Laughter and Tears of Bob Courtney


Irish Jasper, the last stakes winner bred by Robert Courtney Sr. | Horsephotos

By Dan Liebman

Journalists are supposed to be impartial …  void of feeling … unfazed by the world around them.

Well, on two occasions I simply couldn’t help myself – no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to hold back the tears.

The first time was at Belmont Park Oct. 27, 1990, when Go For Wand broke down directly in front of my grandstand seat.

A brilliant filly I had a particular fondness for, she died trying her hardest to do what she did best: race.

Just over a year later, I was dispatched by my boss, the late Logan Bailey, to find Bob Courtney and write a story for Daily Racing Form about a horrible accident that had happened early that morning at Courtney’s Crestfield Farm near Lexington, Ky.

I found Courtney sitting alone in a tack room at his barn at the Keeneland November sale.

Bob Courtney, who died Nov. 14 at age 96, was among a group of horsemen that befriended me when I started my equine journalism career. They helped me better understand the intricacies of the breeding business.

We spoke often. He was a teacher, a confidant, a source, and a friend. He was a kind, gentle and sweet man. One of the greatest guys I ever met in the Thoroughbred game.

That morning, as I sat down on a tack box, I could see the emotion in his face; feel the cracks in his voice. He was visibly shaking.

During the wee hours at Crestfield, something spooked a group of weanlings, causing them to burst through a fence and run onto Interstate 75. An ongoing tractor-trailer hit and killed nine of them.

“Maybe some dogs chased them. We don’t know,” Courtney said. “But it is the worst thing I have ever seen.”

As he reached out and grabbed my arm, tears flowed down his cheeks.

I began sobbing as well.

The son of a prominent local banker, Courtney tried his hand in a few other things before buying his first mare in 1941 and embarking on what would become a seven-decade career breeding and selling horses.

When his last major client, Jaime Carrion, decided to retire a few years back, Courtney did as well. But he left me with some true Courtney nuggets:

  • He often bought the unraced daughters of good race mares. Foremost among that group was Hasty Queen, purchased for himself and partner Bob Congleton for $11,000. She went on to produce no less than six stakes winners, among them GI winner Fit to Fight. Courtney sold yearlings out of her for more than $1 million.

“If they have some family, the fact they didn’t race doesn’t matter,” he said. “The genes are still there.”

  • He thought the winner of a maiden race – any maiden race – should receive 100 percent of the purse.

“What better reward for the man who worked so hard to get that horse to the races,” he told me. “When you break your maiden you lose your best friend. You deserve At least all of that purse.”

  • Sitting with Courtney outside his barn at Keeneland during a yearling sale, a trainer asked what price he was expecting.

“Find out what he’s worth when we lead him up there,” Courtney said to him. “Best place to appraise your horse is in the sale ring.”

  • I once asked Courtney about being in different barns during a sale.

“If you have a good one, you can tie him to a tree in the paddock and they will find him.”

  • When MRLS first broke, a meeting was held at the Keeneland sale pavilion. It was packed. Speaker after speaker addressed the crowd.

“It’s the damn caterpillars,” Courtney said to me as the meeting broke up. “Park my truck at the farm office and get out and can’t help but step on them. Never seen so damn many.”

He was proven right. It was the damn caterpillars.

  • As many horses as he sold at Keeneland, Courtney also sold at rival Fasig-Tipton. After all, it was he and a couple of handfuls of others who ponied up $100,000 each to start Fasig-Tipton’s Kentucky operation more than 40 years ago.

“Competition is good for everyone,” he said.

  • Just a couple of years ago, Lenny Shulman and I joined Courtney and his son, Robert (he and his late wife, Evelyn, have another son, Tom), for lunch. American Pharaoh had won the Derby and Preakness, and we discussed his chances of winning the Triple Crown. Still sharp then at 94, Courtney brought up the names of other great horses he had seen over the years.

When we said goodbye, as he often did in his latter years, Courtney hit us with the same line regarding his advancing age and the fact many of his friends has passed away. His residence then was on East Main Street.

“The problem is I have more friends today on West Main Street than East Main Street,” he would say.

West Main Street is the location of the Lexington Cemetery, where they will inter Courtney Saturday.

His sense of humor never left him. He left me in laughter many times. And in tears once.

Visitation will be held Nov. 17 at Milward Funeral Home on Broadway, Lexington, from 4-7 p.m. A service will be held at the funeral home Saturday, Nov. 18, at 11 a.m. followed by burial at Lexington Cemetery.


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