Meg Levy: First Among Equals

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Meg Levy & Belvoir Bay (GB) Fasig-Tipton

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She has all the modesty we expect in those who spend their lives with an animal as vigilant against human pride and presumption as the Thoroughbred. Perfectly happy, for instance, to tell you about the seven-figure yearling who ended up as a police horse. But if you really press Meg Levy to identify where she strives for an edge, she’ll shrug her shoulders and suggest a single word: “intuition.”

One word, not two. Not “feminine intuition.” If Bluewater Sales sell the top lot, then Levy is simply first among equals. Good at her job. And she should be viewed as neither more nor less proficient on account of her gender.

Nonetheless it was both valid and gratifying last weekend to see her celebrated, along with Kitty Taylor and Carrie Brogden, in Fasig-Tipton’s International Women’s Day video tribute to female pioneers in sales consignment. Levy, after all, started out in partnership with Taylor; while Brogden, in the video, says that she still views her as a mentor. And the fact is that Levy, some 30 years ago, was the first woman even to show horses for the Eaton Sales agency.

“That was a big deal at the time, for me to do that,” she recalls. “They had all these guys from Virginia, with the red hankie in the hip pocket, and showing horses was a real art at the time. I still think of it as an art. You know, I was humiliated many times. But I got over it.”

Horses, happily, are too smart for anything as crass as misogyny. And if they saw no need to dwell on Levy’s gender, then nor did she.

“I never thought about it, really,” she reflects. “If anything, coming into Kentucky as a stranger, so to speak–being from Florida–may have been more of a hindrance than being female. But I have to say, I’ve heard a lot of other women say differently. I’m sure there were lots of feathers ruffled.

“Maybe they did want to pat you on the head at first. But if you could show that you were prepared to work as hard as anyone else, and produce a horse as well as anyone, or better if you could, then you soon got respect. I have always felt comfortable in this business.”

Certainly it didn’t take long for Levy to correct such antediluvian attitudes as may still have endured. Her very first Saratoga consignment, in 2000, included an A.P. Indy colt who topped the whole sale at $1.3 million, acquired for Sheikh Mohammed by John Ferguson.

Moreover it would turn out that Bluewater had already completed a still more momentous transaction that summer, at Fasig-Tipton July: the sale of a yearling filly by Dehere to Kenny McPeek for $175,000. Four years later, as multiple Grade I winner Take Charge Lady, she would change hands again (with a Seeking The Gold cover) for $4.2 million. The filly she was carrying that day has since become the dam of Omaha Beach (War Front), while of course, Take Charge Lady meanwhile produced Take Charge Indy (A.P. Indy) and Will Take Charge (Unbridled’s Song).

Levy’s husband Mike, equally well known in the business as founder and president of Muirfield Insurance, implored his father to buy the filly. But though three different vets were tried, none would accept her scope.

“Kenny’s vet was the only one who would,” Levy says. “Thank God horses can’t read: she couldn’t read her vet report, or her page. She had two blank dams at the time. I guess it’s a thread for everyone that’s been in this business a long time, to follow through those horses and see how pedigrees get made. To have spent that time with them, when they’re young, is really an honor.”

Nowadays, of course, the sales vet uses a tighter sieve than ever. Levy grins as she threatens to mount a soapbox on this topic.

“How many hours do you have?” she asks. “Everyone knows of successes that didn’t ‘pass’ the vet for some reason. When Kitty and I first started selling horses together, probably only half had X-rays. And the rest of them–believe it or not, children!–we sold without, and sold just fine.

“The digital X-ray had a huge effect, in my mind, on what vets started to see. And I’m trying to think of a nice way to say this, but I don’t think the ‘horsemanship’ side kept up with the technology. So we’ve all talked about sesamoiditis as something we’ve seen more and more of. Well, that’s not necessarily because the horses are any different. But the pictures are. And also the way those pictures are understood: some of the sales vets, all they do is look at X-rays while others practice on the horses with the X-rays.”

There was a time, Levy remembers, when trust between consignor and customer was such that a horse’s history would be exchanged simply by informal consultation. “Had this horse long? Any issues?”

Her in-laws’ dual sprint champion Housebuster (Mt. Livermore) was X-rayed for the first time only when sent to stud, having pulled a suspensory. He duly revealed all manner of “chips and knees and ankles and hocks” that had failed to intrude on his prolific and sustained success.

It was the late Robert P. Levy who also raced the Grade I-winning dam of the A.P. Indy colt who first put Bluewater on the map at Saratoga. Part of the logic, in setting up the agency, had been that the family farm in Maryland was winding down–most of the mares were by now in Kentucky–even as the market was going up. And to this day Levy sees a helpful synergy between her own native strengths, and those of her husband.

“Mike’s family had been in racing for three generations,” Levy explains. “His father owned a racetrack [at Atlantic City] so, through osmosis, he learned a lot about the game at large when he was young: whether it be the gambling side, the workings of the track, leadership in the business, how to run a racing stable, pedigrees. When I came into it, having loved horses since I was a kid, having ridden show horses in South Florida, I couldn’t believe there was a place called Kentucky where I could actually get paid to work with them.”

She started breaking yearlings under Chip Muth at Springmint Farm; next came a stint on the track, with John T. Ward; and then, most precious of all, a spell with the late Bill Graves and his wife Michele.

