Keeneland's September yearling sale, which opens Monday in Lexington, became the highest-grossing Thoroughbred auction in history last year. That's an achievement that's hard to top, but at least one buyer thinks the auction will build on its record.
"This sale is going to blow the top off of all sales, and I think it's going to carry deep into it," predicted trainer John Ward Jr. Saturday. "The first couple of days are going to be like they always have been in the past, and the next five to seven days are going to be very, very strong. There are a lot of racing people here. It's going to be like shopping in a hail of bullets. You're going to be worried that you're going to be killed before you get there."
All signs look good. The domestic economy is stable, and pinhookers are coming off a record-setting juvenile selling season earlier this year. European buyers have a financial incentive to buy because of the weak dollar. And many yearling sales in this country and overseas have posted all-time highs so far in 2006.
Yet another positive factor is the recent racing success in this country of the big-spending Maktoum brothers from Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) with homebred Bernardini, and Sheikh Hamdan took the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with Jazil. Both men were at Keeneland Sunday with their entourages inspecting yearlings.
"Every domestic buyer is scared to death of what the Maktoums are going to do," said Kentucky-based bloodstock agent Tim McMurry. "They're on a roll. The rumor is that they are excited, so everybody is concerned about what they are going to be able to buy. They have such great momentum, and they're doing so well. It's great for the business to have somebody with that kind of budget to play with. I think there will be a lot of happy consignors and maybe some frustrated buyers. I'm trying to buy book one (horses); but realistically, I'll probably be busy in book two."
The auction begins with two select sessions, and 12 open sessions will follow. There will be a break from selling on Sept. 15. Selling starts each day at 10 a.m.
In general, consignors were optimistic in the days leading up to the auction. They reported that their horses were attracting plenty of lookers. In addition to the Maktoums, shoppers including brewing mogul Ahmed Zayat, Coolmore Stud managing partner John Magnier, and California storage magnate B. Wayne Hughes.
"I think it's going to be a good sale; all the indications are there," said consignor Kitty Taylor, of Warrendale Sales. "The OBS (Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.) sale was good; the Texas sale was up. Fasig-Tipton July was up, and so was Saratoga. Canada, a sale you don't expect, was great. When you see the small, regional markets doing well, you figure that we'll, hopefully, be up in September 10% to 15%, maybe 20% if we're lucky. We've been very, very busy, so let the games begin."
Following are comments from others about Keeneland's prospects for a successful September yearling sale:
Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland director of sales: "We are very pleased with the catalogue. We've received very good comments about the quality of the horses that are on the sale grounds. We've seen a great interest in and hunger for the Thoroughbred animal at the moment, and we hope we will continue the trend for the next two weeks. There is a lot of discretionary income out there at the moment, worldwide. The sales in Europe have been very, very strong, and they have yet to come to their top sales. The secondary markets over there have been very strong, and the secondary markets over here have been pretty strong. I think we have some very, very high class fillies this year. The colts are very good, but there are some absolute jewels (among the fillies) out there."
Tom Van Meter, Eaton Sales: "I think this sale will be very strong. All the big players are here. We've got a good group of horses, and I suspect it will be up somewhat. It will be on par with last year or maybe a little better."
John Ferguson, bloodstock manager for Sheikh Mohammed: "The signs are good for a good market. Saratoga was healthy, and I think it will be strong here."
Bill Farish, Lane's End: "I think it's going to be a good sale. All over the world the market has been up. I don't see why it would be any different now. A lot of the big buyers are having a good year at the races, so I'm pretty optimistic."
Frank Taylor, Taylor Made Sales Agency: "I anticipate it's going to go good. Everything else has been good up to this point. I think it's a good sign that Darley is doing so well."
Brian Graves, Gainesway: "I think it's going to be a good sale, especially for the first week. The July sale was good, and Saratoga was good. OBS set some records. So I would expect this to be very good. There's been quite a bit of traffic and some early vetting. I anticipate a good, solid market."
Hugo Merry, European bloodstock agent: "All the sales, even the marginal sales, have been very strong this year. All the usual big players are here with some new faces, so I'm expecting that the market here will be very strong. We bought two fillies here, and they are both black-type; so we're here to do it again. The weakness of the dollar (against the euro) has got to be a help for us. And I would expect to see a lot of interest from even our (European) pinhookers because the Tattersalls breeze-up sale was so strong this year. Willie Browne, who is a major pinhooker in Europe, paid a lot of money for a lot of horses last year, and he got well-rewarded in the 2-year-old sales. I think you'll find a lot of the pinhookers paying a lot more money for the better type of horse."
