Stop the Presses: Keeneland July Sale Alive and Well

Stop the Presses: Keeneland July Sale Alive and Well
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Saint Ballado colt topped the Keeneland sale at $4-million.
Published in the July 28 issue of The Blood-Horse
Cancel the funeral and dry your tears. The Keeneland July select yearling sale is not dead yet.

Not long ago, the prognosis looked grim for what used to be the world's most prestigious Thoroughbred auction. Abandoned by some consignors, the sale had its smallest catalogue ever in 2001, with only 164 horses listed. A worldwide economic slowdown and a horse health crisis in Central Kentucky both threatened to hammer the final nails into its coffin.

But just as the obituaries were being written, the summer auction rallied to generate some of the best results in its history. The average price was the highest ever for any yearling sale in the world. The median established an auction record. And the July record for a yearling filly was nearly broken when a daughter of Seeking the Gold, named Scene Seeker, sold for $3.7 million.

On the negative side, the number offered and sold plunged to all-time lows; the buy-back rate soared to an all-time high (32.6%); and the percentage of yearlings scratched rose from 13.5% to 19.5%.

Still, the mood was upbeat among Keeneland officials. They mounted their biggest ever July marketing effort in 2001 with a program that included "a substantial increase" in expenditures for advertising and a promotional CD-ROM. They also gave consignors a stipend they could use for buyer entertainment and airfares.

"This sale is worth fighting for!" declared Keeneland president Nick Nicholson. "It's an important sale for not only Keeneland, but also for the industry. The buyers were here. The horses were presented well. And the market showed that there is a place for a boutique sale."

Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's new director of sales, vowed to talk with every consignor "face to face" in an effort to recruit more yearlings for the auction, which he called "a hell of a platform to sell the prime horse."

To Nicholson and Russell's delight, a number of prominent buyers supported their cause, calling the July sale a key event and chastising consignors for not supporting it. On opening night, Irish veterinarian Demi O'Byrne warned sellers they were "making a big mistake" by not offering more of their yearlings in July. That sentiment was echoed the following evening by Richard Mulhall, president of The Thoroughbred Corp.

"I don't understand why people don't want to sell here," he said. "Horses are bringing money that just boggles my mind."

Following two evening sessions conducted July 16 and 17, the final figures and statistical trends for the auction were as follows:

  • The number offered declined for the fourth consecutive year and was down 26.7%, slipping from 180 to 132.
  • The number sold also fell for the fourth year in a row and was down 31.5%, plunging from 130 to 89.
  • Ending six consecutive years of growth, gross revenue dropped 21.7%, from $80,732,000 to $63,212,000.
  • The average increased for the seventh straight year and was up 14.4%, rising from $621,015 to $710,247.
  • After leveling off last year, the median climbed by 7.5%, from $400,000 to $430,000.
  • The highest price for an individual yearling advanced from $3.6 million to $4 million.
  • The number of horses sold for $1 million or more decreased from 24 to 16, and the number sold for $500,000 or more dipped from 53 to 41.

The news for consignors: Even in trying economic times, there remains a wealthy, enthusiastic group of veteran buyers who are eager to compete for a scarce supply of fashionably bred yearlings. Their bidding frenzies at Keeneland often produced prices that exceeded consignors' expectations for their very best horses. However, those same buyers were still extremely selective, resulting in numerous disappointments for sellers with stock that was judged to be lacking in pedigree or conformation.

"The top horses are bringing great money, but there is a big void underneath them," said Frank Taylor of the Taylor Made Sales Agency. "There are not a lot of buyers here who are trying to pick up bargains."

The most dominant buying forces this year were British bloodstock agent John Ferguson -- representing Sheikh Mohammed and his family's Godolphin racing operation -- and O'Byrne and his Coolmore Stud associates, John Magnier and Michael Tabor. Ferguson spent $16,325,000 for nine yearlings while O'Byrne paid $9,675,000 for six head. Combined, Ferguson and O'Byrne bought 10 of the yearlings that commanded seven-figure prices. Ferguson's total expenditures accounted for 25.8% of the auction's gross revenue.

O'Byrne made his big move on the sale's first night, beating out Ferguson for the $4-million sale topper, a strapping Saint Ballado -- Charm a Gendarme colt. O'Byrne also outstayed Ferguson to secure a $2.5-million Seattle Slew -- Statuette colt and a $1.65-million Pulpit -- Chancey Squaw filly.

The Saint Ballado colt, a half-brother to 2000 Matriarch Stakes (gr. IT) winner Tout Charmant, was consigned by Taylor Made as agent for his breeders, Aaron and Marie Jones. An Oregon lumberman, Jones owns 60% of the colt's sire, who stands at Taylor Made Farm near Nicholasville, Ky. Saint Ballado had only a $30,000 stud fee when the July sale topper was conceived in 1999 (he stood this year for $125,000). Jones purchased the $4-millon colt's dam -- a grade III winning daughter of Batonnier -- for $290,000 at the 1998 Keeneland November sale.

"Whenever you get that much money for a horse, it's a hell of a big surprise; it's just not the normal thing," said Jones of the $4-million colt. "But I think he's just about as good and sound a racing prospect as you can find. He's very kind, and he's got the perfect conformation and size."

Said Taylor, Jones' key adviser: "This is just awesome. He's always been a beautiful colt. Based on all the scoping and X-raying that was being done before the sale, we knew he was going to bring a high price. That was just about the biggest amount of vetting that I had ever seen on a sale horse. It took up nearly two pages of his records."

The colt's price was the highlight of a sluggish opening night, when nearly every statistic lagged behind last year's first-session pace. However, business picked up dramatically during the final evening, when the number of seven-figure yearlings sold jumped from five to 11. Ferguson, bidding in the back of the sale pavilion, made all of his purchases Tuesday night, the most expensive a $3.6-million Mr. Prospector -- Nuryette colt.

Continued . . .

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