On the Wednesday and Thursday before the Preakness, as excitement built for the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, many trainers and owners slipped away from Pimlico Race Course and drove eight miles north on Interstate 83 to look a year into the future.
At the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, 2-year-old colts and fillies dashed around the track, some with confidence but most with exuberance unmatched by experience. The owners and trainers who breed, buy and develop them into racers spoke in hushed tones, making notes in a catalog listing 425 horses.
On the Monday and Tuesday after the biggest weekend in Maryland racing, some of them placed bets. All of horse racing is a gamble, but for those with the most at stake it often begins at auctions such as the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale, where this year 249 horses were sold for $16,675,000.
"It was just a tremendous horse sale," said Boyd T. Browning Jr., president and CEO of Fasig-Tipton. "The consignors brought great horses through, and the buyers were there."
Fasig-Tipton, an auction house founded in 1898 that originally sold carriage horses in addition to those headed for the races, sold about 2,500 horses last year for nearly $200 million, Boyd said. The Lexington, Ky.-based firm, which takes 5 percent of all sales, runs three auctions in Maryland, but the post-Preakness event draws broad interest because it sandwiches Preakness weekend. It also offers a last chance to sell 2-year-olds before they begin training toward their important late-summer juvenile races.
As with athletes overlooked in the early rounds of a pro sports draft or not offered scholarships by big-time colleges, many horses go on to be champions despite a tepid response from bidders at sales. Vyjack, a Kentucky Derby participant this year, sold for just $100,000 at last year's Midlantic.
More horses cause a stir, sell for a high price and never live up to — or pay back — the investment. Hard to Handle sold for $270,000 at the 2012 Midlantic and has run three times since, failing to "break his maiden" — win his first race.
Buyers this year remained optimistic, paying an average of $13,500 more per horse than last year.
"It's a good place to find some talent," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm in Kentucky. "The proof has been there through the years that you can find winners here."
Horses entered in the Midlantic sale arrive a week before the Preakness. In addition to running the track, they are stabled in the barns at Timonium and made available for buyers to inspect. Owners employ scouts known as bloodstock agents or enlist their trainers to evaluate the prospects.
Buyers roam the barn area asking sellers to see their horses. Some just watch the way a horse walks and runs. Others bend down to grasp each ankle. All are careful not to betray which horses most interest them.
Inside the auditorium, the horses stand or prance or neigh loudly as the auction unfolds. A man on a high podium introduces each horse — some have names, others are called by number — and announces their pedigree and the racing success of family members. Another man then bursts into the familiar cadence of an auction. A white-jacketed man scurries out to clean up whenever a horse leaves droppings.
This year's Triple Crown chase brought new attention to an auction culture that some blame for hijacking the developmental years of young horses.
The Preakness derailed Kentucky Derby winner Orb's quest for the Triple Crown, but his path to Maryland's premier race was simple, unlike that of horses who go to the sales. Born to a mare owned by Butler resident Stuart S. Janney III, Orb was patiently prepared to become a racehorse.
Few thoroughbreds have it so good. Thousands are sold multiple times before even stepping on a racetrack, and therefore are trained to perform and look the part at an unusually young age.
"There's certainly a luxury to being able to bring a horse along slowly," said Niall Brennan, who breaks horses for Janney and prepares others to go to the sales. "You take a different approach, but both have worked."
Janney, who only races horses he's bred, said often during the week before the Preakness that he felt Orb blossomed heading into his 3-year-old year because he did not have to be molded as a 2-year-old into a horse that would fetch a high price at auction.
Orb was never pushed to develop the sort of muscle — or sprinting ability — that matters at auctions, which are part beauty pageant and part NFL draft combine.
"He wasn't trained to look like a linebacker so somebody can get excited and throw up a big price," Janney said.
Not all bloodstock agents look for the same thing.