Yearlings Shine at Keeneland
Keeneland Communications Intern Rachel Miller, a graduate of Oregon State University, recently completed the Kentucky Equine Management Internship, a six-month program designed to educate college students about careers in the Thoroughbred industry. While at KEMI, she completed an internship at Craig and Holly Bandoroff’s Denali Stud, a successful consignor at Keeneland sales, and was part of the team that prepared Denali’s yearlings for the 2017 September Yearling Sale at the farm and handled them for auction.
Miller recalls the thorough preparation and care a yearling receives on sale day and the connection grooms make with the horses in their care:
Preparing young Thoroughbreds to look their best begins months before the sale, though they have a specialized regimen on the day they sell.
Before the sun rises, a yearling receives a warm, soapy bath and is walked for 15 minutes before returning to its stall for about an hour. The horse then is led out of its stall into the aisle of the barn for a full-body treatment. One groom holds the horse while a second groom brushes the animal’s mane and tail, picks debris out of hooves and thoroughly brushes its coat to leave it clean and gleaming.
Because every groom in the consignment has a specific duty, all must work together as a well-oiled machine when they have dozens of yearlings to show or sell in a single day. This “equine glam squad” requires important tools, including baby oil, a bucket of a liquid grooming product diluted with hot water, sponge, small towels and fly spray.
A groom gives the horse a rubdown with a warm towel dipped in the bucket, and the steam from the towel leaves the coat perfectly flat and glistening. Another groom rubs baby oil in the palm of his hands and runs his fingers through the yearling’s mane and tail, rubbing the excess oil around the horse’s eyes, muzzle, forelock and down the front of its legs to make them shine.
White legs receive attention, and hooves are picked clean. Baby oil applied with a brush to the hooves leaves them hydrated and shiny, and a few mists of fly spray on the yearling’s legs keep insects away.
The horse’s mouth is rinsed with a few syringes of water so its muzzle will not become green and frothy from leftover hay.
Once sale time approaches and the yearling needs to leave the barn area for the Keeneland Sales Pavilion, the final series of embellishments occur. A team of grooms works to put a final glimmer and glow on the yearling – called “topping off.”
The show person (employed by the consignor to specifically lead horses to the sale ring) leads the yearling from the barn to the Show and Holding Rings behind the Sales Pavilion, accompanied by another groom (called a “follower”), who carries a towel for last-minute touchups and can provide any assistance. As they enter the sales ring, the show person hands the lead shank to the Keeneland ringman waiting on the auction stand. In just a few minutes, the horse is auctioned to the highest bidder.
The show person leads the yearling back to its stall for water, hay and a few happy goodbye pats. The horse officially is the responsibility of the new owner, but the seller’s team will look after the yearling until it leaves the barn by noon the following day.
No matter the pedigree or place in the sale, every yearling receives the care and presentation as if he or she is the next sale topper. Watching a yearling pass through the sales ring is a proud moment for grooms who cared for the youngsters at the farm.
Among the people I worked with at Denali was the first grooms of outstanding horses such as champion and Kentucky Derby (G1) and Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Animal Kingdom, among others. A year after this experience, I understand how being some of the first humans to interact with these horses and getting to know their personalities makes following their racing careers – and seeing how far they’ve come – even more special.
Now, I am watching the yearlings I worked with a year ago start their careers as 2-year-olds. I am so excited and feel so much pride while cheering them on – no matter the outcome of the race.