When Keeneland kicks off its marathon September yearling sale Sept. 11, it will be a litmus test of the sales company's overhaul of the format, with a goal of getting the auction off to a robust start that hopefully will carry over to the remainder of the sale.
The most significant change is the ultra-select Book 1, with 167 yearlings offered during a one-day session that begins at 3 p.m. ET Monday. Last year, Book 1 consisted of 607 yearlings cataloged in a three-day span.
Monday will be followed by three long sessions comprising Book 2 from Sept. 12-14, with a total 1,203 head be offered to the public before the traditional first week dark day Friday, Sept. 15.
In addition to the format changes, Keeneland has instituted a bonus connected to graduates of this year's sale, with a different level of premium offered for those sold in Book 1 and those sold in any segment of the sale.
The September sale bonus program is comprised of two components: the Book 1 Bonus and Seller Bonus targets grade/group 1 stakes winners that sold as yearlings in Book 1. The Seller Bonus extends opportunities for rewards to all eligible graded or group stakes winners sold in any book of the September sale. Go to Keeneland's website for complete details.
With 4,139 horses cataloged, this year's sale entries are down 7.6% from the 4,479 cataloged in 2016. Keeneland reported 2,792 horses changed hands for $272,890,500 during the 13-day auction a year ago, a decrease of 3.1% from the $281,496,100 gross for 2,745 horses sold during the 12-day stand in 2015. The cumulative average of $97,740 was a decrease of 4.7% from last year's $102,549 and the median fell 20% from $50,000 to $40,000.
The 1,006 yearlings that did not attain their reserve prices represented 26.5% of the total through the ring.
Last year's top price of $3 million paid by M.V. Magnier of Coolmore for a Scat Daddy colt was the highest at Keeneland September since 2010. Named Mendelssohn, the half brother to champion Beholder and grade 1 winner and sire Into Mischief , recently broke his maiden in his second start while racing in Ireland.
If the amount of activity in the Keeneland barn area the weekend of Sept. 9-10 is any indication, the Keeneland sale is well-poised to put the new format to the test. As potential buyers inspected first the Book 1 horses and then moved on to see the Book 2 offerings, some consignors' resources were taxed.
One consignor noted that he advised lookers to come back later as a result of the large volume of requests to inspect his offerings. Another added that when he reviewed the cards completed by those looking at the yearlings, there were nearly a dozen names he had not seen before or had been absent from the September sale in recent years.
Bob Elliston, Keeneland's vice president of racing and sales, said the early returns on both the format change and the sale overall are positive.
"There is quite a bit of activity on the grounds and we are very optimistic," the Keeneland executive said. "There are lots of people from across the globe who have not been here in many years. The optics appear that the format is intriguing to the buyers."
Elliston said the goal of starting the sale with the selective Book 1 was to get the auction off on a strong note, with solid business throughout the first week and into the second week.
"The goal was twofold: one was to create enthusiasm from the very first hip that would hopefully carry through the first week and throughout the rest of the sale," Elliston said. "The second goal was to put as many quality horses in front of those people the first week as possible, and we have nearly doubled the number being offered during the first week. They know they can see many quality horses the first week."
Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud was among the sellers who believes in the new format, with the caveat that more will be known following the Book 1 session.
"I have heard people say there are a lot of good horses here," Bandoroff said. "As I've said, if we can put good physicals, with good pedigrees, and good vet work in front of them, there is no reason it's not going to work. There are plenty of people here. You just have to hope they are not too ultra-selective and the money spreads out a little bit. I feel good about my group."
Bandoroff said other signs pointing to a solid market are positive results from the recent Saratoga Race Course, Del Mar, and Ellis Park race meets, the strength of early season yearling sales, as well as a buoyant U.S. economy.
"There is no reason for this thing not to do well for what has led up to it," he said. "There are some Europeans who have not been here in a long time and that's going to make a big difference."
The complete schedule for the September sale is (all times Eastern):
Book 1 (Monday, Sept. 11), session begins at 3 p.m.
Book 2 (Tuesday-Thursday, Sept. 12-14), sessions begin at 11 a.m. daily.
Dark Day, Friday, Sept. 15
Books 3-6 (Saturday-Saturday, Sept. 16-23), sessions begin at 10 a.m.
The entire September Sale, which runs through Sept. 23, will be streamed live on Keeneland.com.