BY TIMOTHY WICKES
Legendary horseman William E. “Bill” Graves passed away this spring in Lexington, KY, after a short illness at the age of 70. Bill Graves, the smoothest guy you would ever meet, was a native of Lynchburg, VA, and came of age during the golden era of show hunters in America in the state that was at that time the epicenter of the hunter kingdom.
Bill started showing ponies as a young boy. He was discovered by seminal Virginia horse trainer/trader Delmar Twyman who needed some good ridin’ kid to hop on his small pony, Keswick, and keep doing what that pony did best: win. And they did. National Show Hunter Hall of Fame inductee Keswick and little Billie Graves won just about everything everywhere and for young Graves, a career path was chosen. He worked for Twyman weekends and summers all throughout high school and soaked up the lessons of a master of the horse world.
Delmar Twyman was a dot-your-i’s-cross-your-t’s, old school horseman. He believed in a spotless barn, a spotless horse, and a spotless ride, and he believed that fortune came to those who best prepared. None of these lessons were lost on the young Bill Graves, riding and winning first for Twyman and later for another legend in Jimmy Lee. After running his own sales barn in Virginia for a few years, Bill had the opportunity to head west to St. Louis and work/ride for yet another legend, Bobby Burke at August Busch’s Grant’s Farm. It was a very successful career in the making for a young man that Lee describes as “a really gifted, stylish hunter rider” who made horses look good and win. But for Graves, something was missing.
One thing about hunter riders, they’re not built like Shaq or Santa and the folks in the thoroughbred world were quick to find a use for men under 5’10”/160 lbs with handsome faces and hands like butter. They were the best people to stand up potential million dollar babies at their summer yearling sales and Bill Graves, earning a little extra cash, soon became among the best of the best. And he liked it. He liked the young horses and the excitement and dreamed of the race horse sales biz. So he hung up his show tack, packed up his wife, Michelle, and his son, Brian, moved to Lexington, KY, and said, “Goodbye, showing” and “Hello, second act.”
Sharp as a tack with a solid work ethic and a meticulous foundation in horsemanship born out of an early lifetime in the show ring were a great resume to start off that second act. Add in movie star looks, riverboat gambler charm, and a pixie dust sprinkling of being able to find a diamond in the rough- and you’ve got a winner. First, along with wife, Michelle, at Graves Stable, and later as V.P. of Sales at Fasig Tipton Sales Co., Bill knew how to find the athlete in the young horse before the next guy. Then, when the time was right and the check was ready to clear, he knew how to sell that horse to the next guy. Fasig Tipton was a sales company whose best days were seemingly in the rearview mirror. But, with his incredible eye for the best, Bill resurrected their hallmark yearling sales and for the last 26 years of his life, used the skills born out of a show horse base to become the best there was in a whole new business.
Bill Graves leaves behind his son Brian, a spectacularly gifted horseman in his own right, adored grandchildren, Will, Catherine, and Carson, daughter-in-law Lesley, a brother Reed and sister Elizabeth (Ditty) Stone. He also leaves behind the amazing legacy of a man with an incredible show horse background who brought skills honed in the ring to the thoroughbred world and taught a generation of horseman how to find the athlete in a young horse. In the theatre of life, a great second act must have a helluva first act. Bill Graves had both.