Kerry Thomas (left) inspects a horse at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. (Photos by Melissa Bauer-Herzog unless otherwise noted)
For Kerry Thomas and his team, going to Thoroughbred auctions is like stepping into a classroom with thousands of teachers. Even after researching equine behavior for more than 20 years, Thomas learns something new every time a horse is in front of him.
“That’s why I love it, that’s why it’s something I’m so passionate about because it’s like going to a new lecture every day,” Thomas said about being able to examine equine behavior for clients. “It’s constant learning, but the data [that he and his team collect] is going from like a small handful of information to a huge amount of information that we have to draw from, and I think that we’re well armed to proceed because of what we’ve been learning.”
Thomas stands out at Thoroughbred auctions, not just because of his trademark black cowboy hat and pens in his breast pocket, but because of the way he examines the horses in front of him. Thomas and his Thomas Herding Technique partner, Pete Denk, inspect the conformation of the horses in front of them but their major focus is the way each horse behaves and how that will translate to success on the track.
While this is an unconventional way to examine yearlings, it already has had successful results from the first crop of horses recommended at sales. That crop, now 3-year-olds on the racetrack, only has four horses in it, but one of those graduates is Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes winner Runhappy.
“The results just keep rolling in, more positive and more positive. 2013 was the first year we consulted on yearling purchases and we selected four yearlings that year, I think the total cost was around $620,000. That was for Mattress Mack, Jim McIngvale,” Denk said. “One of those [yearlings] was Runhappy, and two weeks ago we got our first Grade 1 winner."
RUNHAPPY WINNING THE KING'S BISHOP
Photo by Eclipse Sportswire
Even though Thomas is new to recommending yearlings at Thoroughbred sales, he isn’t new to studying equine behavior. Raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, he was raised with animals and became interested in animal behavior, with plans to be a wildlife researcher after high school. Following through with that plan, after he graduated high school, he spent part of the year in Montana and Wyoming researching predators, however, the mustangs in that area grabbed his attention
“I got very interested in the relationship between predator and prey, so I shifted my focus of study to the prey animals and the herding animals. Then, I got real fascinated by the horses and it blossomed from that,” Thomas said. “I’m color blind, so when I was studying wild horses, or anybody’s horses in the field for that matter, I couldn’t really discern who they were by their phenotypes, you know the color of their hair, I had to focus on who they were and how they acted, how they communicated, how they moved, their herd ranking. So not just physical conformation, but the emotional conformation part kind of opened up this whole fascinating world. From then on, I was just fascinated.”
A few years later, Thomas was given the chance to work with a non-profit in which horses were used for therapy with children, combining two of Thomas’ passions. He was able to use what he had learned from wild horse behavior to help children, while also continuing his equine behavior education. During his time with the organization, people in the area would ask him to evaluate their horses.
“It was constant learning,” he said. “I learned far more by where I was wrong about a horse than where I was right. You find 30 things you think are right, but one of those things is actually true and then you tuck that away and then you go on and keep studying and find 25 things that you think are right but only one of them is actually right, so you put that away.”
That led to an interest in the herd motion part of equine psychology, an interest that related well to horse racing. He realized that what he had learned through the years could prove especially helpful when evaluating the reasons why a horse won or lost a race.
“When you get to a certain level in athletics, whether it’s human or animal athletics, when all the physicals are pretty much the same and the training is pretty much the same, the defining factor is how they manage stress, the psychology, that’s what sets them apart,” Thomas said. “If it was just a simple thing with pedigrees and physical bodies, every horse who was well-bred and looked good would be a champion, but that’s not the case. So, because that’s not the case, what’s the defining factor? The defining factor is part two of the horse, which is the psychology.”
It was at a Thoroughbred auction where he first met Denk, who recognized that Kerry’s skills would be a useful tool in the industry. The rest is history.
THOMAS (right) AND DENK
Today, the pair can be seen at sales and farms all over the country, evaluating horses for clients or for research. The Keeneland September yearling sale is the biggest auction of the year in North America, and Thomas and Denk allowed America’s Best Racing access to watch them work during Book 1, the section of the sale that features the highest-regarded yearlings.
