The $3.6 million broodmare Naples Bay topped the Nov. 4 opening session at Keeneland's November breeding stock sale, which saw powerful bidding at the market's upper echelon but posted lower financial returns than at last year's opener.
Tuesday's first Book 1 session sold 135 horses for $41,398,000, a 2% decline from the $42,255,000 at last year's opener, which sold 113 horses. Average and median price also slumped. Average price declined by 18%, from $373,938 to $306,652, and median fell 22.7%, from $220,000 to $170,000.
The buyback rate also increased, from 20.9% a year ago to 25.4% in 2014.
But the opening session also sold seven horses for $1 million or more this year, up from last season's six at that level.
Keeneland sales director Geoffrey Russell attributed the declines partly to the lack of a major dispersal, a factor that often boosts the Keeneland November sale, and to the general vicissitudes in the type and quality of any mixed sale's offerings from year to year.
"The declines are typical of a breeding stock sale," Russell said. "They vary from year to year with what's in there. I thought the sale today was very strong. We sold more million-dollar horses this year than we did last year, and last year we had a dispersal and this year we didn't."
Russell called the middle market "strong," adding, "And it was strong for all kinds: it was strong for mares in foal, it was strong for racemares. In talking to a couple of consignors today, they were very, very pleased."
Russell confessed disappointment with the higher buyback rate but said: "I was a little disappointed with that, personally. But it's a fact of the market when you're at the top end of the market. These are horses that have residual value to people, and they're willing to protect them at that level."
Claiborne Farm consigned Naples Bay, a half sister to Medaglia d'Oro , on behalf of Edward A. Cox, Jr. The mare is by Coolmore sire Giant's Causeway and is a graded stakes winner herself; given the stallion-producing potential in her pedigree, it was little surprise that Coolmore snapped her up. The 6-year-old daughter of stakes winner Cappucino Bay (Bailjumper) was in foal to Claiborne's hot young stallion War Front , whose credentials appealed to both North American and international bidders.
"She comes from a great family, she's by Giant's Causeway, she's in foal to War Front, and we'll be looking forward to seeing that," said M. V. Magnier, who signed the ticket on Coolmore's behalf. "Not sure what we're going to do with her, but she could easily go back to Galileo. We'll decide over the next couple of days."
Naples Bay's hefty sale helped boost Giant's Causeway's stock: He ended the session as the leading sire by gross sales and by average price (three or more sold), with six horses fetching a combined $4,505,000 and a $750,833 average price. The single purchase of Naples Bay also lofted Magnier into the top spot among the day's buyers by gross and also helped make War Front the day's leading covering sire by gross with two mares totaling $5.1 million (Claiborne stallion Orb led by average, three or more sold, after seven of his mares averaged $360,000).
Claiborne also ended the day as the session's top consignor by average price. Their three sales averaged $1,403,333.
"We want to first thank Mr. Cox for letting us sell her," Claiborne's Walker Hancock said after Naples Bay was sold. "She's a great mare. I'm very happy for him. She'd obviously got every quality to make a great broodmare, and I'm happy for Coolmore to have her.
"We honestly didn't know where she was going to end up," he said of the price. "We're obviously pleased. We had some kind of idea from last night, just from what the War Fronts were bringing, so we had some idea."
Naples Bay's $3.6 million price tag gave some indication of the upper market's health these days, though most sellers expected the heat to moderate, but the selectivity to continue, after Book 1.
A relatively new player also emerged Tuesday at the market's elite level.
The China Horse Club was the last bidder standing after Iotapa inspired a vigorous bidding war. China Horse Club general manager Eden Harrington described the business as a "a lifestyle, business, and Thoroughbred racing club" whose purpose is, at least in part, to introduce wealthy Chinese club members to elite horse racing around the world. Malaysian businessman Teo Ah Khing is the club's founder, according to the club website, and has developed a partnership with Coolmore Stud.
"We're currently racing is six parts of the world, including China," Harrington said of the club. "We race in Australia, in Singapore, in France, in Ireland, and China, and we have two horses in the States. We're trying to expand our interests in this part of the world. We are looking to showcase some of the best racing around the world and give people the right kind of experiences when they come to race around the world, and we bring people around the world as part of their lifestyle experiences. Racing is an entry point to this lifestyle."
Although consignor Lane's End announced the sale of Iotapa as a broodmare prospect only, Harrington said China Horse Club, which does have breeding interests, could race Iotapa again.
"The hope is that she will race on," Harrington said of the Afleet Alex filly, bought for $2.8 million.
Harrington said in-foal broodmare purchases Tuesday at Keeneland would likely head to Ireland to be bred to Australia, in which China Horse Club has an interest.
"Some of the horses we buy this week will end up in Singapore," he said, noting that China Horse Club has a major event, a China Equine Cultural Festival, planned there for February. "We will decide which ones in due course. A mare of this stature may or may not end up in Singapore, she may be part of our program here in America. But the program very much is that we are promoting the best of racing and the best of lifestyle elements of what we do to our members."
Harrington said the club offers two membership tiers, including a top "premier" level that will be limited to 2,000 members, though he declined to give the club's current membership numbers.
