Plunked down in the middle of the strip malls of suburban Baltimore is a place. This place is the Maryland State Fairgrounds. Home to conferences, cat shows, and yes, the state fair, I know it better as a racetrack and home of Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Thoroughbred sales.
My side of the fairgrounds is an empty racetrack and grandstand, flanked by rows and rows of cinderblock barns. A path through these barns leads to the pavilion, a large open building, where offices reside over theater seating, all pointed toward a tiny ring in the center of the floor. Backstage, is a walking ring, part mulch, part rubber flooring. Horses circle the area, some resigned to whatever it is the humans are up to now, others pulling against showmen’s shanks, convinced they are headed to a starting gate some have not seen in years. And some are terrified, eyes bulging, sweating, wheeling or kicking at the invisible monster that must be here somewhere.
This all leads to the moment that brings them here. They are led into the tiny ring, by a new person, in front of all those eyes. The announcer lists the horse’s breeding, accomplishments and anything else that might be important for a buyer to know. Then the auctioneer starts the bidding. Spotters from different places yell when they get a bid, “HEP!” The auctioneer’s gibberish rises over all, as the announcer cuts in for one last enticing tidbit. The gibberish is back now, giving the bidders one more shot, before, “BANG” the hammers falls. The horse is sold, going to some lucky devil, quickly approached with the paper work, while his or her newest purchase is led back to its quiet stall. Not quite sure what just happened, but usually pretty glad it’s over.
Little does the horse know, there are hundreds of people working at these auctions. Two, for the last 40 years, have been my parents, Rick and Dixie Abbott of Charlton Bloodstock Agency. And for most of those years, indeed most of the years of my life, I have been there with them. I can’t tell you how old I was when they started bringing me. I could ask them, but I’m not sure they’d remember. I’m sure it was born from necessity, or guilt at asking our grandparents to take us on, as it usually came on the heels of a long stay while Mom and Dad were doing the same work in Kentucky.
Sure, we were taken to fancier sales in Saratoga and Lexington. People put on cocktail dresses to watch the horses sell up north, and the sheer volume of animals down south is a marvel. I learned a lot in those places. In Saratoga, I learned that a horse can be yet another status symbol. A beautiful object to pose with in your fanciest hat (you can even choose one in your favorite color). In Lexington, I learned about the big business of racing. And that grown men still wear cowboy hats with zero irony, and quite naturally, as a matter of fact.
But no place educated me like old concrete Timonium. I spent every birthday at the December sale. We found a favorite restaurant, and the sales company gang would join us for potato pancakes. And guess what? Nothing is sweeter than someone remembering to bring you a birthday cake in the middle of a horse sale.
Here I learned pride in work, when my parents entrusted my little friend Jenn and I to be in charge of showing broodmares to prospective buyers. Knowing we would be safe with them, we were let loose (probably being watched like hawks). Most broodmares are big docile ladies, and they aren’t always the most valuable at the sale. But we treated each one as though she could jump the moon. Hooves polished, manes slicked. We practiced our showing skills, standing them up properly. We learned you can communicate with a horse, using only movements of your wrist. We bonded with each one and sat in the front row as she sold. And then we had to say goodbye.
We learned that not all horses are loved. That’s a hard one. There are too many horses in the world, and not every one can be a pet. You can’t control what happens when they are sent out in all directions. But, you can treat each one with love, and calm respect while they are in your care. There are some you may not like very much; their personalities are as varied as humans. But you can recognize they are animals who don’t know what the world around them is doing, and try to make their time with you pleasant.
I learned how much your feet can hurt after a day’s work. And how great a motel bed can feel after days of pounding the concrete.
I learned how little respect people can have for others performing a service. I have often brought a horse out of the stall for someone I know, only to never have them look me in the face and realize it. The uniform makes you invisible, and less than.
I’ve watched countless buyers ask their showman and horse to “walk up and back”, then get distracted by their catalog, phone, or a friend. They laugh, and say, “Do that for me one more time, I missed it.” It may be third day of that horse and worker walking up and back, their hooves and feet both needing a rest.
I learned none of that matters, and to smile and say, “Thank you”. We are selling to customers after all.
My parents have taught me that you can be successful in sales, and still be honest. Disclosing problems may hurt you today, but in the long game it will help people want to buy what you’re selling.
My mother and her assistants have taught me the importance of patience. One February night on our way to dinner, after freezing all day, we stopped to check on a filly that was “off.” These women ditched fun plans the way mares flick flies on lazy summer days. We sat in a stall and watched. And watched. Every fiber of my being wanted to run out of that barn. They watched, waited for the vet, took her for a walk – all out for duty and the inability to leave an animal that may be in distress.
The crews have changed, becoming much more diverse in color and language. They have taught me that there are hardworking people the world over, and that migrant workers are active in the horse business. No one works harder than some of the men and women who work the sales. They are in the barn at 5:30 a.m.; mucking stalls and having yearling colts try to kill them. They are walking endless miles, up and back, and around the walking ring. They are picking hooves that could easily slam them into a wall. Then, they are off to New York, Kentucky, Florida and beyond to start all over again. They often room with strangers, and they don’t even complain when I show up with McDonald’s for breakfast for the third morning in a row.
Some may not speak English, but they speak Horse.
I learned early that being the boss’ daughter can drive a space of distrust between you and the crew. I learned that the best way to combat that is to push your sleeves up, work hard and be funny. You’ll be accepted in no time.
I learned that men can say disgusting things to women, and think they are being cute. And that sometimes those women are only girls. I’ve also learned that those men aren’t usually the hard working ones that speak Horse.
Another lesson learned, is that glamour isn’t always important. I’ve seen my parents take a no-bid from the Saratoga Select Sale, and top the sale with it in Timonium. Just because you can make it to the show, doesn’t mean you will thrive there. I plan to use that lesson with my children, and never shove them into a position just because it is socially impressive.
In a week, we will sell our last yearlings at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Yearling Sale. There are people I only see at these events. I am not sure how that ends. It’s also the only time I handle horses now, and I think I’ve gotten pretty damn good at it after all these years. What happens to that? My parents are closing up shop to have a new, well-deserved adventure; Away from the cold, the injuries and the heartaches. We will say goodbye to the farm later, which is hard to think about.
So for now, I just want to pay tribute to the concrete, dirt, and hope that lives in Timonium. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but it will always be a part of me.
Daughter of consignors Rick and Dixie Abbott, who sell their last horses to the sale at Timonium Oct. 4, Carly Abbott is a professional photographer living and working outside of Philadelphia. She specializes in commercial and lifestyle photography. Currently, she and her husband are trying to take their girls to the family farm as often as possible.