Legend Lost: All-star horseman Bill Graves dies

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Bill Graves leaned against the iron fence that separates the walkway to the racetrack and the winner’s circle at Pimlico, thumbed through his program and peered up every few moments when something caught his eye.

Graves was in town for the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May 2-year-olds in training sale, set to go down a few days later just up the road in Timonium, but on this day in 2015 he was judging the Best Turned Out Awards for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. The TAA could not have picked a better man for the job, considering Graves’ reputation as one of the world’s best judges of horseflesh.

Graves, who passed away Wednesday in Lexington after a short illness, picked the winners watching the horses walk into the paddock, in the paddock and walking out for the post parade. Many of the best turned out winners – including two then 3-year-old fillies Miss Temple City and Irish Jasper – not surprisingly won the first two stakes on the Black-Eyed Susan Day card. Shortly after writers wrapped up interviews with Derek Ryan after he won the Grade 3 Miss Preakness with Irish Jasper, Graves and the TAA’s Ashton Moynihan called on one of the most unlikely candidates for some assistance with the next race.

“Tom, why don’t you take this one,” Graves said to this writer, flashing his trademark grin.

Caught up in the day, thinking about reporting even though it wasn’t all that urgent and not really knowing what race was on tap, the initial inclination was to decline the offer. Who could handle that pressure? The thought of judging horses in the place of someone of Graves’ stature, with the man himself standing right there, simply seemed preposterous.

Those thoughts quickly evaporated after flipping the page of the program, seeing the next race was the Jim McKay Turf Sprint and hearing Graves say, “You got this.”

The next several minutes were passed with chit-chat, catching up about the other members of the Fasig-Tipton team, life in upstate New York, how the July and Saratoga catalogs were coming together, until the horses arrived.

“Here you go,” Graves said as the 10 Jim McKay runners filed past.

Most of the field looked good and when Fern Augusti showed up leading Ben’s Cat, decked out in his bright orange bridle and bandages, it didn’t take long to realize Graves dished out a layup.

Contemplating the winner – and taking it seriously with a big check to the winning groom if memory serves – I met Graves and Moynihan back by the iron fence.

“Looks like Ben’s Cat to me,” I said, thinking if I was a fingers-crossed person that they’d be crossed on both hands.

“You got it; no doubt, it has to be Ben’s Cat,” Graves said. “Good job.”

Augusti was presented with a check and about five minutes later Ben’s Cat got up in the final strides to edge Bold Thunder for what would be the fourth of five wins in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint (he won again in 2016). Graves went back to judging the other races on the card, hopefully calling on others to help with the layups, and I went back to reporting.

Our paths crossed many times through the years, mainly at Saratoga, where we first met in the early 1990s when I was just out of college and working the summer as a member of Bill Meissner’s grounds crew at Fasig-Tipton and Graves was starting out as Fasig-Tipton’s director of yearling sales.

Fasig-Tipton’s obituary said Graves was recruited in 1992 to review and manage the company’s selected yearling sale process and that “up to the last 10 days of his full life, Bill was working with consignors, pulling together catalogs for the July sale and the Saratoga sale.”

None of that is surprising in the slightest, based on universal assessments of fellow horsemen about Graves’ professionalism, skill and insight, and my own glimpse into his world during an inspection at Alfred Nuckols Jr.’s Hurstland Farm in April 2016. The third installment of the “Saratoga Yearling Diary,” focused almost entirely on a visit by Graves, Boyd Browning Jr. and Dennis Lynch to look at Hurstland’s prospects.

Graves was in his element that day, joking with and kidding Nuckols about the yearlings while offering his honest opinion of the group. He also talked about what it takes to identify a prospect for the August sale four months before they go through the ring in Saratoga.

“We have to imagine exactly what that animal is going to look like when they walk out of that stall up there in August,” Graves said. “We’ve been doing it a long time. The hair coats change, the body conditions change, the angles don’t. They’ve got those or they don’t. You’ve seen that, you’ve been going to sales long enough. That horse that caught our attention, you saw him as quickly as I did.”

Graves was said to be able to identify good horses nearly his entire life.

A native of Virginia, he started to gain national attention on the show-horse circuit and as a rider landed a spot in his home state’s Show Horse Hall of Fame in 2007. Colleagues and friends remember him as one of the best Thoroughbred yearling showmen often working for Lee Eaton at Saratoga and Kentucky and Graves and his late wife Michele operated the successful Graves Stable that was among the leading consignors at the Fasig-Tipton Calder sale of selected 2-year-olds in training in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Graves, who bred graded stakes winners, also enjoyed a long and successful association with Art and Gordon Stollery’s Angus Glen Farm. One of the highlights of that association was the $3 million sale of a colt by Mr. Prospector out of the Cox’s Ridge mare Eaves that topped the 1999 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale.

Graves, admired for his genius horsemanship and amazing sense of humor, was most proud of the accomplishments of his son Brian Graves as a horseman with a long association at Gainesway, and with Brian’s wife Lesley as the parents of Bill’s three grandchildren, Will, Catherine and Carson. Bill Graves is also survived by his brother, Reed Graves, and his sister Elizabeth “Ditty” Stone, both of Lynchburg, Va.

Fasig-Tipton said visitation will be held at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home at 463 E. Main Street in Lexington from 5-7 p.m. Saturday, June 2. A celebration of Bill’s life will also be held in the sales pavilion at Fasig-Tipton on Newtown Pike in Lexington at 2:30 p.m. Monday, June 4.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, 821 Corporate Drive, Lexington KY 40503.