Not much has changed since Frank Carper bought the place 48 years ago.
Just head out from Cranbury’s Route 130 traffic circle; take the two lane Brickyard Road, past the old silo with the pumpkin patch, past the tree farm, ’til the road ends in a bean field. That’s where you go to see a man about a horse.
The life size, black and white fiberglass pinto draws your eyes to a small sign "Camelot Horse Auction – Wednesday – 6 p.m. 448-5225." Locals like myself tend to give it no more than an intrigued glance. I have bicycled by it scores of
times noting the aged stables with tufts of tawny fodder poking from the transom. Small paddocks and a dusty ring engulf the two houses, one belonging to Frank and Monica Carper, the other to their sons David and Gregory. On any given day, the one or two horse trailers littering the vast pebble parking lot make the place seem even more desolate. But just wait until Wednesday afternoon.
Early on, the diner rolls in. Hickory Gourmet Caterers of Piscataway wheels their truck across the lot and parks. The driver/cook hoists open the side flap and begins frying up sausage, ribs, burgers, and hot dogs. Modern day chuck wagon chow. Trailers begin to trickle in about 4 p.m. while Carper, in asnow white Stetson, sits in front of the main stable gateway, holding court. He gives greetings and orders, liberally punctuated with spits of tobacco juice.
"I ran away from home at age 16 and never looked back," laughs Carper.
Home was State College, Pennsylvania, where he first developed horse fever. Not long after, Carper found his way to Cranbury and bought a small farm. Then in l957, he purchased his current home and stables and began trading horseflesh. Ten years ago, Carper established the auction. Today Camelot draws buyers and dealers from the length of the east coast and deep into the midwest. In addition to his auction, Carper trades directly, buying and reselling about a full lot (30 head) weekly. For all his good ole boy innocence, Mr. Carper is one sharp entrepreneur.
‘This is a reputation business," says square-jawed, cheroot chomping dealer Butch Neville. "Sell one bad horse anywhere in the state, and you will never sell another." Carefully he inspects each mount as it is led from its trailer, registered with a bright yellow sticker slapped to its rump, and then led into one of the stable’s large pens.
Neville has known Carper for decades and has come here to buy. "Frank is known to give you a square deal," he says emphatically. "Buy a horse tonight and if any time by Sunday, you suspect it is lame, just call him and he’ll make it right. I did it myself once. Believe me, not everyone is like that."
Neville runs the Double N ranch up in Blairstown with his daughter, Mary Nykun. He selected the spot as an ideal horse riders’ hub between Sussex and Hunterdon counties. While Double N rents to individual and summer camp riders, Neville’s primary business is as a trader. Tell him what kind of horse you want and he’ll deliver it to you. To fulfill his client’s wishes, he follows the auction circuit and maintains a broad network of rounders. Rounders are agents who keep their eyes open to every horse in their region. "The other day I phoned my guy who covers all the farms in Tennessee and Kentucky," says Neville. "Knew right in his head just where to find what I wanted."
By 5 p.m., the parking lot is crowding up. A huge trailer marked "Oakwood Farms, Long Island" backs up to the stable mouth and owner Manny Termini leads out several animals. Carper greets him with a jest and nod of his Stetson, while an assistant disappears into a little shed, records each horse and slaps on the yellow sticker bearing its sale number. Carper hires about eight people every Wednesday to help show and prepare animals and run the auction.
Manny Termini, who inherited Oakwood from his father Silvio, owns 100 head which he primarily rents out for summer camps. He also buys and sells about 20 head a month. "People always tease me that I buy the old and ugly horses," says
Termini, "but I want ’em all gentle. I don’t want some kid getting clocked by some wild thing." The majority of horses sold tonight will be mares and geldings, destined for the summer camp and trail riders.
Some of the thoroughbreds and sturdy quarter horses that can make quick turns will be bid on by the barrel racers. These are younger animals, exercised in smaller, more confined paddocks to enhance their fast, slalom-like maneuvering abilities. Some will be jumpers, some will be bred for carriage racing. Some of the very youngest may be bought for specialized sports, like dressage.
Track racers and sulky horses will not grace Camelot Stables, except, perhaps, at the end of their careers. These highly prized commodities are sold in corporate board rooms where they will typically be employed as tax write offs, since a race horse’s lavish upbringing often outweighs its earnings.
