Geoffrey Russell

published: 17 Aug 2015 in Movers and Shakers

GEOFFREY Russell is the director of sales at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky and has been in this role since 2001. Irish-born Russell brought to the table a deep love of pedigrees and bloodlines when he started working for Keeneland back in 1996. 
  This love of the auction business and of horse racing began at an early age when he remembers going along to the races at age six . . . 

Q: So your family was involved in racing?

A: “Well not exactly. My father was an insurance broker and we used to go to the races when clients of his sponsored races. I would have to go along also as I didn’t have a babysitter, and I just thought it was fascinating. I’d say my first recollections would be from about the age of six, and it was really something that I was enthusiastic about and loved.”

  “I used to get lost there too! I know in this day and age you wouldn’t have a six year-old running around a racetrack by themselves, but back then I felt perfectly safe. I’d meet people and talk to them and they would talk back to me, it was good. I guess we never really worried about it too much, but nowadays you’d get terrified if a young child was running around unattended.

  “My best friend growing up was John Cuddy and his family had horses so they went to the races on a regular basis. I guess I just became a member of their extended family and wherever they went I went too. The Cuddys owned National Hunt horses more than “flat” horses. National Hunt racing is a winter sport and then has a huge build-up to one of the greatest race meets in the world, which is the Cheltenham Festival in March. It was something we all looked forward to every year and I love going back there when I can. I’ve been going every year for the past 10 years and it’s my ‘holiday’ and I truly adore it. It’s nice to be able to go to the races and have no worries and no responsibilities for a while.”

Q: I guess you would have had a favourite NH horse?
A: “Well I wouldn’t be Irish if I didn’t say Arkle, although I have to say I was a little young to remember most of it, but in later years I would have to say a horse who recently died, Kauto Star. He was one of the most spectacular steeplechasers in my 
recent memory.”

Q: You wanted to be involved in racing as a career from an early age?
A: “I had always hoped and dreamed that I could get into some aspect of the thoroughbred industry. I remember the first sale I ever attended, which was the Goff’s Bloodstock sales in Ireland, and watching Sir Philip Payne-Gallwey buy the sister to English Derby winner Shirley Heights with a very demonstrative bid of 250,000 guineas, which was a record at that time. I was thinking wow, this is fun, I’d like to do this!

  “I bid-spotted for Goff’s after college and then I did a season working at Coolmore. I was mucking out stalls, looking after the mares, just trying to get a basis and an understanding of stud management. Coolmore has always been very good at giving opportunities to people to learn. Yes it was hard manual labour at times, but you are exposed to the best of everything. The quality of the horses there was just amazing, these great horses who you have seen race or you might have seen their sons or daughters race. The horses are there right in front of you. Oh my lord! And you would be thinking ‘I’m holding an Oaks winner’!”

Q: How did you wind up working at the world’s largest thoroughbred auction house?
A: “Well I was very fortunate. I came to the States in July 1982 on a summer internship at Fasig-Tipton to learn more facets of the industry. I was going to do my own version of the ‘Darley Flying Start’ and go around the world. That was my goal at that stage, to gain more exposure and have a better understanding of things and then go back to Ireland and . . . well actually I don’t know what I was going to do when I got back there. Back in Ireland in the early 1980s there really wasn’t much opportunity job-wise in ANY industry, so I thought it was good to go out and get exposure and experience, well that was my underlying goal anyway. Then I got as far as Kentucky and never left.

  “I worked at Fasig-Tipton for three years and then I was hired as part of the administrative team at Elmendorf Farm. I worked there for about a year and a half, but I just felt the auctioneering business was really what I enjoyed the most, it’s obviously in my blood. Fasig hired me back in 1987 and I stayed until 1996 when Rogers Beasley, who was the director of sales at Keeneland hired me to be his assistant. In 2001 Rogers became the director of racing and I was promoted to director of sales.”

Q: What does your role there as director of sales actually involve?
A: “Here at Keeneland we have three sales each year. We have a January Horses of All Ages Sale, we have the largest yearling sale in the world in September and also the world’s largest breeding stock sale in November. My responsibility is the management and administration of those sales: from recruiting of the horses for those sales, the placement of them in the sale, and just making sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible.”

Q: Obviously things unfortunately can and do go wrong, what would be the worst thing that has ever happened at one of your sales?
A: “The day of 9/11 was something I had never experienced in my life. I remember I was sitting up in my general offices and Ryan Mahan, who now is the director of auctioneers at Keeneland, called me up and said ‘have you got your TV on? A plane just crashed into the World Trade Centre.’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s sad’, thinking it was just a Cessna or something, that the pilot had maybe had a heart attack. That was really just my only thought.

