If the Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in racing for a horse owner, then the September Yearling Sale at Keeneland might be the most agonizing.
Years of planning and of financial and emotional investment ride on catching the right potential buyer's eye in a few moments in an auction ring.
For most Kentucky horse farms, the goal is not breeding a million-dollar sale topper or a future Derby winner, although they'll take it, said Suzi Shoemaker, owner of Lantern Hill Farm outside Midway.
"Most of us doing this for a living, if we can sell horses and make a little money, we're happy with that," Shoemaker said. "It's not headline-grabbing, but honestly, if you're paying the bills and breeding good horses, you're happy."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Take Hip No. 3142, a filly by Even the Score.
On Thursday, the next-to-last day of Keeneland's mammoth auction, Shoemaker juggles the sellers — Judy and Phil Needham, breeders of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Dullahan, at Barn 21 — and potential buyers in the walking ring inside the race course's sales pavilion.
As the glossy chestnut horse circles the ring, over and over someone swoops down on Shoemaker for another look at her book of veterinary reports on the horses in her consignment. Even at the last second, as the filly walks sedately into the ring and buyers from all over the world zip through the passages around the pavilion, she is wielding her vet book like an enticing tray of appetizers.
With the Needhams hovering nearby, Shoemaker watches the action from "out back," the chutes behind the ring.
"We'll either own her or we won't when it's over," Judy Needham says. She is mum on what reserve price they have set. Shoemaker also has a share in the filly, as she does in many of the horses she will sell.
"We like her pretty well," Needham says of the filly, an indication that if they have to take her back home to race themselves they won't be too unhappy. "You don't mind reserving realistically when you like them."
The price bubbles up above $5,000 ... $10,000 ... $15,000 ... $20,000 ... then stalls at $25,000. The hammer falls, and she is sold.
The Needhams and Shoemaker smile, hug a bit, talk over the sale. There is no wild jubilation but some fatalistic shrugging. Both have seen better, but both have also seen worse.
"We're happy," Shoemaker said afterward. "We made a little money."
For an industry supported by billionaires, this is more the norm. Over the course of an 11-day sale, Keeneland will sell more than 2,500 yearlings, with the great bulk going for less than six figures, let alone seven.
Each one is a grain of sand in the beachhead of the Kentucky Thoroughbred breeding industry, which dominates the world horse market. Although there are larger breeding and selling operations, most are more like Lantern Hill.
"We're very real. A lot of these folks are just folks," Shoemaker said.
"We do it pretty much farm-to-market style — we raise what we sell."
Shoemaker brought 17 yearlings to this year's Keeneland sale; only four failed to find a buyer in the auction ring. The highest-priced, a bay colt by Tiznow, went for $300,000, well above where he had been expected to sell; the lowest, a colt by Cowboy Cal that failed to pass veterinary muster, went for $2,000.
Shoemaker had high hopes for another colt by Kitten's Joy. Like the lucky Tiznow colt, it is closely related to current racing phenom Archwarrior, another Lantern Hill graduate. But he went for only $70,000, a puzzling disappointment.
Overall, September was a success, as Shoemaker defines it.
"I just think if I can get any amount of money for the yearlings and they go on to their new owners for successful racing ... they'll do well," she said.
Her plan is simple: have more ups than downs.
"I used to get very involved in how much I had in a given horse. But honestly it's better to sell a horse at a loss and let it go into someone else's hands," she said. "We're building for the future. ... We hope the person has a successful horse and comes back and buys more."
Shoemaker usually owns her mares for many years, so if a yearling — even one that sells for a relatively modest price — later does well on the racetrack, any future siblings could be worth more, and the value of the mare will rise right along with her babies.
Mares, because of their production possibilities, can become huge assets.
For instance, the most expensive yearling Shoemaker ever sold was Karoush, a colt by Gone West, for $800,000, but the most expensive mare was Divine Dixie for $2 million.
"You think it changes your life, but it doesn't," Shoemaker said. "Yes, it pays your bills, but it just takes a little of the pressure off."
Sometimes, like with a few horses in this year's consignment, things don't go according to plan.
She has taken to the sale beautiful horses that were attracting plenty of potential buyers, only to have them get a cut in the barn overnight or go suddenly lame, knocking them out of the sale.
You can go from the top of the world to the bottom in moments, she says, shaking her head.
"You just have to see it as important but just part of the process. I can only be that philosophical at my advanced age of 56. I used to get so worked up about all the catastrophes, but what I found was that they all worked out. Farming, right?"
For breeders large and small, it is impossible to overstate the importance of success at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. It is by far the biggest auction, attracting the widest range of buyers from dozens of countries across all purchasing levels.
"For us, it's basically the center of our whole year, economically and in terms of the business we'll be doing in the future," Shoemaker said. "Because the money not only pays the current bills, it gives us the money to go forward and buy a new mare in November, pay a stud fee on a new stallion, buy a share in a stallion. ... For this farm, it's almost everything."
Because Lantern Hill also sells foals at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, she has some secondary income there.
"But we sell so few foals, those are like frosting on the cake," she said. "The September Yearling Sale is the cake. It's everything we exist for. It funds the future."