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Keeneland Auctioneer Mahan Takes On “Top Chef”

February 22, 2019

Throughout this season of “Top Chef,” the wildly popular culinary competition on Bravo that is featuring Kentucky, fans have seen host Padma Lakshmi greet viewers from the Keeneland Paddock. Keeneland, also the world’s leading Thoroughbred auction house, was the perfect setting for last night’s episode of the program.

Top Chef Opener

For the season’s final elimination challenge in Kentucky, contestants gathered in Keeneland’s Sales Pavilion, where Director of Auctioneers Ryan Mahan auctioned ingredients for dishes they would create to show gratitude to their own pedigrees, their culinary mentors. Joining Mahan on the stand was host Lakshmi, an internationally acclaimed food expert, actress, model and author.

Top Chef Filming

The experience was great fun for Mahan, who grew up in the Thoroughbred industry as the stepson of a renowned equine veterinarian. He has been involved in Keeneland sales since the 1970s, first as a bid spotter and later as an announcer on the podium. Mahan became an auctioneer in the mid-1980s and since 2001 has been senior auctioneer.

Mahan discusses the “Top Chef” experience, the latest chapter of his career as an auctioneer.

Q: What was it like to sit next to Padma and witness “Top Chef” being filmed?

RM: “It was pretty strange for me. It is opposite of what I do at Thoroughbred sales. I am usually very comfortable and knowledgeable on the subject I’m auctioning off. I knew nothing about Padma, who was delightful, and a little about ‘Top Chef.’ The director was really good. I asked about a script and the director said, ‘You’ll be fine.’

“The setup was different for me. I have done similar work with television and radio but not at an auction. Some of the food items we were auctioning were strange, and I had to ask how to say them.”

Q: Prior to “Top Chef,” what was the most unusual item you had auctioned?

RM: “One of the first things I ever sold when I was really young was a coffin. (The auction) was at an old farm with junk, and we sold chickens, pigs, pots and pans. And a coffin. I didn’t know if it was worth $20 or $2,000. But it turned out that it wasn’t worth much.

“I agreed to do a sale in Iowa before I was told they were Greyhound dogs, not horses. (Keeneland Announcer) Kurt Becker and I went, and it was really fun. For the first time in my career I could say, ‘Folks, this bitch is not bringing enough money’ and get away with it.

“I did a Paso Fino (gaited horse) sale in Ocala (Florida) for (Thoroughbred owner) Benjamin Leon. Halfway through the sale, he asked me to tell the audience, who knew nothing about Keeneland, about Keeneland. He wanted people in the Paso Fino business to understand what elegance is. So I gave a speech about Keeneland for 10 minutes.”

Q: Any amusing incidents from “Top Chef”?

“The director said to me, ‘Do you know where the auctioneer dude is?’ And I told him I was the auctioneer dude. Then he apologized for calling me dude. I am amazed how professional everyone was. They had never been to Keeneland before but they were ‘lights here, camera here, do this, let’s go.’ It took about three hours to film. There were no cuts; we just rolled.”

Q: What other national TV have you been on?

RM: “I was involved in (the 1988 TV movie) ‘Bluegrass’ at Keeneland. I had to join the Screen Actors Guild because I had a speaking part. I have not done television like ‘Top Chef,’ but I have done a lot of television interviews.”

Q: How do you prepare for a sale at Keeneland, where such stars as undefeated 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify and 21 other Kentucky Derby (G1) winners have sold.

RM: “The prep work is not much right before a sale, but it is (occurring) every day. It is a constant, all-year thing as far as (knowing) pedigrees and what is happening at different race tracks around the world.”

Q: What are some of your tricks, such as knowing when to pause in the bidding to give everyone a chance to catch a breath and when to inject a little humor to lighten the intensity?

RM: “That depends on the horse in the ring and who is bidding. I keep an eye on all the activity around the ring and know I can mess around with certain people like (two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer) Bob Baffert. I always want people to relax and feel at home. I just have to play to my audience.

“It goes back to following racing all year. I get to know these (people who are bidding). I am not going to mess with people I don’t know well. It is a comfort level during the auction – sometimes we go slower to give some bidders a little more comfort.”

Q: How gratifying is it to sell a horse well, whether for $1 million or a more modest amount?

RM: “I have been involved in the Thoroughbred industry all my life and so has my family. We have a lot of friends, acquaintances and family in the business. It is gratifying when someone thinks a horse will bring 20 or 30 thousand dollars and it brings $50,000 because I know much work goes into raising and selling a horse. I know what it is like to get up at 5:30 in the morning and break ice in water tubs and maybe fall down in the mud.

“People have a tendency to forget that the horse is in the ring for about a minute. That is a lot of work for 60 seconds. We as Keeneland auctioneers take that very seriously and we never let up trying to get another bid when possible.”

Q: What does it mean to have Keeneland and Keeneland sales featured in such a prominent way as “Top Chef”?

RM: “It’s awesome. I have been with Keeneland for 43 years, and this is my Super Bowl and World Series. And now to have food and not horses be a part of it is terrific. The more we can do (to promote Keeneland, the Thoroughbred industry and Kentucky), the better.”