According to Harrington, China Horse Club owns almost 100 horses at the moment. At Fasig-Tipton's November sale on Nov. 3, they spent $1.4 million for three horses: Parranda ($800,000), Bajan ($300,000), and Cozze Up Lady ($300,000). At Keeneland's opening session, the club spent $5,150,000 for six horses; until Iotapa arrived in the ring, their most expensive 2014 Keeneland November purchase was the $290,000 Dixie Union stakes winner Who is Camille, carrying a Malibu Moon foal, that Taylor Made consigned. But China Horse Club has been active at the upper levels before, most notably at overseas venues like Tattersalls in England.
China Horse Club ended Tuesday as the Keeneland opening session's leading buyer by average purchase price (three or more bought), with an average expenditure of $858,333 for their six horses. They rounded out the evening by spending $1.5 million for the Lane's End agency's supplemental entry Last Full Measure, a grade I-winning Empire Maker mare in foal to War Front . Lane's End also sold that 6-year-old mare.
It was a highly successful day for Lane's End, the Versailles, Ky., nursery owned by the Farish family. Lane's End also consigned $2.4 million Stanwyck, a graded winner and multiple grade I-placed runner, to agent Steve Young. The 5-year-old Empire Maker mare is a half sister to 2005 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner Giacomo and to grade I winner Tiago.
"The market's really strong over here," said Bill Farish. "For what we've seen so far today, it's very strong. Sales have weak spots, but this feels very buoyant."
Lane's End was the day's second-ranked consignor by gross sales with six horses bringing $7,975,000. The Taylor Made Sales agency was the leader in total sales with a large consignment that yielded 41 sales worth $14,015,000.
Egg Drop was the first to break the $1 million barrier on bidding from parties including Whisper Hill Farm owner Mandy Pope and Japanese interests. But it was Bridlewood Farm manager George Isaacs who had the winning bid at $1.9 million, a number he acknowledged was a little short of what he thought he'd have to pay.
"She was a tick below what we budgeted that we thought she'd bring," he said. "I actually thought for a moment I was going to get her at $1.5 million, so naturally that would have made me a lot happier. But she checked off all the boxes of what we're trying to buy. She's the second purchase we've made, so we now own two broodmares. We bought hip number 180 ($2 million Concinnous, dam of dual grade I winner Iotapa and in foal to Tapit ) last night at Fasig-Tipton, and now her. We want about 20 or 25 mares, all proven grade I producers or grade I winners. Naturally, those are expensive. They're long-term purchases, so the number one criteria for me is I've got to fall in love with them, and I fell in love with her."
Late in the session, Bridlewood also went to $1.1 million to acquire the Taylor Made Sales agency's grade II winner Renee's Titan, a 4-year-old Bernstein mare carrying a foal by Orb, the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner.
Liberty Media chairman John Malone and his wife, Leslie, made a splashy entry in the Thoroughbred business last year when they bought Bridlewood near Ocala, Fla., for $14 million. Isaacs said the couple intend to breed both to race and to sell, "And at the top of the pyramid is, 'Let's have fun,' " said Isaacs.
If their purchases are any indication, the Malones are bullish on racing and breeding for profit. Asked how he sized up the long-term future of the yearling market, Isaacs said: "I think maybe the safest zone is the upper end of the market, so that's why we're wanting to play at the upper end."
Egg Drop's sellers, her 18 or so shareholders through the Little Red Feather syndication program, were enjoying the view from the top of the market, too. Managing partner Billy Koch, visibly emotional after seeing Egg Drop exit the auction ring with a new owner, said: "Our partners are here from all over the country. We have two people from Ohio, and we have ones from New York and California.
"That was pretty emotional right there," he said. "We like to buy fillies so that ultimately we can have days like this. It's just an incredible feeling. We're so pleased.
"We have a couple of partners that this was one of their first horses, so, yes, it happens. Unfortunately, now their expectations of horse racing are a little different from the rest of us! But they call me the Manager of Expectations, so I try to keep everybody level-headed, but days like this make it hard. Hopefully, everyone will come back and we'll have some more fun. But everybody has to know how hard it is to find horses like her."
The Taylor Made Sales Agency consigned Egg Drop. Taylor Made also sold the $1.3 million filly Scarlet Strike, who went to Al Shaqab Racing, the entity operated by Sheikh Joaan Al Thani of Qatar's ruling family. The Smart Strike daughter, age 4, is multiple grade I-placed, a graded winner, and a half sister to a grade I winner in Visionaire.
Mares dominated the ranks of high-priced horses, but the session's top weanling by price was a $375,000 Speightstown colt out of Versailles Song (Unbridled's Song). The March 21 foal is out of a daughter of Versailles Treaty who is also a half sister to 2012 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IT) winner George Vancouver and a three-quarters sister to graded winner Saarland. Bedouin Bloodstock consigned the gray or roan colt, who sold to Barbara Banke's Stonestreet Stables.
Also sold Tuesday was Eugene Melnyk's stallion Graeme Hall, now 17, who arrived in the auction ring looking plenty fit. The Dehere horse is the sire of 24 stakes winners to date from nine crops to race. Agent Chad Schumer bought him from the Taylor Made consignment for $100,000.
Keeneland's November breeding stock sale continues through Nov. 14. The second and final Book 1 session takes place Wednesday starting at 11 a.m. ET. All remaining sessions have a 10 a.m. start time.