Case Clay, Three Chimneys Sales: "I think it's going to be strong. I think there is a lot of liquidity right now, and all indicators for the sales in the last year have told us it's going to keep continuing on strong. We started showing yesterday morning (Friday), and it was a madhouse. All the right players are here, and some of the right players are on their way, so we're optimistic."
Samantha Siegel, California-based buyer: "Good taste is expensive. I try not to purposely like things that I know I can't afford, if they look nice; but I find that I do have good taste. And it's tough. It's always tough to buy here. I know everything is overdue for a correction, but it doesn't look like it's happening this year. The thing that is bad for me is that the pinhookers spend more money sometimes than I'm willing to spend, and that makes it hard. We both go for a good physical type and something racy looking. When they're willing to spend more than I want to, I'm in trouble. I'd love to see those guys get corrected."
Gayle Van Leer, California bloodstock agent: "There's a lot of nice horses here, and there's a lot of big money. I think it's going to be very tough to buy."
Craig Bandoroff, Denali Stud: "It would be hard not to be cautiously optimistic. All the markets have been up, and they seem to be good. You'd have to think you're going to come in here, and it's going to be OK. I've been doing this long enough that I'll be believe it when I see it. I don't get carried away before the sale. I always tend to be 'keep your seatbelt fastened,' but you would have to think it's going to be fine."
Wayne Sweezey, Darby Dan Farm: "I think it will be good, and I think it will be good throughout. People will get pushed back. Buyers that normally buy on Monday will be buying on Wednesday, and it will be that way all the way through, but I'm not sure about the last few days. The dollar is weak against the pound, and there are plenty of Americans here looking, too."
Don Robinson, Winter Quarter Farm: "I think it's going to be a really good sale because there's a lot of nice horses early on, and there will be a lot of enthusiasm. There are a lot of buyers and their trainers here, and they got here maybe a day earlier than usual. There's a lot of anticipation."
Dell Hancock, Claiborne Farm: "All the sales have been good so far. I don't think there's any reason it will change here. I think, if you've got the right horses, they'll sell well. I just hope we've got a couple of the right ones."
Seth Semkin, racing manager for B. Wayne Hughes: "I think it will be as strong as ever. I don't see it (the market) slowing down. For us, it gets a little hard because we land on the same horses as the sheikhs, so it makes it a little more difficult. But having said that, we always end up buying quite a few, so I anticipate we'll do all right. There are a lot of good horses in here. But I think I liked more in the first book last year than I did this year."
Mike Akers, Dapple Bloodstock: "As a buyer, I'm anticipating they're going to be too high. As a seller, I'm anticipating they're going to be too low. That's generally the way it works. We don't muscle around with the big guys (as buyers), but if we find a nice horse that we'd like to have, we'll bid a little bit on it anyways."
Michael Hernon, Gainesway: "I'm anticipating a very strong, deep sale. It seems like all the major players are here. The Europeans have a strong currency-differential advantage. The markets here in the U.S. and Europe have been very strong thus far, and I would expect that trend to continue. I don't see any bad signs. I think this sale has really solidified its position in the market, and it's really the supermarket for horses. There's good stock right through the sale. If one can stick around and do the work, there are good horses to be bought at very good value. We've been very busy. We've been showing pretty much continually."
Bayne Welker, Mill Ridge Sales, agent: "Every indicator all across the country and in the foreign sales has been very healthy. This is always the meat of the market, and if this market follows suit with what everything else has done this year, it will be a very positive sale. I don't think we ever want it to get too out of whack. But we keep paying more and more for stud fees each year, so we have to expect a little more when we come back to the yearling sales. It's encouraging to see Sheikh Mohammed winning races around the country. Success on the racetrack is what fuels people coming back and buying racehorses. He and Sheikh Hamdan are our biggest players in the game right now. We want to see them happy; we want to see them winning races; and we want to see them back here buying."
Brereton C. Jones, Airdrie Stud: "I think it's going to be a strong sale. There's a lot of good horses on the grounds, and there is a strong desire right now with a lot of people to own horses. Certainly I think the Maktoums will be strong; they've had great success. They recognize that getting American horses, good Kentucky-bred horses is a great asset to them."
Pat Costello, Paramount Sales: "We're anticipating a strong sale. All the sales up to now have been really good in Europe and all over the world, Canada, and America. There is no reason that this is going to be any different. We've been very busy. We've been every bit as busy as other years, so it should be a good sale."