This is a good time to buy. By mid-autumn riding profits have dwindled and owners are seeking to unload stock to avoid feeding them through the winter. Buyers like Harry Horskovich are counting on this. Raised in Israel, Horskovich spent his boyhood happily riding horses on the farm across from his father’s factory. Now as a jazz drummer and school maintenance man in Brooklyn, he is desperate to continue his equine pursuits.
He keeps peering into a trailer from which emerges a flurry of brunette hair laden with armfuls of horse tack. Michele King has just inherited a ranch in Puerto Rico, meaning she must sell her five horses and all their gear before moving south from Freehold. She has one left, a blue ribbon quarter horse that instantly dazzles Horskovich. He follows rider and mount out to the adjacent ring and King teases her prospective bidder with a few show laps, trotting and galloping. You can almost hear the Brooklyn lad counting his money.
"Everybody here has got their own story," says cowboy Lou Aumock. An aging version of Amarillo Slim, Aumock sports long white sideburns below a broad Stetson and a Navajo belt around his faded jeans. He chats with friend John Cassidy, whose dark shirt, leather vest and tooled boots keep me harkening back to a childhood of "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza." The difference is that these gentlemen are the real thing. Both former dealers, they now purchase only the occasional horse to maintain their small farms in Colts Neck. They stand companionably beside Victoria Paterson, a sophisticated, smiling, well-tailored dealer who buys Belgian horses to sell as fox hunters. While merry old England may have banned the sport, tradition-loving American fox hunt clubs hold more events than ever.
The Eyes Have It.
Moving slowly around the large pens, these three veterans assess each animal. They stop at a quarter horse stomping its foot. "See that small cut in his leg," Cassidy shows me, "Bobbly eggs. Horse’ll lick the wound with that vermin in it, and the eggs will get in his mouth. Terrible."
When examining merchandise, every horse trader agrees with Carper. "The first thing you look at is the eyes. If he has wild eyes, walk away." Paterson says that you want an animal that is steadfast. Cassidy adds, "If you have that, and a sound chest and all four legs hitting the ground solidly when he walks, you are half way home." How the horse rides is the remaining half. Dealer Neville takes each horse he purchases home, rides him for two weeks before sale. He then allows the buyer one week to ride the horse in his own style before the deal is locked. "Even so, what you get home may not be the same horse you loaded into the trailer," quips Aumock.
In the last few minutes before the auction, Cheryl Rotolo frantically exercises as many of the mounts as she can. In pigtails, bandana and a sweatshirt that announces "Cowgirls Rule," she saddles up horse after horse, mounts up and rides them out into the ring for a few minutes of show and exercise. More than a pre-auction marketing tool, this ring ride helps settle the horses for the ordeal of the auction.
Tethered in strange, dark stables, near strange fellows, the animals are expected to munch on the ample overhead fodder as hundreds of people file by and examine them. It doesn’t always work. Overly excited horses rear and whinny, occasionally snap their lines. But Rotolo, who owns a 30-horse farm just down the road in Monroe is a pro and she easily spreads calm before frenzy grows contagious.
By 6 p.m. the auction area, adjacent to the stables is packed. The center "show ring" is a surprisingly small 60-by-10-foot rectangle, thick with wood shavings. Figures drape the surrounding rail and pack the broad wood bleacher stands. Auctioneer Ron Harker slowly makes his way to the high table
overlooking the bleachers. Along the way he passes out cigars to celebrate the birth of his 10 lb. 2 oz. son just last night.
Gazing around this crowd, I cannot help but recall the snatch of lyrics from Brooks and Dunn’s Boot Scootin Boogie, "outlaws, inlaws, crooks and straights – everyone’s here…" In this barn mingle the incredible mix of horse people. A
stylishly coifed lady in cashmere whose denim has never been anything but designer, lays a hand casually on the shoulder of an unshaven elder in flannel and whispers familiarly. A teen in baggy jeans with the very latest hue of spiked hair is discussing barrel racers with a lady clad from boots to Stetson in skin tight denim.
There is a preponderance of Latinos and blacks. One gentleman walks by with a jacket emblazoned with "National Black Cowboy Federation," reminding me that an estimated 20 percent of those riding the 19th century range were African-American. As if on cue, Carper makes his entrance. Working the room like a
politician, he jokes and shakes hands, at last settling in the center of an ocean of horse gear.
