Keeneland September Sale Stands Out

In an era when auction records are common, the Keeneland September yearling sale stood out in terms of size and strength. The 2000 edition generated enough revenue ($291,827,100) to rank it second to only the 1999 Keeneland November breeding stock sale ($317,666,000) as the highest-grossing Thoroughbred auction of all time. It also produced the most expensive price ever ($4.4 million) for a yearling filly offered in a public arena.

Without a doubt, the September sale benefited from a giant leap upward at the top of the market, where buyers flush with cash willingly paid huge sums to acquire well-bred stock that passed veterinary inspections. In addition, after two select sessions got the auction off to a blockbuster start, the demand for lesser quality racing prospects proved surprisingly enthusiastic. Even though it was longer than ever before, at 13 days, and had its largest catalogue ever, with 4,652 yearlings listed, the auction enjoyed increases in average price during its final sessions.

At the close of business on Sept. 23, Keeneland's sale pavilion was far from empty. Last-minute shoppers milled around the back holding area, and winning bids were placed by or on the behalf of such established horsemen as trainers Bruce Headley and Jack Van Berg, New Jersey bloodstock agent Buzz Chace, Kentucky farm owner Nelson McMakin, and Florida-based pinhooker David McKathan.

"We exceeded everybody's expectations," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland's director of sales. "Some people conjectured that maybe, with the large number of horses, business would fall off, but it's remained very steady."

Just five days into the auction, gross revenue soared past 1999's total of $233,020,800. The final tally represented a 25.2% increase and sustained a growth spurt for that statistic that has lasted for nine consecutive years.

Other new September highs were reflected in the following positive trends:
• The number of yearlings on offer was up 13.6%, rising from 3,788 in 1999 to 4,302 this year.
• The number sold was up 10%, advancing from 3,011 to 3,313.
• The average was up 13.8%, increasing from $77,390 to $88,085.
• The high individual price for a yearling rose from $3.9 million to $6.8 million, which was brought by a Storm Cat -- Hum Along colt. (The $4.4-million filly, Moon's Whisper, also is a Storm Cat offspring.)
• The number of yearlings sold for prices of $1 million or more advanced from 23 to 28 (18 colts and 10 fillies).

"There is a positive outlook about the Thoroughbred industry right now, and the American economy is still strong," said Beasley, discussing the factors behind the upswing. "We had a lot more people applying for credit this year, mostly from North America. We also had probably the best September catalogue ever, by pedigree, and the buyers responded."
However, the auction was not a slam-dunk success for everyone, and there were some negative signs whose roots could be traced, in part, to the vast supply of September yearlings and the increasing costs of production. With stud fees on the rise, the level of profit did not improve for commercial breeders and pinhookers, who paid higher prices than ever before for their stock, and found it more difficult to make money.

Another disturbing element was the softening of September's middle market. The median price for the sale of $27,000 represented a 10% downturn from the September record of $30,000 established in 1999.

In addition, the buy-back rate crept upward. The percentage of yearlings failing to find new homes rose from 20.5% to 23%. While not out of line when compared to the rates reported for other major yearling sales, the growing percentage suggested that even in a time of plenty, consignors' satisfaction with prices was decreasing. Whether the problem arose from too-high expectations on the part of sellers or the increasingly discriminating tastes of buyers was a topic debated frequently by horsemen participating in the September auction.

During the pair of select sessions that kicked off the September sale, gross revenue and average price rose dramatically, by 34.1% and 42.6%, respectively, from last year's comparable figures. In the 11 days of selling that followed, the 2,870 horses sold grossed $129,685,100 and averaged $45,186, which represented much less substantial increases of 15.7% and 2.4%, respectively. Such statistics provided further examples of a market trend that has seen most of the recent price expansions confined to the highest levels at Thoroughbred auctions.

Still, September's vast supply never did completely overwhelm demand. Only on two days, the sixth and the seventh, did averages fall in comparison to last year's figures. The averages for the 12th and 13th days -- $10,563 and $12,030, respectively -- both exceeded the $9,593 average that was recorded on the 11th and final day of last year's September sale.

Continued . . .