New Holland, Pennsylvania, 1956
The largest horse auction east of the Mississippi was held every Monday deep in Pennsylvania Amish Country. Anyone with the time to drive out to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and a good eye for a horse could find a decent mount at a reasonable price, especially if he arrived early.
The New Holland auction was founded in 1900 and hadn't changed much since. Farmers and their families drove to the auction in their buggies. Wives gossiped while children played and enjoyed the festive atmosphere. Vendors sold hot pretzels and sugared fasnacht doughnuts. Farmers gathered on benches around the sides of the big covered arena while the auctioneer called out the merits of the horses. Each prospective purchase trotted across the ring just once. The auctioneer had a habit of saying, "Yessiree, this horse is sound."
Horses arrived at the auction from near and far-the racetracks at Pimlico and Delaware Park unloaded thoroughbreds that were too slow to race. Trainers with sharp eyes and generous budgets scouted them out as show prospects. Farmers brought plow horses that could no longer plow; riding stable owners sold decent horses to raise quick cash. Sadly, many of the horses for sale arrived here only after having exchanged hands one too many times: they were good enough, but past their prime-tired hunters, outgrown ponies, shopworn show horses. Among these sturdy, well-trained hacks, Harry hoped to find a quiet lesson horse for his riding pupils at the Knox School.
For all of their size and strength, horses are surprisingly fragile creatures. Bearing tremendous weight on their slender legs, they are subject to all manner of lameness-bone spavins, pricked feet, broken knees, corns. Some have faults of confirmation that put unnecessary strain on their legs. Some have been ill used-jumped too much or ridden too hard.
A smart salesman knows how to camouflage some of these faults; he can hold a lead rope tight to hide the bobbing head of a lame horse. He can bandage to reduce swelling or mix a painkiller into the horse's bran mash. Most common of all, he can hope that in the blur of a fast trot across an auction ring, a potential buyer will be swayed by flashy coloring or a nicely set head, and overlook any flaws.
But Harry knew horses. He had confidence in his judgment. With a budget of only eighty dollars, he knew the thoroughbreds would be out of his reach. Even the slow ones sold in the hundreds, if not the thousands. But with his keen eye, Harry believed he could spot an older horse who was well trained and reasonably priced.
On a typical day outside the auction grounds, teams of horses still hitched to their buggies would be tied up alongside cars with out-of- state license plates. Big racetrack vans flanked two-horse trailers owned by hopeful backyard buyers.
By the end of the auction, two to three hundred horses would have been trotted through the arena, looked over, bid upon, and sold. For some horses, the transaction would be their salvation-a dud on the racetrack snatched up to be groomed as a horse show star. For others, it was a step down-a retired show horse might be sold as a lesson horse. At the end of every auction, there were always a few that found no buyers: the ones whose lameness couldn't be masked, the sour- tempered ones who lashed out with hooves and teeth, the broken-down ones who stumbled their way into the ring.
But no horse left New Holland unsold.
The same man always made the final bid: the kill buyer. He...