Initially, I am a bit disappointed that I must wait through all this paraphernalia before they bring out the actual horses. But as veteran dealer Aumonk has assured me, "This whole thing’s a grand circus, a fabulous night out even if you don’t buy."
Sellers stand and hand their baskets of bridles to Carper who in Stentorian tones announces what each item is, its merits and a starting price. He then hands it up to 13-year-old Tom Spain, poised in the bed of a pick up that has been backed into the show ring. Young Spain hoists each lot overhead, displaying it slowly, as auctioneer Harker rolls out a machine-gun fire tattoo of prices. His is the famed auctioneers’ drone that entrances audiences and inebriates them into bidding. Prices crescendo, and I find myself inventing uses for bits of leather tack just so I might bid on them.
For Harker it is an old game. Now age thirty, he has been auctioneering since l987, having learned the skill from his father with whom he runs his own auction house in Tabernacle. While he is paid only a flat fee, his energy makes viewers feel as if he’s selling on commission. With the end of each bid, he slaps down (appropriately) his leather riding crop and the happy buyer holds up an auction number while the treasures are delivered to his seat.
Doris, a curly haired brunette with beaming smile, has plunged into a frenzy of tack bidding. A sprawl of ropes and leather strapping all arranged according to color lie at her feet. Giggling, she receives her latest prize: a bit with two silver pistol-shaped cheek pieces. I comment that she must have quite a number of horses. "Well, actually, I only own two little ponies," she says sheepishly amid all her purchases, "but I do obsess a bit." And she is off bidding on another necessity.
There are a lot of Dorises in the crowd and Carper plays no small part in their excitement. He is the consummate high pressure, hyperbolizing salesman. "This is a guaranteed cashmere horse blanket," he assures the crowd. "Come on – sell this thing," he hollers.
Of course, another boost to the spirited bidding is that there truly are a host of bargains to be found. Kay Martines, owner of Pets Passion in Manalapan, is perched in the front row. Easily noticed by her hot pink cell phone with matching jewelry, she is a fixture at these auctions, having brought tonight literally a truck load of horse accessories. I peak over her shoulder at her clipboard as she checks off each sold item. Horse blankets, retailing for $49.95 are going for $10.50 to $16. And $99 quilted post pads take a top bid of $35. But it’s in the saddles that the real bargains are found. An artistically hand-tooled leather western style, retailing on Martines’ list for $1,495, is knocked down for $525.
On the lower end, people just catch the frenzy. Carper sells everything, even the baskets gear comes in. Buckets and rakes go for three times their hardware store price. The spirit takes over. Finally, the animals come out. Rabbits, roosters, pigeons and assorted livestock are tossed out on the auction floor.
From behind me a girl hollers into her cell phone, "Mom, is it all right if I bring home some pigmy goats? O.K. I’ll check with your boyfriend." By 8:30 the crowd moves out into the parking lot to ready the ring for the horses. But the
selling does not stop. Sulkies and farm implements are sold by the light of the full moon. Carper and Harker stroll from piece to piece taking an enraptured crowd with them. A multi-horse trailer goes for an unbelievable $400. I comment to its new owner how cheaply he got it. He offers to resell it to me on the spot.
Soon the crowd is led back into the auction area. The center ring has been wet down for the horses. Carper enters and seats himself inside the show ring with a sulky whip in hand. His wife Monica has now joined the auctioneer up on the high platform to act as sale registrar.
The crowd has changed somewhat. No buyer will be holding up his bid number. These are all familiar faces to her and she records them by name.
Carper leads off the horse sale with a few ponies and some five month old horses. If there is going to be trouble, it will be now. Each horse to be sold is led through a dim stable pathway and held. Then on cue it is ushered out into the auction area with huge overhead fans spattering the overhead light across the crowded, noisy floor. It is a recipe for excitement. For a trained animal ridden by a skilled handler this atmosphere can actually enhance his energy and appearance.
But for the youngsters too small to be mounted, it could lead to terrified reactions. However, Carper’s crew know their trade and everything runs smoothly.
The ponies are shown deliberately to start the bidding at a low $200. Carper’s strategy is to build the value – and prices – up to a climax. Then, as the evening wears on and interest lags, end the evening with the low end stock. This is not easily planned since new trailers keep rolling into the parking lot up until as late as 11:30 p.m.
