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Challenging Sales Season Looms for Thoroughbred Breeders

Derry Meeting Farm manager Bobby Goodrich walking Indian Charlie colt who is headed to Saratoga Select Yearling Sale in August.
photo by jane conway

August 2009
By Terry Conway

Appearance is everything.

As a yearling enters the sales ring, he must be a living portrait of health and athleticism. When the gavel falls and he fetches a handsome price, it is the consummate reward for a small village of individuals that has invested countless hours along the journey to the public auction. The once furry, gangly youngsters have been transformed into sleek, muscular athletes over a three-month period through a mix of genetics, exercise, nutrition, training, farrier work and veterinary consultation.

The Tiffany's of thoroughbred auctions, Saratoga's yearling sale will take place Aug. 10-11 followed by the massive Keeneland September sale that represents the single largest market in the U. S. It could be a tough season for commercial breeders. Stud fees paid two years ago to produce their colts and fillies were based on a booming sales market. That's all gone. Setbacks of 30 to 40 percent have been the norm at breeding stock sales this year.

At Saratoga buyers will evaluate pedigree and performance of the sire and dam and their offspring. Walking the grounds and stables they survey and peruse the crop of yearlings. Tightly gripping a lead shank, the handler guides a handsome yearling onto a gravel path where buyers scrutinize his walk and how he carries himself.

Scribbling notes and circling names in the auction's catalogue, the prospective buyers appraise how the horse is put together, how it travels across the ground, stands and how it handles all the attention. Still, front-and-center is the yearling's physical appearance-- a horse that is appealing to the eye. Conditioned yearlings look chiseled and athletic, and ready to move on to the first phase of their race training.

Tom McGreevy has been picking horses for Rick Porter's Fox Hill Farm since 1999 when he uncovered a gem named Zonk for $85,000. The chestnut filly went on to become a multiple stakes winner who earned $559,476. In recent years he's been buying 15-20 horses a year. Recent standouts have included Rockport Harbor and Round Pond, as well as 2009 Kentucky Derby contenders Old Fashioned and Friesan Fire.

"I put a lot of emphasis on an athletic walk, it means they're an athlete," McGreevy related. "I also look for their ‘want.' Good horses don't want to get beaten. They either have that desire or they don't. You try to read into that by their attitude and how they carry themselves at the sale."

Building Muscle

Tucked away in quiet Cochranville, Pa., Derry Meeting is one of Chester County's most beautiful thoroughbred nursery operations. Each October they turn the babies loose from their mares and the young horses spend the winter outdoors, dashing around in a pack up and down the hilly ground, or scrambling down to the creek. They learn competition early and become tough, hard-knocking horses, a trait revered by many yearling buyers.

"They stay outside all the time and compete for space and for food," said Bobbie Goodyear, the farm manager. "When they head to the feed trough, you'll see them push each other around. When they get to the track they know how to dig in and fight."

This year Derry Meeting is offering just a pair of yearlings: a grand looking and very athletic chestnut colt by Indian Charlie out of Screening by Unbridled, and a Tale of the Cat colt out of Hypoxia by Shadeed. A promising Dixieland Band colt developed serious health problems and was pulled from the sale.

At Derry Meeting yearlings are brought into the barn the first week of May. They are kept out of sunlight to avoid any bleaching of their coats. At dusk the yearlings are turned out into paddocks where the playful colts are separated to avoid any nicks or bite marks. They are brought back in at dawn where they become accustomed to human contact and get their three meals a day. Exercise starts with a 10- to 15-minute hand walk that gradually stretches out to 45 minutes each morning.

Hand walking provides the basis of teaching manners, proper carriage and a powerful walk. Over an intensive three-month period the yearlings build muscle and trim fat. Each morning exercise primes the horse to walk out and stand in the show ring.

It's imperative that the yearlings are fit when they go to the sale since it can be so physically and mentally stressful. Otherwise they tend to become sluggish and lazy at the end of the day when buyers may return for a second or third look. On many occasions those later looks are what gets the horse sold.

