Rethinking July

Those ringing the death knell for the Keeneland summer sale are either newcomers to the business or have short memories. The auction needs to be adjusted. It needs to be tweaked. Revamped. Changed. It absolutely does not need to be abandoned, as some have suggested.

First of all, and perhaps more important than any other factor, Keeneland is not about to give up its spot as the first select yearling auction of the year. Keeneland is the leading auction company in the world and you don't get to that position--and maintain it--by not being able to react to changes in the marketplace.

For decades, the Keeneland July sale was the premier auction of select yearlings. Fasig-Tipton Saratoga came next, followed by Keeneland September and Fasig-Tipton July. The best barometer for the entire yearling market was the fall sale, its larger number and broader scope of yearlings attracting more across-the-board buyers. But the Keeneland summer sale helps establish the value of all horses. Owners can gauge the value of their horses based on the results of the July auction.

In the early and mid-1980s, it became difficult for many buyers to shop at Keeneland in July. As members of the Maktoum family battled Robert Sangster for multi-million-dollar yearlings by Northern Dancer and his sons, a number of buyers opted to wait for the September sale to do their shopping.

The July sale was flooded with certain sires. One year, it seemed every fifth horse in the ring was by Danzig--and that was before huge books of mares became the norm. No one who entered a Danzig that year was being turned down for conformation flaws. Today, with sire power in a state of transition following the deaths of Mr. Prospector, Nureyev, and Seattle Slew, more emphasis than ever should be placed on the physical horse. Keeneland needs to select the right horses and the consignors need to support that concept. Otherwise, more brutal summer sales are ahead.

This year, it was apparent the buyers did not approve of many of the horses in the Keeneland sale. Pedigrees are important, but can't be the most important factor.

When consignors started scratching horses like rats fleeing a sinking ship--a ridiculous 27% of the 200 yearlings catalogued were withdrawn--they couldn't blame Keeneland. Sure Keeneland was at fault, but so too were the consignors who took horses to the sale with physical problems. Consignors said they knew they were in trouble the weekend before the sale when many horses were not getting vetted. Instead of sending them through the ring, they elected to take them home and try again another day.

Keeneland must forget about taking horses for all the old reasons: great pedigree; consignor loyalty; take the bad to get the good. The starting point to rebuilding the sale is to take striking individuals who also have the pedigrees to be select quality. At Fasig-Tipton, Bill Graves has that auction company re-focusing on what put it on the map--good individuals. Keeneland should take note. Securing the right kind of horses for the auction is only the first step. The next is getting those buyers who, like in the 1980s, left the sale but then returned. Guess what? They're gone again.

Foremost in this group are the American trainers. They are one reason September's select sessions became as big as they are. These guys were lured back once; they can be lured back again.

At this year's Keeneland sale, many trainers were on the scene, including D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, Bill Mott, Bob Hess, Richard Mandella, John Ward, Ken McPeek, Dallas Stewart, Todd Pletcher, Frank Brothers, Carl Nafzger, Jerry Hollendorfer, Bruce Headley, and Niall O'Callaghan. All of these trainers have clients who can play at the summer sale level, but few had clients who made purchases at Keeneland. It was as if they were in town for the Fasig-Tipton sale, but, hey, where else do you go on Monday and Tuesday night?

If the horses had been there, these guys would all have added horses to their stables. It's like one consignor said: "I've never met an agent or trainer who couldn't fill an order."

If the Keeneland July sale isn't revamped, fewer orders will be taken for that particular venue.

And that would be a shame.

Dan Liebman is executive editor of The Blood-Horse.