The selling season for 2-year-olds in training opens Tuesday during a time of financial uncertainty following slowdowns in the Thoroughbred marketplace and the domestic economy. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. (OBS) February select juvenile auction is destined for a bad performance. In general, the mood in Central Florida has been upbeat.
"The underlying concerns about the economy and the financial markets are certainly in the backs of our minds as we get ready for the sale, but we have an excellent group of horses and there's been a lot of activity in the barns," said Tom Ventura, general manager and director of sales for OBS. "We're running out of rooms at the hotels, and there has been some renewed interest from buyers who have been very active in the past."
Another positive sign has been the performance of the new synthetic surface on the OBS track. The workout times of auction horses have been fast over Safetrack, and consignors have given it rave reviews, describing it as safe and consistent. In the auction's second and final under tack show Sunday, a Cuveefilly breezed the fastest eighth of a mile in OBS juvenile sale history, covering the distance in :9 4/5.
"We've been in Ocala for a 10 days, and it seems like there is a good vibe overall," said West Point Thoroughbreds' Terry Finley, who is a buyer of 2-year-olds in training and a pinhooker. "I'm an optimistic guy by nature, so I'm just going to zero in on that good vibe."
There were 172 horses originally cataloged for the auction, but as of Sunday, 40 had been scratched. The low number that end up going through the sale ring might be a good thing, lessening the danger that supply will exceed demand.
Potential buyers who have been spotted in the barn area or at an under tack show include prominent trainers Richard Mandella and Todd Pletcher, representatives of Bill Casner and Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farms, and Kentucky bloodstock agent Reynolds Bell.
"All the really good buyers have already been by; there aren't any tire kickers here," said Shari Eisaman of Eisaman Equine. "All the trainers are acting like they have customers who really want to buy something."
Even though the number of horses sold at the OBS February sale dropped from 227 in 2000 to 137 last year, the auction has developed a reputation for producing top racehorses. This year's sale catalog cover is decorated with photographs of graduates and grade I winners Dream Rush, Flashy Bull, and Silver Wagon.
"The horses bring themselves to this sale; because it's so early, there is no margin for error," said Ciaran Dunne of Wavertree Stables. "If they can handle all we throw at them so fast mentally and physically, they usually turn out to be good runners."
This is the second year in a row the sale will be conducted in Ocala after moving from South Florida. In 2006, the gross revenue of $12,831,000 was down only 1% from the previous year while the average of $133,657 represented a small 4.1% decline from the auction's all-time high of $139,430. The median price suffered a 9.1% setback, falling to $100,000.
"As we all know, there are a lot of reasons out there why the market could be negatively impacted this year," said pinhooker Nick de Meric. "But at the same time, the first breeze show was well-attended, and we’ve been showing steadily since then in the barns.
"The feedback that I've gotten is that it's a strong group of horses. We, as consignors, do tend to cherry pick for this sale. We're under no pressure to bring horses here; because it's so early in the year, we've still got plenty of alternatives. The horses that are here are here only because we think they’re nice and that they belong in the sale."
Following are what some other people had to say about the upcoming sale;
Murray Smith, pinhooker: "The good horses are going to bring good money, and the not so good ones are going to be tough to sell. Nothing's changed. There's always going to be competition at the top, and there's always going to be a market for good horses. But somebody could get a bargain here when maybe a horse hasn't matured or maybe hasn’t developed or maybe didn't have his best day (when he worked). I think if somebody shops hard they can find value."
Don Graham, pinhooker: "It seems like we’ve had a lot more action early than we did last year. Last year, consignors were kind of worried and whispering among themselves. But this year it seemed like the whole week we've been busy (between the two under tack shows), and hopefully, that translates into a good sale."
Justin Casse, Casse Sales:"I think the market will be strong. I think a lot of people put too much emphasis on the winter mixed sales, and they say, 'Oh, the market is going to be down.' But what people don't realize is that it's a completely different type of market. I think all the 2-year-old sales will be pretty good, on par with last year, because people are still looking to buy racehorses. They don’t want to buy weanlings and wait or buy mares and wait (for the offspring they are carrying to race). They want to buy a horse that's as close to the races as it can get. We had as many lookers on Monday (after the first under tack show) as we had in four days, Monday though Friday, last year."
Mike Paramore, Southern Cypress Stable: "Usually, when the stock market is as bad as it's been, as iffy as it's been, the horse market is pretty strong. Everybody says they've shown their horses more this year than they have in the past. I think the sale is going to be okay. I really do. I feel like the horses are going to sell all right."
Luke McKathan, McKathan Farms: "We haven't got that many horses, but there are a lot of people here, so I think it's going to be a good sale."
Eddie Woods, pinhooker: "I thought we were in good shape Monday (following the first under tack show). All the right guys, the top end guys, we saw them. But now, there hasn't been much in between then and now (the weekend), just a little trickle. So once again, I would say we’re heading for all top end as usual. I just wonder between all the scratches and everything else if there are enough horses staying around here to entice people to come in."
Kevin McKathan, McKathan Bros.: "Everyone has been here. All the right guys are here looking for horses. We’ve got Todd Pletcher walking around, and we've seen some faces we haven't seen here in the past. People seem to be excited about the sale, and I think they’re excited because there's a good group of horses here. I've walked around and looked at horses, and there are plenty of good ones for buyers to get busy on."
Hoby Kight, pinhooker: "There are a lot of big players here, so if they’re finding horses they like, it's going to be a good sale. I really do believe that."
Mike O'Farrell, OBS chairman of the board and operator of Ocala Stud: "I think the sale should be fine. From what I understand, there are some nice horses here. There is certainly plenty of interest here and there are plenty of buyers. It should go well for both the buyer and seller."
Mike Akers, Dapple Bloodstock: "There are a lot of good horses coming out of the Ocala (juvenile) sales. I've got a feeling the buyers will be here. I think it will be a normal sale. If you've got a nice horse, there will be plenty of money for him. We started our recession early in the 2-year-old business. Last year, all our numbers were off."
Randy Hartley, Hartley/De Renzo Thoroughbreds: "It could be a little confusing to the buyers because there are so many fast works. But if you watch the videos, you still see those horses that jump out at you no matter if they went :10 or :10 2/5, There are good movers and not good movers, and I think the cream will still rise to the top."
The OBS February auction begins Tuesday at noon (EST).