by Murray Brown
How many people do you know who were literally born in one place and never left it? This scribe knows only one such person. His name is Dale Welk. Most people would know Welk as the congenial president/operations manager at the recently concluded Standardbred Horse Sales Company auction in Harrisburg.
Welk’s link lo Harrisburg emanates from his lifetime of employment at Hanover Shoe Farms where he still is a most valued employee.
Welk’s father Dave, known as “Pappy,” also spent a lifetime in the employ of the colossus of harness racing’s breeding ranks.
“I remember going to work with my dad almost from the day that I knew what the term going to work meant. We lived right on the farm. When the time to get a job arrived, there was never any question that I was destined to begin as a groom prepping ‘six by the head’ for the yearling sale,” Welk said. “I think that I was a pretty darn good groom. My string of yearlings always looked as good as anyone’s and better than most. I also could show a yearling very well. I did have one disadvantage compared to most when it came to showing yearlings. I was always a pretty big guy. When I showed one, most yearlings would look smaller than they actually were. Despite that, through the years, the folks in charge of the Hanover yearling consignment, Monty Moncrief, Peter Boyce and very rarely even now Dr. Jablonsky would occasionally call upon me to help out on the days when the attendance at the Fairgrounds was so much that they needed an extra hand to help out.”
In addition to being a very good horseman Welk was also excellent when it came to working in areas where mechanical and farming skills were required. Perhaps his greatest skill relates to his exceptional ability to get along with people, whether with doing so from a management perspective or working directly with them. Dale Welk has never been loath to get down in the trenches himself and doing what he might ask anybody else to do.
As vacancies in the hierarchy at both Hanover and Standardbred became available, Welk was always there to step in and help out.
As time went on, Dale became more involved in the physical operations of Hanover than he did in the equine areas.
“Clyde Sterner had been the head of operations at the Farms for what seemed to be forever, I went to work under him.”
At Standardbred, after Paul Keim passed and his successor John Moody left, Sterner was named head of operations there to go along with his similar position at Hanover.
“I guess I pretty much tagged along and followed Clyde,” Welk said.
In 1988, Sterner said that he was retiring. It was only natural that his assistant at both companies would follow in his previous positions. Beginning with the 1989 sale, Welk was installed as Standardbred’s head of operations. He is still here doing that. He responsibilities as Standardbred’s president when its ownership began under Russell Williams. He still also oversees the physical day to operations of Hanover Shoe Farms.
Dale, most people would say that you have more than enough on your plate. How are you able to handle the many responsibilities that you have?
“My response would be that although it isn’t easy, it isn’t all that difficult either. First and foremost is that I’ve been blessed to work with great people with both Standardbred and Hanover. With Standardbred, we have a crew of 60 people which is comprised of a base crew of folks from near Buffalo, New York and a group of students from Delaware Valley College. The Western New York people have been coming to Harrisburg to set up, work the sale itself and take down since the inception of the sale in 1938. The makeup of that crew consists of some folks who trace back to fourth and even fifth generations of the original group initially put together by Paul Keim.
“Historically, these folks, many of whom worked year round in a mental health facility, would take their vacation time during the three weeks of the duration of the sale. They would come here to work during the set up, then work the week of the sale itself and stay the week after for the takedown. We’ve also had the Delaware Valley College kids in recent years during the sale itself. Its great experience for the kids working with the horses and with the people prominent in the industry in which some of them hope to make their life’s work. As much as the experience is helpful to the kids, it is at the very least invaluable to us in having them here to help. We haven’t been immune to the lack of help throughout America in order to make the sale a reality each year. It seems like each year I wonder whether we will have enough help to get things done. We always manage.”
This scribe was the GM of the sales company for 37 years. Looking back, it seems that in each of those years, I would come to Harrisburg to visit the week before the sale. I would be greeted by a colossal mess. I’d say to myself, “There is no way that in a week’s time this place will be fit to conduct the world’s most prominent Standardbred horse sale.” Yet in a week’s time arriving on the Friday before the sale I found it ready for action. How do you do it?
“It’s really not that difficult. Everybody here knows what is needed. They each have their jobs. They know what is needed of them and they do it. In almost all areas they do it well. If something goes wrong, we need to correct it. It always does get properly attended to. If doing that requires that we work extra time, then that is what we do. We all work well, most importantly we work well together. Together is the most important word.”
I think this is a phrase that I initiated when speaking of you. If by some chance it wasn’t me, I apologize to the person who first said it. Speaking of Dale Welk, “If it’s difficult, it just very well might be easy. If it’s impossible, it just may be difficult.”
“I’m not sure if it came from you. It might have. I think to this time it has probably been true. I love challenges. Our team has always been up to them. There might be a time when we will fail. I don’t believe that it has happened yet. But who knows what the future might bring?”
What is the most single difficult thing that the team undergoes?
“The single hardest thing might be changeover — the period of time when we change from the yearling portion of the sale to that of the mixed. It’s not so much that there is so much work involved. Make no mistake of it, there is. But more important than the work is the limited amount of time that we have in which to do it. From the time that the last yearling is sold on Wednesday, we have to do an almost complete makeover of the entire facility. The word complete might not be entirely accurate. The process actually begins after the first yearlings are sold on Monday. Horses are moved out. The facility’s looks have to be maintained. Other horses begin coming in for the mixed sale, although we try to discourage that from happening until Wednesday evening. Some of the yearlings are always tardy in leaving. We require space in which to place the members of both categories. The biggest difficulty might involve sleep! Most importantly, the lack of it among crew members and consignors. No sooner are all the mixed horses in, than consignors need to set up and make themselves ready. It’s almost as though another sale is about to take place, in reality, it probably is.”
Let’s speak of your auctioneer team. It’s almost as though you’ve undergone a near complete metamorphosis.
“It really has. For what I believe is the very first time, we aren’t playing second fiddle to the Kentucky Thoroughbred Sales which almost always take place on the same conflicting dates. Even though some of the auctioneering dates are in conflict, we now have our team contractually set so that we have first rights to them. Speaking of the teams, I believe we have the best young team of auctioneers in the business Joseph Mast, Andy and Drew are second to none. We also have 15 bid spotters and three pedigree readers, all at or near the top of the game. We may have the only female bid spotter in the horse business. I shouldn’t use the word female to describe our Mary. She is a great bid spotter and in no way because she just happens to be of the female persuasion.”
When will you begin working on next year’s sale?
“We already have begun. The sales dates have already been firmed up and contracted. Hotel rooms are already in place.
What happens next?
“In January, our preference letters will go out to our previous consignors. Then the process begins again. It won’t be exactly the same as always. Nothing remains the same. There will undoubtedly be some changes hopefully they will all be for the better.”
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