By DENNIS NISHI
Ryan Mahan grew up at the racetrack, helping his stepfather, a veterinarian, perform surgery on racehorses. He wanted to follow his stepfather’s career path, but Mr. Mahan was instead lured into the auction business. He started by selling everything from used furniture to livestock. He now conducts horse auctions for companies like Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing & Sales and the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., two major U.S. auction houses of thoroughbred horses in the U.S., and he has sold a number of Kentucky Derby winners including Big Brown in 2008 and one of this year’s favorites, Lookin at Lucky.
Name: Ryan Mahan
Hometown: Versailles, Ky.
Current position: Auctioneer
First job: Bid spotter
Favorite job: This one
Education: University of Kentucky, B.A. 1975
Years in the industry: 35
How I got to here in 10 words or less: I pursued what I was passionate about.
Q: When did you start working with horses?
A: My father was a racetrack veterinarian and orthopedic surgeon, and I spent a lot of time on the racetrack with him. I was probably around 15 and doing all the clean up jobs and things like that. I was the grunt. In the winter he’d work at Hialeah [Fla.] and Gulfstream [Hallandale, Fla.] In the summers he worked at Arlington in Chicago and Churchill Downs in the fall. He’d come home on weekends to do surgery in Lexington and I’d help. He was one of the founders of the American Association of Equine Practitioners some 50 years ago, and because he was a leader in the field, I was around the best horses in the country.
Q: So why not become a vet?
A: That was my intention. But we had a family friend who the chief auctioneer at Keeneland back then. I went to a lot of horse auctions and thought it was pretty exciting. I liked the theater and drama of it.
How You Can Get There, Too
Best advice: This business is all based on relationships and trust, says Mr. Mahan. It’s also hard work, knowing your product and being in the right place, he adds.
Skills you need: “You have to be comfortable in public and in front of a microphone,” says Mr. Mahan. “You should also have extensive knowledge of the niche you intend to work in.”
Where you should start: “Earn experience in any way you can. I’d sell anything, including pots and pans, and remember driving five hours for a $25 fee,” says Mr. Mahan. Business and finance skills are very useful as an independent contractor.
Professional organizations to contact:
National Auctioneers Association–a trade organization that represents the interests of auctioneers worldwide and provides vocational resources.
Salary range: Most auctioneers work on commission which can range from 10-to- 40% of the selling price plus a buyers premium. Some are paid a flat rate.
Q: How does one become an auctioneer?
A: There are 3-week schools around the country. Mostly, they help you get over your fear of standing up in front of people, talking fast and looking silly. Then you take a test to get your license. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, and going to auction school in Indiana, I started by selling cows and calves in stockyards to get the experience.
Q: Do auctioneers have to know about what they’re selling? Or can they sell from a script?
A: You have to be a real student. A good auctioneer will know his product, know his potential buyer and where the price may go. You also have to put yourself in a position to overhear things. By the time of the auction, I’m pretty much up on what’s going to happen.
Q: How did you get your start at Keeneland?
A: I started at Keeneland as a bid spotter, which is the guy who stands in the audience and transfers [relays] the bid to the auctioneer. I became a pedigree reader after that, which is kind of an announcer who introduces the horses. Five years later I became an auctioneer; and I became chief auctioneer in 2001. I’ve always been an independent contractor. Most [auctioneers do]. Companies hire me to conduct the auctions, and I’ll hire my staff. I’ve sold horses in Dubai and Hong Kong. I’ve also been director of sales at Ocala [Breeders' Sales Co.] since 1986. I was the only auctioneer at Barretts [Equine Ltd], and I’m going into my 21st year doing that.
Q: Is it common for auctioneers to work in different categories?
A: A lot of the guys that work for me and with me are car auctioneers. The ones from California do four or five of those a week. It’s easy if you know your product and your audience. I’m unusual in that I only work with thoroughbred horses.
Q: How much horseflesh do you think you’ve sold throughout your career?
A: Somewhere north of $4 billion worth, I’d say, and that’s a conservative estimate.
Q: What makes you a good auctioneer?
A: My strength is my passion for the work. I have trouble sleeping before auctions because it’s so much fun. You also have to be a bit flamboyant but know when to tone it down since we have such an international audience these days. You have to understand the different cultures because while you want them to have fun and be entertained, there also should be an elegance about it.
Q: Do you see auctions going completely electronic? Like eBay?
A: You can bid on a number of auctions over the Internet, but not at Keeneland. A lot of our business is touch and feel and smell. People want to come to Kentucky and see the mares and foals at these beautiful farms. There’s still at lot of romance to this game.
Write to Dennis Nishi at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared April 27, 2010, on page D6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Fast Talker When It Comes to Racehorses.