This week Fasig-Tipton will conduct its 100th Saratoga Yearling Sale. This is a remarkable achievement, not only in the thoroughbred industry, but for any business to reach the century mark with their product.
The yearling sales at Saratoga Race Course have long set the standard for the thoroughbred industry. Fasig-Tipton entered as a participant in 1917, with their purchase of property on East Avenue, giving them the advantage over existing auction companies like Powers-Hunter and the Kentucky Sales Company, who conducted their auctions in the race track paddock. Interestingly, all the competing companies would often hire the same auctioneer, the venerable George A. Bain, to deliver the chant.
The big advantage Fasig-Tipton had in building what they termed their “sale mart” was the ability to stage auctions after dark. This allowed patrons who had attended the day’s racing to begin the evening’s social interaction at the sales pavilion, fostering a formal dress cocktail party atmosphere and an event in itself under the warm glow of electric lights.
The auction format was much different from what we are used to today, because during the reign of Edward J. Trantor at Fasig-Tipton, the sales were conducted every weeknight following racing during most of the meet. Also different was that entire consignments would go to the ring in a block, with no integration with fellow consigners. The large consignors would often have their own night in the auction pavilion, with the auction staff all sporting white dinner jacket tuxedos.
The thoroughbred breeding industry needed to endure the good natured ribbing of the eminent turf scribe Damon Runyon when he targeted the normally uncontroversial Fasig-Tipton sales catalogue in his syndicated column that appeared on the pages of the July 19, 1939 Albany Times-Union:
“Our American horse traders are now busy giving off sales talks about the stock they will put on the block at the Saratoga yearling auctions next month. They are employing neatly printed catalogues to present their wares. These catalogues are a great convenience to both the traders and the prospective customers. They save the traders the trouble of going around from door to door peddling their horse flesh and relieve the prospective customers of the embarrassment of refusing some nice fellows. Suppose you went to the door some fine morning and found Sam Riddle there with a nice yearling colt by Man o’ War under his arm. Would you care to turn down a good soul like Sam just because you had no use at the moment for a colt? We think not. Nor do we think you would care to tell Sam that his colt did not strike you as fresh enough. Suppose it was not Sam, but Willis Sharpe Kilmer that you found at the door, with a basket of fillies by Sun Briar or Sun Beau, or Sun-something-else. Would you have the heart to slam the door in the benign countenance of Mr. Kilmer? Again we think not. Anyway, Mr. Kilmer would probably have his foot inside the doorway . . . The catalogues are really much better. A prospective customer can shop around in them and pick and choose as he pleases without being placed in an unhappy predicament.”
The originator of the very first Saratoga yearling sale may have been Charles Reed. He had been a western gambler as a young man and, along with his occasional business partner John Morrissey partnered in the Saratoga Club gaming hall. Reed converted some of his quickly amassing fortune into a thoroughbred racing and breeding operation he called Fairview Stud. He actually bred horses in Saratoga, before shifting these operations to Tennessee. Following the untimely death of Morrissey in 1874, Albert Spencer became the second principal in the Saratoga Club, and these gentlemen later sold the legendary gambling house to Richard Canfield in 1884, which became the Canfield Casino.
Reed built a palatial cottage on Union Avenue, nearly across the street from the Kensington Hotel. He launched his first great sale, which is humorously recounted by the August 14, 1902 New York Times:
“A feature of the first sale of Reed bred yearlings was that the breeder gave a lawn party to prospective bidders before the horses were offered, and champagne made up a large part of the refreshments that were offered to guests. Everybody connected with racing at Saratoga went to the sale, and there was champagne enough to go around and plenty to spare. Not much was spared, however, and one result was that when the Reed horses were put on sale there was congregated about the sales ring the most enthusiastic body of horse fanciers ever gathered at a similar occasion. The yearlings offered were quite a lot larger than average size goats, but if they had not been it would have made no difference in the bids, for the buyers were all friends of the breeder, for the time being, and the sale from the breeder’s standpoint was a brilliant success.”
Financier and breeder Clarence H. Mackay joined Charles Reed in staging a yearling sale at the 1902 Saratoga meet. The Daily Racing Form of August 21, 1902 reported: “Actuated by the unexpected success of the Mackay and Reed sales last week, the officers of the Saratoga Racing Association are seriously considering an innovation which may result in bringing to Saratoga the annual yearling sales of the great breeding establishments of Kentucky,
Tennessee and California.”
William C. Whitney and his brother officers in the management of Saratoga’s racing enterprise had recently purchased the facility, and were looking to return the track to national prominence after several years of mismanagement by Gottfried “Dutch Fred” Walbaum. The yearling sales were viewed by Whitney as a successful experiment which could add greatly to the attractiveness of the Saratoga meetings, and the location was the regular meeting place of western stables with those of the east. The same Racing Form article concluded that “There is nothing to do here of mornings except to drink water, and as water drinking sometimes becomes monotonous, Mr. Whitney believes that all Saratoga would turn out to attend yearling sales. Saratoga has not as many side attractions as New York to divert the attention of buyers.”
Another place where Saratoga’s healing waters were not the most sought-after libation was the Spuyten Duyvil Restaurant on George Street, which adjoined the original Fasig-Tipton sale pavilion. The Spuyten Duyvil operated from the late 1940s into the 1970s. It was the enterprise of proprietor Virginia Wheeler, and her daughter Leighla Whipper, and was long promoted as “The Friendliest Place in Town.”
These women of color were famous for their southern fried chicken and hot biscuits, a musical candlelight atmosphere and an outdoor garden. Ida Hill was the house pianist and frequently played signature tunes for famous jockeys and horse trainers upon entry. The small jukebox was also popular, where show-biz and racing personalities would shake it up. Jack Mann of Sports Illustrated once said that more business, for more millions took place at the Spuyten Duyvil than at any other restaurant in the world.
No single person has had more impact on Saratoga yearling sales than the man for whom the Fasig-Tipton sale pavilion at the Spa would be eventually named, Humphrey S. Finney. He was a native of Manchester, England emigrating to the United States in 1921 where he furthered his development as a horseman and a writer. He joined Fasig-Tipton in 1937 and become president and later the company chairman in 1968, providing leadership up to his death in 1984. His strong management and commitment to consignors and customers has created the enduring legacy of the premier yearling sale we witness each August at the Spa.
Photo: An undated postcard showing a Fasig-Tipton “Sale Mart” in Saratoga.