Once the small animals are sold, riders one at a time bring their horses into the show ring. I am amazed how young Spain, Rotolo, and all the riders can trot and even gallop their mounts down the ring, then with hairpin turns easily gallop them back. If a horse is deemed to have jumping ability, one of the crew sets a piece of PVC pipe across the middle of the ring and with only about two full strides, horse and rider clear the hurdle. If the pace tends to slacken, Carper will encourage things will a flick of his sulky whip. Truly the ring master of this circus.
At length, Rotolo rides out a huge, beautifully muscled Belgian. This seems like exactly the kind of horse Ms. Paterson seeks for her hunt clients. It hasthat nobility that we always attribute to the horse.
She mentions that this past Christmas she bought her husband the mule he has always wanted. Many folks say mules are more intelligent because they have the ability to recognize and hold a grudge lifelong.
"All I know," she says, "is that mule creates more havoc and more noise than all the horses in the barn together."
For most owners, the nobility of the horse goes far beyond its looks or the status it has historically granted its owner. A good horse, like a good dog, proffers unconditional love to its owner and handlers. It will run for that individual until it literally sacrifices the last full measure of devotion. Perhaps in some people’s book that’s stupidity. But this writer will take such dumb devotion over intelligent grudge holding any day.
Finally, Horskovich gets his chance. Ms. King’s quarter horse is ridden out. Carper unfolds the horse’s papers, reads the animal’s breed and history. This is a necessary proof of legitimacy. King is invited to say a few words of sales pitch and the bidding starts off at $400. For both King and Horskovich, the bidding is swift and unrewarding. By the time King pays Camelot Stables the seven percent commission, she will net only $700 – much below what she had hoped. Horskovich, on the other hand, was forced to watch as the bidding slipped past his personal $500 limit.
As the evening wears on toward 11 p.m., the climax is finally reached.
A huge crossbreed goes for $2,700. Then Joe Bander, who calls himself "The English Jumping guy from Harriman," opts to show his own horse and gives a seductive sales spiel. The bids skyrocket, but I cannot discern a single motion among the dealers. From whom are these bids coming? "They don’t want you to know," explains a woman behind me. Neville stands there massaging his cheroot and I think I detect a nod.
Cassidy and Aumonk sit stone faced.
In the end, the lift of a finger closes the deal and at $2,600 Bander’s horse is led out to have a blood test and exchange of papers. The blood test, administered by veterinarian David Forester of Monroe, tests for cogins, a viral infection, and is required within at least 90 days prior to sale.
Somewhere around midnight, a very weary young Mr. Spain comes and stands by Carper, who slips the boy $20. The money is for his work at the gear auction. The endless riding of successive mounts is something he does for pleasure, before his Mom drives him home to Columbus.
One of the last horses to be ridden out has an owner who vouches for the bloodline but can offer no papers to prove it. Everything is still for a moment. Then the horse’s rider announces, "I am selling his bridle, and the horse goes with it." "How much for this fine bridle," echoes Carper. The bridle is led away for $275.
After the last of 130 horses are sold, about 12:30 a.m., Carper rises, stretches, and says, "That’s it, gentlemen. See you all next week." The few remaining buyers, mumble something about doughnuts and coffee, as they shuffle past the stalls into the office. Here Monica Carper awaits for them settle up.
Walking outside into the bright harvest moon, I spy dealer Jim Niccolo holding up a bill before his family. At $5,033.30 for two horses, he is the big buyer of the evening. He and his family (two sons and a daughter) load in the horses into his trailer where they will soon join the other 50 head in his Newtown, Pennsylvania stables.
Carper’s own income from the evening remains a bit more vague. He makes 10 percent on all gear and trailers, etc., but many items were tossed in at the last minute. Horses have kept arriving, throughout the evening, with a final tally of about 130. The average sale price on which he received his seven percent commission may have been $600 to $700. Somehow, figures are unimportant. It has all happened too fast and too excitedly for this late hour. Now, as I stand amid the cigar smoke of new father Ron Harker and a small gathering of dealers, one thing becomes very clear. There is definitely money to be made in horses; but everyone here is doing it for the love of it.
Camelot Stables, 43 Brickhouse Road, Cranbury 08512; 609-448-5225; fax, 609-448-8113. Frank and Monica Carper, owners.