"You want them to be focused when they go up to the sales," Goodyear explained. "They're going to see more people and bright lights than they ever did when they walk into the ring. Leading up to the sale we'll be pulling them out of their stall so they're used to being looked at. Our job is to get them to listen and walk correctly for the buyers. It's always been our belief that the yearlings' fitness helps them not to get worn down at the sales."

When July arrives, the youngsters' tweaking begins. Some get extra walking, others more handling. The yearlings' polish and presentation is a Derry Meeting hallmark.

One Derry Meeting youngster who turned heads at the 2007 Saratoga sale was a striking chestnut colt by Distorted Humor. When the gavel came down, he brought $800,000 from John Ferguson on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, racing's premiere breeder. Bred by nearby neighbor and longtime client George Strawbridge, Jr., the colt was the fifth highest purchase at the sale.

"He was a very nice colt, with lovely action and a lovely temperament," said Bettina Jenney, owner of Derry Meeting. "We were all very pleased."

In comments to Thoroughbred Daily News Ferguson said: "There is no coincidence that good horses come off good land. Derry Meeting breeds them to be winners, not just good sale horses. He is a real quality horse and we're delighted to have him."

Boutique operation

Derry Meeting is well known as a consignor of some of the best-bred thoroughbred bloodstock around the globe. It's a name long recognized as a small but select breeding operation.

Established in 1968 by the late Marshall Jenney, Derry Meeting has been the birthplace of countless elite auction yearlings as well as super-sires Danzig and Storm Cat. Jenney had some of his most notable successes at Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga yearling auctions, where he consigned Danzig, Unbridled's Song and Mrs. Penny.

"Marshall was a very bright guy, and he knew horses," said Bill Graves, director of yearling sales at Fasig-Tipton. "He had great wit and a personality bigger than life. He had a knack of drawing people in, then selling his horses for a lot of money."

When Jenney passed away in 2000 his wife Bettina took control. In 2009 fifty-two foals arrived at Derry Meeting. The farm's four employees have been there for more a decade. Calvin Smith, who handles the foaling duties, counts more than 30 years.

Bob Goodyear, Sr. first arrived at the farm at age 16 helping his uncle load horses headed to the 1969 Saratoga sales. He was a fixture until June 2005 when he died of cancer. Son Bobby has grabbed the reins.

"There are a lot of small decisions every day that add up to the big picture," he said. "It's a team effort, it takes everyone to make it happen."

Grooming and Nutrition

In the afternoon it's time for grooming and relaxation. The grooming goes well beyond keeping their coats bright and shiny. The horses are acclimated to the clippers and other grooming tools that tend to make the days leading up to the sale less stressful. Some will bite, while others are more tolerant.

"With that furry coat you've got to rub them and brush them to get all that winter hair out of them," explained Goodyear. "Mainly, it's picking their feet, even with the babies. It makes all the difference in the world in handling them. They get used to it. The ones that get aggravated, it's just a matter of time until they learn."

Equally as important as conditioning is nutrition in preparing yearlings for a sale. It's a fine balance of delivering the correct feed essential for the rapidly growing body, but not providing so much fuel that the youngster becomes fat. In the spring and summer the yearlings graze in the rolling pastures, while in the winter racks of hay are kept in front of them in the outdoor sheds. Typically, it's free-choice alfalfa.

In the run-up to the sale their feeding program is typically amped up— often three instead of two grain/concentrate meals are fed per day. Yearlings get three to four quarts a day, mares two. Typically, sweet feed is added to the yearling's feed bucket during their third feeding. It helps bring out their coat's shine.

"It's poured across a trough so it's ‘best man wins'," said Goodyear with a laugh. "I've seen little ones that don't get that much, but from fighting all the time they make great racehorses. The sales yearlings take in between eight and 12 pounds of concentrate per day that is administered gradually over a one-week to two-week period."

When the grass starts sprouting in March, Goodyear and his crew begin to see the athletes evolving. Colts tend to play much harder than the fillies.

"They run up and down these hills, they're challenging and bumping each other," Goodyear related. "Really getting after each other. It's then that you begin to think those are the ones that could be nice racehorses."

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