Fresh fruit outside the Eaton Sales barn at the Keeneland Sales pavilion in Lexington, Ky.

Fresh fruit outside the Eaton Sales barn at the Keeneland Sales pavilion in Lexington, Ky.

Anne M. Eberhardt

World's Biggest Buyers Flock to Keeneland for September Yearling Auction

Sheikh Mohammed -- in the house.

Sheikh Hamdan -- in the house.

John Magnier--in the house.

"Save one, Satish Sanan, all the principles are here, and that's always a good sign for a horse sale," said Keeneland's director of sales, Geoffrey Russell, on the eve of the September yearling auction -- by far the largest sale of its kind in the world.

Added Keeneland's president Nick Nicholson: "To the best of our knowledge, everyone in the world who really wants to buy a yearling is here."

Sunday dawned with a thunderstorm, which upped the humidity in Central Kentucky to Amazon River levels, but the uncomfortable conditions didn't keep prospective buyers from swarming the barns, taking their final looks at the select horses that will be on offer during the auction's first two days. No. 1 of the 14 sessions is scheduled for Monday, beginning at 10 a.m. (EDT), and there will be a day off from selling on Sept. 17.

So far, most of the signs look good for a strong market. Requests for credit are running ahead of last year's pace, according to Russell, and there's talk that the Japanese presence could be bigger than ever before. Visiting for the first time is Ukranian banker Alexander Garese, who purchased an $825,000 Cozzene colt through Lane's End Bloodstock at the Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July select yearling sale.

"From everything I've seen, there's a lot of enthusiasm and an awful lot of interest," said consignor Will Farish, the owner of Lane's End.

Lane's End opted to put all its top horses in the September auction this year, bypassing the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale. It was a move that benefited the already high quality level at Keeneland.

"It was an unusual year," Farish said. "Because of the horses our clients had, it seemed to work better to have them all in this sale, for a multitude of reasons. Some of them needed physically to have more time to mature because they were late April foals or May foals. Some of them pedigree-wise didn't fit in Saratoga. It was odd. We usually go to Saratoga with a group, but we just didn't have the right blend, so we decided to do it this way. But that's not to say we won't be back at Saratoga in the future."

Said Farish's son, Bill: "Year after year, Keeneland September is the best yearling sale in this country, if not the world. It's kind of hard to take one out of here and say it's better served to go somewhere else."

This year, the results at Saratoga suggested that the top of the market for yearlings might be flat after huge gains in 2003. The gross revenue slipped 5.3%, and the average price fell 2.8%. Dr. Steve Carr of Centennial Farms thinks Keeneland September's select market will experience the same sort of trend.

"This is going to be a strong sale; there are a lot of good people here," he said. "But I don't see a lot of the real flashy, fancy, hit-the-home-run type of horses here. It (the situation) is just like it was as at Saratoga."

But Mike Evans, the manager of Indian Creek, wouldn't be surprised if the top of the market was able to advance again in September.

"I think it will be a good sale," he said. "We've had a lot of action, a lot of second looks. We had twice as many yearling shows at the farm this year than is usual."

Here's what some other people had to say:

"I've seen some people here to play at the top that haven't been here this year before," said Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud. "(Eugene) Melnyk's guys are here; Sheikh Mohammed is here; Sheikh Hamdan is here; Magnier's here. This is a sale they wait for and come for. Not that there's anything wrong with the other sales, but obviously this is where you need all the people because there are a lot of horses. It (attendance by the principles) makes a big difference (in prices)."

"We're losing all the top end sires, so it's exciting for me to see stallions like Giant's Causeway and Grand Slam become the men among boys," said Becky Thomas of Lakland who described the conformation and quality of the select horses as better than last year. "(For pinhooking) we have to buy a horse that's athletic-looking and looks like it's going to be early, but also looks like he can run around two turns and is not a little short, squatty thing. There are a number of horses here that here that are real athletic-looking that work for us."

"I feel very positive about the sale overall," said David Greathouse of Four Star Sales. "If you go by any measure of the sales so far, you would have to think it's going to be good. Ocala was out of sight I thought. I thought Fasig-Tipton Kentucky was outstanding. We showed horses twice as much for Fasig-Tipton this year as we did last year. There's more pinhooker money than usual (from the successful sales of 2-year-olds in training), and it could be a great driver of this market. Everybody who plays the (yearling buying) game is here, and I think they know to get what they want they are going to have to pay for it. That still is not going to help the horse they don't consider to be a real athlete, but it's got to trickle down some."

"This is going to be a good sale," said Brereton Jones of Airdrie Stud. "It doesn't have to be up to be a good sale. With the numbers they've got (a record high), if we can digest those numbers and the RNAs are approximately the same as last year, it would be a successful sale to me. I think you're going to see some additional Japanese interest this year. With the money in the (sale) office and the people who are coming over with some of them, that's the word."