“Bill had one of the first 2-year-old pinhooking operations, back when they went 12 in pairs,” says Levy. “And Michele was running 505 Farm, along with doing their consignment. So I went to work for Michele on the farm, and for Bill at the sales. He was an amazing horseman. He came from the show-horse world and that experience, in my opinion, gave him the finesse to understand those qualities that set an individual apart, that make emotion click in a buyer. Bill had a way of greeting a person, understanding what they wanted, making the process fun. He was a great matchmaker of horses to people, he’d always know exactly which horse to bring out.”

His influence was no less valued by Levy’s husband, who candidly declares that neither would be where they are today but for Graves. As it was, Levy was pregnant with the first of their three children when–having completed her education under Lee Eaton and John Williams–deciding to hang out her own shingle. A precarious time to start a business, you would think, but intuition decided otherwise.

For a couple of years, seeking the requisite volume to gain a foothold in the market, Levy teamed up with Kitty Taylor who had established a good reputation of her own at Vinery.

“And then I decided to convince Mike that he needed to have a farm!” Levy recalls. “So Kitty went her way [to set up Warrendale], and obviously has been very successful; and we added the farm to our repertoire. At the time, recruiting quality broodmare prospects looked a very important thing to start doing; and they’d need somewhere to go. And we were lucky enough to get some good ones there, and some good clientele.”

These included Asi Siempre (El Prado {Ire}), sold in 2007 for $3 million–again to Ferguson–on behalf of Martin Schwartz. Many of Bluewater’s 17 seven-figure mares since have been sold for similarly prized clients, such as Three Diamonds Farm, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Gary Barber. Two that matched Asi Siempre at $3 million were Curalina (Curlin), for Eclipse; and Catch A Glimpse (City Zip), who was owned by Barber in partnership with Jeff and Annabel Begg of Windways Farm, and Michael Ambler.

But the farm also opened up new horizons for yearling prep, which Levy finds perhaps most rewarding of all the diverse elements of the Bluewater portfolio. “I do love getting those babies ready to show,” she says. “And I’ve learned a lot about raising yearlings over the 17 or 18 years we’ve had the farm. From a show horse point of view, I wanted them to be perfect. But I learned very quickly. And the market changed a bit too. Those very, very well prepped horses used to sell well. But demand for that short, pinhooking investment became so strong, and the judges so good, that they wanted to see a less prepped, more free-walking horse. I learned that these horses do better outside, and over-prepping is not good for the animal. They have to be raised to run.”

But Levy stresses the fulfillment she finds in all and any equine engagement. At the very opposite end of the spectrum, for instance, she has hardly ever derived more satisfaction than from Belvoir Bay (GB) (Equiano {Fr}) over the last two Novembers at Fasig-Tipton: the phoenix-from-the-flames who emerged from the San Luis Rey disaster, ultimately to win the GI Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (in Barber’s silks) in :54.83. She made $1.5 million just three days later.

“When those really special mares get off the van, whether they’re coming to the farm to prep or coming straight from the Breeders’ Cup, it really gets to me,” Levy says. “With her small stature, Belvoir Bay is ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ I was crying, as we watched on the TV: we didn’t expect anything but she just was like, ‘See you, boys!’ And then to see her come to the sale and just do her thing, after that long road she’d had, and she didn’t worry about a thing. That’s the emotion, for any horseman. That’s what you wish could get through to the activists who are derogatory about this business. That’s what keeps me in the horse business: just being around that desire, that strength, that heart.”

It is this intimacy that feeds the “intuitions” mentioned at the outset. Their commercial value, however, must speak for itself: Levy doesn’t pretend to be “a people whisperer” in the same way. Sometimes, indeed, she feels as though the functioning of the industry, of the market, has become too detached from the magic that sustains it.

“The marketplace has changed a lot,” Levy says. “The people who were doing it as a sport–the older families, the older programs–started phasing out. And then people came in who were thinking more like investors. So maybe now is the time to race. There’s a lot of differential in the marketplace. The professional always looks for the place where they can make something work. Maybe you look at the third-year stallion that’s not getting mares. One thing we’ve always tried to do is go a little against the tide: whether when people weren’t really going after the broodmare prospects, or now maybe by racing a horse or two with supposed X-ray issues.”

Because Levy will always keep faith in the horse; in those vital elements that make a runner. As she remarked of Graves, the knack she cultivated in the show-horse environment is no less apt for the Thoroughbred.

“What transferred the most, from discipline to discipline, was an eye for motion,” she says. “Efficiency of motion. You can see when all the pieces and parts fit together. And they have that swagger. Because beyond the physical and athletic ability of the horse, you need the heart, the mind. To get past. Because let’s face it, they don’t have to do it. They have to want to.”

To capitalize on that instinct, however, Levy must match the right horse to the right sale; and then to the right customer. Graves always used to say that you should be in the top 10 percent of a bad sale rather than the middle of a good one. Mind you, he also told the Levys that there wasn’t a tree “worth a nickel” on the land they were buying. They promptly planted 144. After all, Robert Levy had told them not to buy a farm at all. They ignored him–just as he had ignored the same counsel from his own father.

“No, we didn’t listen either,” says his daughter-in-law with a smile. “So, it’s been a lot of hard work. But I’m a big believer in old fashioned, detailed horsemanship; in doing everything we can to produce the horse in the right spot, and for the right people too. A lot of being able to do that is just because we’ve been small, we’ve been big, we’ve been there and seen a lot. Sometimes the smaller farms don’t get that experience. But our good clients end up being part of our family.”

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