No plans were made for a subsequent sale.”

The dryness of Finney’s tone and his complete, unabashed love of his work make the book an easy read. A celebration of Thoroughbreds, of sales, and of the people and horses with whom Finney worked through the years, the book offers nary a critical thought in its 167 pages, though it suggests that the good old days of racing, when people bred to race instead of breeding to sell, are a good deal older than most of us think. Even the most storied families in racing bought and raced horses with an eye towards selling their offspring, and they invested millions in stallions and broodmares in the hope of creating a yearling who would set new sales records.

At heart a bloodstock agent, Finney devotes a full chapter to giving advice on buying horses, I suppose in case any of his readers had several hundred thousand dollars lying around that they were looking to invest in horseflesh. He writes of conformation, of head shape, of ineffable “quality” and of appearance, and he offers advice about what to look for in pedigrees. He ends the chapter on a cautionary but encouraging note:

Anyone going into the horse business—either breeding or racing—needs money, intelligence, and luck. A combination of any two isn’t bad, but having all three is best. I never advise anybody to get into the game, unless he can afford it as a hobby; but what I say isn’t going to affect a person who really has the bug. My recommendation is to aim high. If you can get a horse by Bold Ruler out of Somethingroyal—great! If not, get the best you can. Whatever you do, you’ll be buying some headaches, but you’ll be entering a fascinating game. I only hope you can afford it.

When a man’s name adorns a building, you get the sense that he’s a pretty lofty individual. Finney does his best to convince his readers that there’s little lofty about him, that the man who spent thirty years selling high-priced Thoroughbreds and hob-nobbing with racing’s elite is not much different from the boy who came from England on a cargo ship. He writes with humility and humor, and his love of horses—and horse people—pervades the book, which was written eleven years before his death in 1981 of a heart attack. Having suffered bouts of ill health in his sixties, Finney clearly hears at his back Time’s winged chariot hurrying near, and as the book closes, it feels like a bit of an elegiac thank you to the industry from which he gained so much:

One of the lovely qualities of the horse business is its annual regeneration: next spring is a new foal crop, perhaps with its Man o’ War or Secretariat; next summer is a new draft of sales yearlings. Each year it’s pleasant to get back to the old places, like Saratoga and Newmarket, for they combine recollections of times past with the bustle of tomorrow’s history in the making. But at the same time, if I don’t get back, I hope I have a right to feel that I’ve given as much to these old places as they’ve given to me—that it’s been a fair exchange.

Finney, Humphrey S. Fair Exchange: Recollections of a Life with Horses. London: J.A. Allen & Company, 1974. Written with Raleigh Burroughs.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Fair Exchange, by Humphrey S. Finney

  1. Yes-it’s a must! A little street lined with interesting looking restaurants, an old-school post office, and this amazing bookshop…go!

  2. one of the greatest books ever about the thoroughbred industry! I read it 20 years ago and now just re-read it, and it’s just as amazing the second time around.

  3. A random google search brought me to this lovely (and surprisingly recent) review. My grandfather, and father, would certainly appreciate your kind words. For the record, your descriptions of both are quite on target! Thanks for posting that.

    • Catherine, thanks so much for those kind words, and for taking the time to write. I wish that I’d had the pleasure of meeting your father and grandfather. I do know an Annie Finney, whom I believe is related, but I knew her long before I had much of an interest in horse racing history. It’s great to hear from you.

  4. To Catherine, I am the grandson of Dorothea Gordon (sister of your grandfather Humphrey). My aunt has just told me about this book and now I’m looking forward to the read.

  5. Mrs. Finney gave my dad & me a copy, when we visited in the mid-80’s & I was looking into jobs at the Blood-Horse & Thoroughbred Record. Dad was a classmate & good friend of her son, John, when they both attended McDonough. Dad said he spent a summer or two with John, holding yearlings at the sales for Humphrey, during those years.

      • Yes, that’s it….Reisterstown, MD, I think. After graduation, my father attended UVA and John went to the Naval Academy.He visited my parents in Charlottesville, VA, a couple times when I was small, when I met him again (after my college graduation) in Saratoga, NY at the August sales. I had just graduated from VCU with a BFA in Commercial Art & Design He was kind enough to open doors at both publications & set me up with interviews–I did not end up taking a position with either–my father found out that he had cancer & it took the wind out of my sails. I will always appreciate his kindness.

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