The Keeneland September yearling sale is the biggest auction of its kind in the world. It offers the widest range of choices to buyers, who can spend millions of dollars for blue-blooded stock or search for bargains among the huge supply of modestly-bred horses. Some people have compared the sale to a shopping mall. Others have said it reminds them of the retail giant Wal-Mart, whose stores are packed with toys, clothing, and a variety of other products. Because of September's large size and the diversity of its offerings, the Central Kentucky auction is the best barometer of the yearling market's health in North America. At the end of its 13-day run (Sept. 10-22), few questions will remain unanswered about the financial viability of selling young horses in 2001. So far this year, business has been better than projected. The downturn in the economy had caused many Thoroughbred auction analysts to predict business setbacks for the yearling sales. But the summer select auctions in Kentucky and New York registered surprisingly robust increases. At Keeneland in July, the average climbed to the highest level ever for any yearling auction, and the median was a sale record. At Saratoga in August, sale records were established for gross revenue, average, and median. At Fasig-Tipton Kentucky in July, the average and median each increased by more than 25%. Based on those results, the upswings are expected to continue during the two select sessions that kick off the September sale. Though economic troubles have spread around the world, they have had little impact on a veteran, well-heeled group of buyers at the top of the yearling market. Shoppers like Irish veterinarian Demi O'Byrne, Eugene Melnyk, Satish Sanan, and Sheikh Mohammed are still paying premium prices for well-bred horses with outstanding conformation and clean veterinary exams. To the benefit of the Keeneland select sessions, its sire power has increased. There is a larger selection than ever before of yearlings by North America's most influential stallions. The horses catalogued for the first two days include more than 80 progeny of A.P. Indy, Danzig, Mr. Prospector, Seattle Slew, and Storm Cat. The number of September select yearlings by that high-powered quintet has risen from 26 in 1997 to 49 in 1998, 62 in 1999, 78 in 2000, and 87 this year. By contrast, the number catalogued at Keeneland in July by the same five stallions has fallen from 63 in 1997 to 52 in 1998, 40 in 1999, 39 in 2000, and 35 in 2001. While signs are encouraging for continued strength in September's select market, the outlook for the rest of the auction is not so clear. While many big spenders hang around for the early sessions, most will be gone by the end of the sale's first week. Horse quality will diminish significantly, and prices will drop.
The undistinguished stock that abounds during September's closing days is not the type that generates much buyer enthusiasm. Take, for example, what happened during the open portion of this year's Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's August yearling auction. The average for the 683 horses sold dropped 2.3% from the previous year, and the median plunged by 16.7%. One consignor complained her horses were selling for "pennies on the dollar." High buy-back rates also are a concern. At many yearling auctions this year, including the fancy select sales, the percentage of horses failing to find new homes has risen or remained high. Consignors at all market levels in September will need to be careful when setting their reserves. The number of horses catalogued fell from a record September high of 4,652 last year to 4,483 this year. But buyers will still have plenty of choices, and they won't feel much pressure to take horses they don't really like. Continued. . . .