Commentary: Three Weeks of September

Commentary: Three Weeks of September
Photo: Lee Thomas
Eric Mitchell
Executive Editor of Digital Media

Gigantic. Mammoth. Supersize. We’re running out of adjectives to describe the Keeneland September yearling sale, which grew another 7.6% this year. The catalog swelled again to a world record-setting 5,553 entries. With anticipated outs, approximately 4,800 of these horses will pass through the auction ring over 15 days—one day longer than the 2006 sale.

Each time Keeneland adds more horses, the question is raised of how much bigger this sale could possibly become. The answer is no more than 21 days.

Is anyone willing to commit three weeks to selling horses? Possibly, if the Keeneland September marathon continues to evolve into several auctions within an auction, as sales director Geoffrey Russell said he’s witnessed over the past several years, and the sale establishes itself as a must-­attend, international event.

Few buyers and consignors would gut it out from beginning to end. Instead, there would be waves of people on different economic levels flowing in and out of the sale grounds, perhaps committing no more than seven to nine days at a time. The event could be enhanced with seminars for owners about conformation or racing and breeding partnerships.

Consider the All-American Quarter Horse Congress, which will be held for three weeks from Sept. 30-Oct. 22 in Columbus, Ohio. The Congress began in 1967 as a three-day event that attracted more than 5,000 people. Now it attracts 650,000 people and 9,000 horses that will compete in 250 events worth $2.5 million in prize money.

In many ways, Keeneland September has already established itself as an event. Why else would consignors continue to offer more horses there? They have to believe they are selling at the epicenter, and that there is no better place to be.

“No other sale in the country does 10% of what Keeneland does,” said Tim Folck, owner of National Equine Sales in Ohio and the son of Congress founder Blair Folck. “(Keene­land) is a whole other world.” Folck is not involved much with Thoroughbreds anymore, though his family was in racing for 15 years. The Folcks were members in the syndication of What Luck, a son of Bold Ruler who was a minor player on the track, but went on to sire 1977 champion sprinter What a Summer and 1983 champion older mare Ambassador of Luck.

A 21-day Keeneland September sale is not coming any time soon. The prediction is only a ceiling based on an estimate of how large the North American foal crop could become, and an expectation that breeding Thoroughbreds will be done mostly for commercial reasons. The Jockey Club currently estimates the 2007 North American foal crop at 37,500. The North American foal crop peaked at 51,296 in 1986 before cascading downward to a bottom of 34,973 in 1995. Growth has been steady since 1995, but it is hard to image the foal crop will ever again reach the heights of the mid-1980s. So let’s assume the foal crop won’t rise beyond 45,000, which is about where it was in 1990. By the time North America has 45,000 registered foals, the commercial markets may also have grown. In 2006, the percentage of 2005 registered foals that were offered as yearlings was 41%. It is not unrealistic to expect that up to half the North American foals born in a given year will eventually find themselves being led into an auction ring.

Since 2005, the Keeneland September sale has been selling 35% of all the yearlings sold in North America. Allowing for growth, Keeneland could be selling 40% of all yearlings by the time the foal crop reaches 45,000, which means the sale company could one day be offering 7,500 September yearlings or about 2,670 more than is estimated to be offered this year. At about 400 horses through the ring per day, that’s at least another six days of selling.

Sound impossible? Not if there are horses to sell and people believe Keeneland is the place to be in September.

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