  “So I went down to my other office and turned on the TV and we watched the second plane go in. We were all just incredulous; but then there comes a point when you remember where you are, it’s the second day of our largest sale, what do we do?

  “So we had major pow-wows with consignors and buyers and we were also fortunate that Will Farish, the owner of Lane’s End Farm, was the Ambassador to the Court of St. James at the time and we were able to call and talk to him. Probably the uncertainty of just how many planes were in the air was the big thing, but the minute those towers went down we knew there was only one thing to do. The sale was postponed for one day, and you must remember we still had 12 more days to get through. I recall a European (not sure of who) saying, ‘You can’t stop, you must go on.’ I asked why and he replied, ‘If you stop, they win’, and that was the overall feeling, address it and go on.”

Q: What was the atmosphere like afterwards, it would have been surreal?
A: “Well you know what it’s like at your sales, Inglis and Magic Millions or wherever. The hub and the noise, the electricity it’s just amazing. Well on that day there was just silence. It was so eerily quiet here. We took that day off and then came back and started at the sale again. It took a little while to warm up, but then suddenly everything just fell into place. However I will always remember the silence of that day it happened. It was just so quiet.”

Q: Now we should discuss something more positive, like the impact of the US sires on the world breeding stage.
A: “Yes definitely, and the one who has had the biggest influence on Keeneland and the rest of the world would be Northern Dancer. This horse commercialised the whole thoroughbred industry, with people coming from all four corners of the world to buy his progeny and take them back home. Then it was his sons, like Danzig who did it as well, and now his sons, especially Danehill, have now continued this wonderful dynasty. It’s just unbelievable.

  “Then in Europe of course, it was Sadler’s Wells followed by Galileo. The influence and success of the American sire lines has spread all over the world, and most of it comes from that one little horse called Northern Dancer.”

Q: I understand you enjoy travelling, and you’ve been to Australia for both business and pleasure?
A: “I love travelling and have done so extensively. I’ve been very fortunate in that I have been able to visit Australia nearly every year for the past 10 years. Every time I have been to Australia it’s always for business, but I always have a great time, everyone makes you feel so welcome. Keeneland sponsors the Gimcrack Stakes on Epsom Day, so it’s always great to meet and catch up with everyone at the races.”

Q: You would have been to lots of race meetings over here then, and seen some of our best horses?
A: “I’ve been very fortunate to have been to a lot of your major tracks in Australia, and I’ve also been able to see horses like Black Caviar and So You Think run down there. I’ve been really blessed to see some wonderful racing in Australia, and I always come back from my trips full of enthusiasm. The knowledge of the people about racing, well I guess I’m envious of that. I mean you can sit in a cab and they start talking horses to you. It’s wonderful.”

Q: In the years you have been at Keeneland, I guess there would be a horse that has stood out to you, one that you will always remember?
A: “One horse who always comes back to mind is Fusaichi Pegasus. The year we sold the horse, I remember the two inspectors, Dr Lavin and Dr Hall, who had gone out with Rogers to look at him, they came back saying, ‘We have just seen your sale topper!’ This was only the second or third day of inspections and I looked at them and I said, ‘Now just relax, it’s only March, calm down.’ Dr Lavin was insistent though, he said he had never seen a horse look so good.

  “When the horse finally came to the sale I went down to Arthur Hancock’s barn to look at him. I just remember this horse coming out of his stall with an absolutely imperious look on his face. He stood there like he owned the whole place! Of course he then went on to top the sale at $US4m and came back here to win the Kentucky Derby and then sold to stud for a record price.”

Q: What advice could you give somebody wanting to get into the industry and to be successful at it?
A: “I think it is important to be exposed to every different aspect of the industry; and there are so many aspects, from the racing side to the breeding side to the sales side, insurance, bloodstock agents.

 If you really love horses and the thoroughbred industry, but for example you don’t want to be a stud manager, then there are lots of other things to do. Just go and try them all out, be exposed to as many as you can.

  “The Darley Flying Start is such a wonderful thing, the young people chosen to participate get exposure to all of these different aspects and decide where their particular strengths are. I think that’s what you have to do, travel as much as you can, meet as many people as you can, and establish yourself. There’s one thing that’s true and that is no matter where you are in the world, if you start talking about horses you soon discover that it is such a common interest and a binding interest.” n