JESSAMINE COUNTY — As in every other kind of farming, fall harvest comes to the Thoroughbred business.
But horses are unlike any other agricultural commodity: Their best properties can't be measured by taste or smell or even science, despite veterinary medicine's best efforts.
The only way to know you have a winner is to race it.
Until then, finding the right horse is a judgment call, based largely on age-old techniques: go to the yearling sales, read the pedigrees in the catalog, run your hands down their legs, watch them walk in a circle and hope your credit is good enough with the bank.
Never miss a local story.
Taylor Made, a 1,200-acre family operation in Jessamine County, will sell more horses than any other consignor in the world this year.
At Keeneland's annual bellwether September yearling sale, which begins in two weeks, Taylor Made will market about 345 yearlings — not quite 10 percent of the entire catalog of 3,604.
The band of Taylor brothers, who started what became Taylor Made 35 years ago when they were ages 7 to 19, has been the largest consignor at Keeneland in eight of the past 10 years. And they will try to be again this year, says Mark Taylor, vice president of marketing and public sales.
"What some people may not realize about the Thoroughbred industry is the product we're getting ready to take to the market has been two years in the development process," Taylor said.
"If you turn back the clock to 2010, we were meeting with customers, talking about the matings that we wanted to do. Talking about who their mare was going to go with the best, what stallions were going to be available. Do we need to get our name on a list early to make sure we secure a mating with that stallion?" Taylor said. "Then the mating happens in the spring, and you've got to wait the whole 11 months until that baby's on the ground. And then the real work begins."
Dollars and sense
Of the 23,000 Thoroughbred foals born last year in North America, only about a fourth will go to auction. Of the rest, many are kept by their breeders to race; some will sell as 2-year-olds; and some never make it to the track at all.
The yearlings that walk through the auction ring at Keeneland have thousands — maybe hundreds of thousands, or even millions — of dollars invested in them between the price of the broodmare, the stallion's stud fee and fees for vets, farriers, boarding and more.
After the economy and the Thoroughbred sales market plummeted in 2008, most horses going through the ring did not bring enough to cover the stud fee, let alone the other expenses.
A turnaround last year has given many breeders hope.
According to Dean Dorton Allen and Ford's 2011 Thoroughbred Business Year in Review, the average yearling auction price last year was $45,000 to $50,000, up significantly from about $40,000 in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, the 20 percent gain allowed many sellers to inch toward profitability again. Many have been hanging on in the lean years, hoping that 2012 will finally mark a major turnaround.
August leads to September
In the month leading up to the crucial September sale, Taylor Made is hopping.
"This time of year it really ramps up," Taylor said. Between bloodstock agents scouting the talent and horse-owning clients who want to see how their investments are looking, the farm in Jessamine County stays busy.
The horses themselves are on a packed schedule: in from the pasture in the morning for breakfast, walking to build up muscle, training to show off properly at the sale barn, bathing and grooming to look tip-top, maybe a touch-up from the farrier, then back out once the sun sets to avoid sunburn.
Before the yearlings go to Keeneland, the Taylors — Duncan, Ben, Frank and Mark — and their partner Pat Payne get together to evaluate each and every horse so they can give their clients an estimate of what that horse could bring at auction.
It's a best guess, and circumstances could change overnight — they could be high on a horse right now, and right before the sale something goes wrong, Duncan Taylor said.
Sometimes things go well, and sometimes they go through the moon. Case in point: 2006, when Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum's buyer, John Ferguson, bid $8.2 million for a colt consigned by Taylor Made.
Getting it just right
When a yearling steps into the sale ring, everything must be just right, Mark Taylor said. That's a phenomenal task considering the pitfalls along the way.
"The first major hurdle is conception," Taylor said. "People assume that's a foregone conclusion, but it doesn't always happen."
With so much invested in an expensive mare, a barren year is more than a lost opportunity; it's a year without income.
"The next pivotal point: birth," he said. Foal mortality has decreased but there are still a lot of things that can go wrong between a 1,200-pound mare and a 160-pound foal, Taylor said.
Once the foal is born, the farm will do everything it can to help it succeed, including good veterinary care and proper feed and pasture. One of the most critical components, Taylor said: a good farrier.
Taylor calls Bobby Langley, the man Taylor Made uses, the "Michael Jordan of farriers" for his ability to read a foal's movement and reshape leg growth with subtle changes to a foal's feet.
"If you let that horse develop crooked legs in the first 90 days, you're toast," Taylor said. "Once you get past those first 90 days, stuff can still go wrong, but the next big thing is getting it to sale, seeing how the X-rays and scopes turn out."
With the advance of modern veterinary science, all yearlings' radiographs are on file at Keeneland's repository for vets to read. A top sale prospect will have its airway scoped numerous times so potential buyers can be sure they are getting a fit animal.
"That's a major development in the last 20 years," Taylor said. "It used to be a good-looking, big colt would automatically sell big."
Now, vets can see microscopic problems that could put a six-figure dent in a prospect's auction price.
"Everything's got to be right on that day," Taylor said. "Not two months later. You're making all these decisions, for two years, for that one day."