Politician, Comedian, And Orchestra Leader: Mahan Makes Music In The Auctioneer’s Stand

The Keeneland sales pavilion can be an intimidating place for people at any level of wealth or industry experience. Ryan Mahan, Keeneland’s director of auctioneers, makes it a point to keep everyone involved as comfortable as possible in what can be a high-pressure environment.

Sometimes the strategy works too well.

“Strangely enough – I get this a couple times a year, especially with older ladies – they’ll say, ‘I just love your voice. You put me to sleep every time,’” Mahan said. “The bidspotters tease me, but I kind of like that. There’s a part of me that thinks, ‘You know, if you’re that comfortable, poke your husband and tell him to bid when you go to sleep.’”

Mahan is good at maintaining an almost professorial sense of order in the Keeneland pavilion because of his own command on the subject, combining a lifetime of experience in the Thoroughbred realm with continued engagement at different auctions.

Mahan, a central Kentucky native, was mentored in the Thoroughbred business by his stepfather, Dr. Robert Copelan, a pioneering figure in veterinary surgery. Copelan took a preteen Mahan to sales to drill him on conformation, and in later years, they came across Keeneland’s then-director of auctions, George Swinebroad.

That interaction, and future meetings with the auctioneer, set Mahan down the path himself, selling anything put before him to gain experience, from knickknacks and livestock to property. He attended the University of Kentucky in pursuit of an animal science degree while still manning the gavel and also bidspotting on occasion for Fasig-Tipton. The Keeneland brass was paying attention, though, and brought him on to spot bids in 1977.

“I was a student at UK, my junior year, and Mr. Swinebroad said, ‘Why don’t you work a couple sales for me?’” Mahan said. “At the time, I was making $1.50 an hour doing whatever I was doing, and he paid me $50 for three hours’ work. I said, ‘Man, how long has this been going on?’”

As the sales at Keeneland grew, so too did Mahan’s role in the company. He eventually ascended from the floor to the stand to back up Tom Hammond as an announcer.

“I was imitating people at dinner one night, and I was imitating the announcer at Fasig-Tipton at the time, John Finney,” Mahan said. “Mr. [Ted] Bassett [then Keeneland president] was there and he said, ‘Huh. Well, you’re gonna announce tomorrow.’ It got me off the floor and after a couple years of that, it paid more, and I said, ‘This is alright.’”

After a decade as announcer, Mahan shifted chairs to join Keeneland’s auctioneer ranks, fulfilling a dream he’d had since he was inspecting horses with his stepdad. He later succeeded Tom Caldwell as senior auctioneer in 2001.

“Everybody else wanted to play in the Super Bowl or World Series, I wanted to be the auctioneer at Keeneland,” he said. “That’ll always be the highlight of my career, what happens at Keeneland.”

Though he is perhaps best known for his work with Keeneland, Mahan said he keeps his skills sharp by working other auctions. He’s served decades-long tenures as director of auctioneers for Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., Barretts, and the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society (Ontario Division).

“I think you have to really be involved in the business to be good at it,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to just do three sales a year at Keeneland. I think I have to be out there and find out what’s going on in the 2-year-old market, what’s going on in Florida, California, New York, and I think the only way to do that is to actually be in the business.”

Away from Thoroughbred auctions, Mahan reached across the industry aisle to team with longtime Fasig-Tipton senior auctioneer Walt Robertson in the operation of Swinebroad-Denton, Inc., the real estate auction firm that handled the bankruptcy sale of Calumet Farm in 1992.

The high-stakes affair required interested parties to put $500,000 down before being able to place a bid. This cut the number of bidders down to a select few – with Polish native Henryk de Kwiatkowski landing the $17.175-million winning bid – but that did not stop a crush of onlookers from attending the proceedings.

“There were about 5,000 people there,” Mahan said. “We in the horse business knew Calumet and how successful they were, and all the Kentucky Derby winners, but I wasn’t aware until that day what the community thought of Calumet. They turned out like it was a huge rock concert.

“We sold Styrofoam cups with Calumet logos on them for $4-5 a piece,” he continued. “These were brand new Styrofoam coffee cups, they just wanted a piece of Calumet. It was really gratifying to think how this community in Lexington really adores the horse business.”

Whether it’s a historic property or a modestly-bred weanling, Mahan said he gears his craft toward gaining the trust of buyers and sellers by treating them and their horses as fairly as possible, and keeping the mood light.

“I don’t want it to be snooty,” he said. “I want people to laugh, and that’s a big part of what we do. I always kind of thought you’re half politician, you’re a bit comedian, you’re a bit orchestra leader in that you don’t write the music, but you’re the engine behind it. I want people to sit back and go, ‘This is fair trade.’”

The post Politician, Comedian, And Orchestra Leader: Mahan Makes Music In The Auctioneer’s Stand appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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