School in Session at Keeneland September with Thomas
The first few stops that day were to re-inspect a few colts that clients had targeted.
Thomas said he likes to see the horses his clients are looking at multiple times to figure out as much as he can about the horse’s behavior in different situations, such as going to different walking rings outside the barn for the inspection. He compared the inspections to working on a jigsaw puzzle.
“Every time we do an inspection, every time we inspect a horse, we’re pulling out another piece of that puzzle, putting it on the table. Before too long, they start to fit together and you start to put the puzzle together,” Thomas said. “That’s why it’s important at the sale to do as many different looks as possible in many different settings that allow us to pick out our pieces of the puzzle.”
THOMAS INSPECTING A YEARLING
In addition to the behavioral traits, Thomas, Denk and team member Robert Keck evaluated horses’ physical conformation and made notes about what they saw. A large piece of the puzzle is determining how behavioral and physical conformation traits work together.
The research done by the team over a number of years has shown that certain behaviors often hold back a horse from what the client wants to achieve. Each client expresses to the team what he or she is looking for prior to the sale, with the majority of clients seeking classic-type horses — those who could potentially compete on the Triple Crown trail. With this information in hand, it makes it easier for the team to advise a client if a horse will fit that profile conformationally, behaviorally and from a pedigree perspective.
For as many horses as Thomas’ team evaluates at a sale, often including three or four inspections, Thomas said they turn away a higher percentage of horses than they recommend.
While looking at the horses, Thomas pointed out some of the things he sees when watching how the horse reacts to outside stimulants. One of the horses was shown in the same ring that he previously was evaluated in. Thomas noted that during both inspections, the colt lost his focus while walking by the same spot in the walking ring. He marked this down and ran a stress test by squatting in front of the horse as he walked back toward the group to see what the colt’s reaction would be. He said that his position is one that horses don’t often see, so it gave him a good indication of how the horse reacts to new obstacles.
THOMAS SQUATTING TO SEE HOW THE YEARLING HE IS INSPECTING ACTS
Thomas permitted a look at his notes following inspection of the first few horses, but the shorthand he has developed is illegible to anyone but him. He said that just a letter or two could hold the meaning of a full sentence, something that is important when he only has small window of time to look at a horse. He said Denk is the person who can come closest to understanding his shorthand, but Denk admitted he struggles to read most of the code.
After looking at those horses, we stopped by the track kitchen to allow Denk to send reports to clients. One of the horses was scheduled to go through the sales ring later in the day and, while in the kitchen, we did some research on his full-sister — a sibling with both the same sire (father) and dam (mother) — to see what equipment she wore as a racehorse.
The behavior of a horse during inspection also provides Thomas a good idea of what racing equipment that horse might need upon entering training. Examining pictures of this colt’s full-sister lets him see if the equipment he would recommend is consistent with typical family traits.
“Just like horses obviously stamp their progeny physically, they also stamp them mentally,” Thomas explained. “There is a physical genetic sequence that takes place, there is also what I call the behavioral genetic sequence that takes place and by identifying those key things in the stallions and the broodmares, we like to look for these elements that pop up in their progeny. We want to look for these traits, these characteristics — not just physical characteristics you’re looking for but the psychological characteristics you’re looking for — in their progeny that reminds you [of them].”
Potential buyers aren’t the only people interested in Thomas’ information, so next we headed over to Crestwood Farm’s consignment to check out a yearling colt from champion Hansen’s first crop. This fit a dual focus as the team was doing first-crop sire research and the stallion’s owner requested a profile of the colt.
Crestwood consigned all of Dr. Kendall Hansen’s yearlings in Book 1 of the September yearling sale, and Crestwood has a display with all the trophies the racehorse Hansen won as a 2-year-old, including the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male and a blanket he was given for winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
As we take a look at those mementos, the Hansen yearling colt was brought out of his stall and prepared for inspection. The Crestwood crew worked efficiently and before long the inspection was underway. The colt seemed curious about Thomas and Denk, staring at Thomas as he approached and soaking up the attention when Thomas gave him a pat.
