On the Wednesday and Thursday before the Preakness, as excitement built for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, many trainers and owners slipped away from Pimlico Race Course and drove eight miles north on Interstate 83 to look a year into the future.
At the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, 2-year-old colts and fillies dashed around the track, some with confidence but most with exuberance unmatched by experience. The owners and trainers who breed, buy and develop them into racers spoke in hushed tones, making notes in a catalog listing 425 horses.
On the Monday and Tuesday after the biggest weekend in Maryland racing, some of them placed bets. All of horse racing is a gamble, but for those with the most at stake it often begins at auctions such as the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale, where this year 249 horses were sold for $16,675,000.
"It was just a tremendous horse sale," said Boyd T. Browning Jr., president and CEO of Fasig-Tipton. "The consignors brought great horses through, and the buyers were there."
Fasig-Tipton, an auction house founded in 1898 that originally sold carriage horses in addition to those headed for the races, sold about 2,500 horses last year for nearly $200 million, Boyd said. The Lexington, Ky.-based firm, which takes 5 percent of all sales, runs three auctions in Maryland, but the post-Preakness event draws broad interest because it sandwiches Preakness weekend. It also offers a last chance to sell 2-year-olds before they begin training toward their important late-summer juvenile races.
As with athletes overlooked in the early rounds of a pro sports draft or not offered scholarships by big-time colleges, many horses go on to be champions despite a tepid response from bidders at sales. Vyjack, a Kentucky Derby participant this year, sold for just $100,000 at last year's Midlantic.
More horses cause a stir, sell for a high price and never live up to — or pay back — the investment. Hard to Handle sold for $270,000 at the 2012 Midlantic and has run three times since, failing to "break his maiden" — win his first race.
Buyers this year remained optimistic, paying an average of $13,500 more per horse than last year.
"It's a good place to find some talent," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm in Kentucky. "The proof has been there through the years that you can find winners here."
Horses entered in the Midlantic sale arrive a week before the Preakness. In addition to running the track, they are stabled in the barns at Timonium and made available for buyers to inspect. Owners employ scouts known as bloodstock agents or enlist their trainers to evaluate the prospects.
Buyers roam the barn area asking sellers to see their horses. Some just watch the way a horse walks and runs. Others bend down to grasp each ankle. All are careful not to betray which horses most interest them.
Inside the auditorium, the horses stand or prance or neigh loudly as the auction unfolds. A man on a high podium introduces each horse — some have names, others are called by number — and announces their pedigree and the racing success of family members. Another man then bursts into the familiar cadence of an auction. A white-jacketed man scurries out to clean up whenever a horse leaves droppings.
This year's Triple Crown chase brought new attention to an auction culture that some blame for hijacking the developmental years of young horses.
The Preakness derailed Kentucky Derby winner Orb's quest for the Triple Crown, but his path to Maryland's premier race was simple, unlike that of horses who go to the sales. Born to a mare owned by Butler resident Stuart S. Janney III, Orb was patiently prepared to become a racehorse.
Few thoroughbreds have it so good. Thousands are sold multiple times before even stepping on a racetrack, and therefore are trained to perform and look the part at an unusually young age.
"There's certainly a luxury to being able to bring a horse along slowly," said Niall Brennan, who breaks horses for Janney and prepares others to go to the sales. "You take a different approach, but both have worked."
Janney, who only races horses he's bred, said often during the week before the Preakness that he felt Orb blossomed heading into his 3-year-old year because he did not have to be molded as a 2-year-old into a horse that would fetch a high price at auction.
Orb was never pushed to develop the sort of muscle — or sprinting ability — that matters at auctions, which are part beauty pageant and part NFL draft combine.
"He wasn't trained to look like a linebacker so somebody can get excited and throw up a big price," Janney said.
Not all bloodstock agents look for the same thing.
Sagamore Farm, the Baltimore County racing outfit owned by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, made only one purchase at this year's sale, spending $220,000 on a colt out of Unbridled's Song and Daisyago, a mare sired by Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown.
"We all looked at him and commented that he seemed to be galloping easily," said Tom Mullikan, Sagamore's general manager. "He's a good-sized colt, but he's not heavy. ... He makes it look easy out there."
One of the more active buyers at this sale was Kyle Kaenel, a former jockey who retired in 2009 and now buys horses for wealthy clients. He advises a group called K.O.I.D., which buys horses to run in Korea, where the sport is growing rapidly.
Among his 18 purchases last week was a filly sired by Malibu Moon, whose reputation was burnished when his colt Orb won the Kentucky Derby. Kaenel won the filly for $95,000; the horse originally sold for $200,000 as a yearling, then was withdrawn from an auction earlier this year when the reserve price of $175,000 was not met.
"There are good horses there for sure," Kaenel said. "But it's an exciting sale because people have to make tough decisions. It's really the last chance to get a lot of people interested in the horse, and I think everybody is a little more willing to take a risk."
Other horses boost their profiles between the times they are sold. Trainer Nick Zito happily paid $360,000 — the second-highest price of the sale — to acquire a Malibu Moon colt who sold for $165,000 a year ago.
David Hayden, a longtime Maryland breeder, sold the top filly on the first day of the sale for $240,000 in what he called "a classic example of perceived bad luck turning into good luck." He wanted to sell her last year but pulled her back after a minor injury. He continued to invest in her, spending $75,000 as she worked with Brennan. The two men expected only $150,000 and were prepared to keep her if they didn't get more than $100,000.
"You need those sort of big hits," said Hayden, a member of the Maryland Racing Commission.
Profits from the sale, he said, will help his Dark Hollow Farm continue ramping up its operations to take advantage of the improving climate for racing in Maryland.
The Maryland Racing Commission's approval last week of a new bonus program that eventually will pay 30 percent bonuses to owners and breeders of Maryland horses who win, place or show at Maryland's tracks is expected to promote breeding in the state in coming years. Those foals will now be worth more when they go to sales because of the potential for bonuses.
"I always say a horse is only worth what he or she can earn," said Mike Pons, who with his brother Josh runs the breeding and racing operation Country Life & Merryland in Harford and Baltimore counties.
Their farm already has seen an uptick in business because of the larger purses made possible by slots revenue and the promise of the breeders incentive program. They have added staff and had 22 foals this year compared with six a year ago.
They've also benefited from Orb's success. After originally bringing Malibu Moon to stud at their Fallston farm after just two races, they retain a 25 percent share in the stallion who soon might command a fee more than $100,000 per foal.
One of Malibu Moon's colts fetched the highest price of the Midlantic sale at $450,000, elating the brothers. But they still envision a day when more of the horses sold at the Timonium auction will be Maryland-breds bound for tracks in the state. That would boost an industry now valued at $5 billion by the Maryland Horse Industry Board.
It also would deliver on the promises made when a portion of Maryland slots revenue was set aside for horse racing.
"The hope is that they'll soon see at these sales that the Maryland horses have made a comeback," Josh Pons said, "and that it makes sense to run them here."
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