Anne M. Eberhardt

Crunching the Keeneland September Numbers

Middle market numbers are up while numbers at lower end fall.

The number of horses cataloged to the 2009 Keeneland September yearling sale fell 6.6%, from an all-time high of 5,555 for the auction last year to 5,189. According to Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of the sales, the weakening of the Thoroughbred market in general -- because of problems within the horse industry and economic difficulties around the world -- was an important factor in the decline.

“In this day and age, people are more practical; they aren’t going to consign horses if they don’t think they are commercial products,” Russell said. “Now they put a pen to the paper and look at the economic viability of the horses they enter and sometimes they realize they’re not going to get their stud fee back, so why go through the expense of putting them in the sale?”

This year’s auction, which begins Sept. 14 in Lexington, will have 14 daily sessions, down from 15 in 2008. According the Russell, the breakdown of the horses in terms of quality in the sale typically is something like this: The market’s upper level yearlings are offered during the first four sessions; the middle level yearlings are offered during sessions five through 10; and the lower level yearlings are offered during the remaining sessions.

The number of upper level horses declined 6.6%, from 1,297 last year to 1,212 this year. The number in the middle level grew 2.7%, from 2,416 to 2,481. And the number in the lower level fell 18.8%, from 1,842 to 1,496.

The upper level horses make up 23.4% of this year’s catalog compared to 23.3% in 2008. Middle market horses account for 47.8% of the catalog, up from 43.5%. And lower level horses make up 28.8% of the catalog, down from 33.2%.

“With the top horses, people think the market might be off a little bit, so they’re deciding to retain them and race them themselves, and it’s just not economically viable for some people to put horses through the sale at the bottom end,” Russell said. “The middle market is strong (in numbers) because that’s where most commercial breeders are aiming for, and those middle market stallions are covering the most mares, so we are going to have some long days here in the middle of the sale (when as many as 415 horses have been cataloged on a single day).”

According to Duncan Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency, his company’s clients are less enthusiastic than they were a year ago about selling both yearlings with expensive pedigrees and young horses with more modest credentials.

“I’ve got people who have expensive horses and who are saying, ‘I just don’t want to sell in this market; I’ll just keep them,’ ” he said. “There are also people who have inexpensive horses and who are saying, ‘Is it worth my while to send them to Kentucky? I might come home with very little money, so I might as well keep my horses and race them at a local track or sell them at a local sale.’ People are just looking at the cost of doing business.”

The lower number of horses in the Keeneland September sale, Taylor said, “is good news for people who have horses to sell -- the less competition, the better. If we’re not doing anything in the industry to increase demand by making people want to be in the horse business, the only other way you can make sales better is by decreasing supply, and that’s usually a painful process because while you’re doing it, you’re losing money. But it also makes you breed a better horse, so in the long run, it can be a good thing.”