Horses

Retired Fasig-Tipton chair explains return — to rival Keeneland

When longtime Fasig-Tipton auctioneer Walt Robertson, left, joined Keeneland, he rejoined with Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales who worked 15 years with Robertson at Fasig.
When longtime Fasig-Tipton auctioneer Walt Robertson, left, joined Keeneland, he rejoined with Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales who worked 15 years with Robertson at Fasig.

When Walt Robertson retired in November from his position of head auctioneer and chairman of Fasig-Tipton after 35 years with the company, it appeared the Thoroughbred marketplace would have to go on without one of its most learned members.

In early January, however, the 62-year-old Robertson shocked many when it was announced he was joining his former rival Keeneland in the newly created role of vice president of sales overseeing all aspects of the auctions.

During the recently concluded Keeneland January horses of all ages sale, Robertson discussed with the Herald-Leader how his first auction with the company was going and why he chose to end his short-lived retirement.

Question: How has the transition from Fasig-Tipton to Keeneland been?

Answer: "There are no great surprises. This is a great organization with great people, and it's not like the whole process is not familiar to me. It's something I've done for the past 35 years. I'm glad that the sales have gone without a hitch and that we've been up."

Q: What was your main goal that you wanted to do in your first sale with Keeneland?

A: "Just basically to learn everything I can about Keeneland and how they operate. It's been a straight learning exercise for me and I've been impressed."

Q: So what have you learned?

A: "It's not a matter of deep secrets or rocket science. I just know how they do things now and getting to know the people and the system. And it's very effective."

Q: What did (Keeneland president) Nick Nicholson say to convince you to come back? When you walked away from Fasig-Tipton, did you think, 'This is it, I'm done?'

A: "I didn't know what to expect when I walked away. I didn't limit myself to anything. But Nick came and offered me this and what an exciting opportunity it is."

Q: What was it about this role that appealed to you?

A: "Everything. It's a first-class operation. It's the No. 1 company in the world for what I do. And to play a role in leadership is really exciting."

Q: The fact that you and (Keeneland director of sales) Geoffrey Russell worked together for many years when he was at Fasig, did that help?

A: "Of course it does. Geoffrey and I worked together for about 15 years, and I liked him then and I like him now. And I certainly respect his ability. He really is a bright young man in this industry. I missed him when he left."

Q: What do you see, not just with Keeneland, but with the Thoroughbred marketplace in general? Where do you think it's headed in the coming years?

A: "It's hard to tell. I do feel pretty comfortable that we're at a level we can maintain and, at some point in time, I think we'll start climbing again. But I think and hope that the worst is behind us. And I feel pretty good about the worst being behind us. This sale to my eyes is better than last year. Last year was kind of a level year, for most parts, after 2009 being pretty tough.

"Will we have some major increases this year? I don't know. One thing that does help us is the cost of the product — i.e. stud fees or the mares that you have to buy to produce — is a whole lot better for the breeder than it was two years ago when they were working off 2006-07 prices.

"The cost of the horse to the breeder is discounted, so they've got a shot now, or at least a better shot than they had."

Q: Have you thought about how long you want to stay in this role?

A: "No, I'm not going to paint myself into a corner. But I don't want to stay too long, and I've seen some people who have done that."

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