While Thomas examined the colt’s behavior, Denk evaluated his physical conformation and took notes. The pair stopped the inspection for a moment to compare notes before going back to the evaluation. Thomas said that this was a colt who would benefit from blinkers early in his racing career as “training wheels” to keep him focused while he learns his job. He also noted that the colt is a candidate for a 2-year-olds in training sale because of his mental traits, an avenue Dr. Hansen is willing to go down with him.
THOMAS GIVING THE HANSEN COLT A PAT
From there, we returned to the consignment where we started the day to re-inspect the colt examined earlier that morning. He handled himself like a professional and received good marks from both Denk and Thomas on second viewing. Since he was selling the following day, the team planned a few more examinations before he entered the sales ring.
When asked if horses’ behaviors frequently change throughout the day when the team returns to do follow-up evaluations, Thomas and Denk explained that while the base behavior usually stays the same, there are little things that can be seen at different times of the day, especially as horses grow tired.
Spending a lunch break with this team was an education itself. Keck joined us again for a small team meeting at which Thomas went over his notes and Denk laid out that afternoon’s to-do list. Keck is a pedigree guru and when looking through the sales catalog, he said that he recommended the mating that produced one of the yearlings and explained why he chose it.
There’s no rest for the team. After lunch was finished, we headed back to give one of the colts we looked at that morning another look. The client liked the colt after reading the report that Denk sent earlier that morning and wanted to gather some additional pieces of the puzzle before he went through the auction ring the following day.
The colt seemed distracted during the walk part of his inspection, something he had shown during the visit earlier in the day. Thomas explained that with his conformation, some of the behavior we saw could be harder on his body because of how his psychology affected the way he moved.
THE COLT STANDING AT ATTENTION FOR HIS INSPECTION
The final task of the day was to complete an inspection of a colt selling later that afternoon that the team had examined multiple times throughout his time on the Keeneland grounds.
From the moment he walked into view, both Thomas and Denk kept an eye on him while also taking notes about his behavior. Thomas usually forms an idea of what a horse will do as it gets closer to the sales ring based upon his inspections back at the barn. A major part of this exercise is to see if his expectations were correct.
While the colt was inquisitive and looking around as he paraded for the buyers in the back ring, he stayed calm throughout the process. Thomas and Denk discussed what they saw before Thomas walked to a less-crowded area of the ring to examine him more closely. Thomas admitted that the colt was handling the sales experience better than anticipated when they inspected him back at the barn, which was a good sign for his clients.
THOMAS WATCHES HOW THE COLT HANDLES THE BACK RING
Thomas’ final hands-on examination of the horse was a “breathing test” where he does a similar move to the squatting test at the barn to see how the horse handled that part of the inspection in the back ring. The test is meant to assess the horse’s stress level as well as how the horse is channeling that stress. After completing it, Thomas told me the horse handled it “great.”
The client who was considering buying the colt found Thomas and Denk in the back sales ring and asked for their opinion of the colt. They were previous owners of his dam and liked everything they had seen of this yearling, but they wanted Thomas’ opinion before proceeding.
They received a go-ahead with Thomas noting that he was impressed with how the colt was handling everything since he had arrived in the back ring. As the colt headed into the sales pavilion’s main walking ring, the last step before selling, we followed and settled into position to watch the yearling’s actions. With only a few minutes to go before the colt entered the ring, Denk checked in with Thomas to see if he needed to change the colt’s grade. When Thomas told him that it would stay the same, Denk finalized what they had given the colt and left to advise the client.
THOMAS AND DENK CONFER ONE MORE TIME BEFORE THE COLT HEADS UP TO SELL
“We don’t finalize our grades until shortly before they enter the ring,” Denk said. “[The back ring is a] chance to see a little bit deeper into the horse, to see it under a different scenario, under different stimulus.”
The colt ultimately sold for $360,000 with Thomas’ client being the underbidder. While it was not the end the group had hoping for since the Thomas Herding Technique team liked the colt, Thomas was still happy because he learned something new from watching how the colt handled the sales experience.
For Thomas, every day at a sale is like stepping into a classroom and at the September sale he and his team continued to assemble the pieces of a very difficult puzzle: the Thoroughbred racehorse.