With a new format and vibrant activity from start to finish, Keeneland completed its marathon September yearling sale Sept. 23 with record average and median, with gross receipts that were the best since the pre-recession 2008 auction.
Keeneland reformatted the first week of the September sale this year to open with a select, single-session Book 1 followed by a three-day Book 2, versus last year's three-day Book 1. The change—which resulted in nearly doubling the number cataloged from 1,203 to 607 before the traditional Week 1 one-day break—was designed to create momentum to carry through the entire auction, and to put as many top-quality horses before the world's major buyers as possible during the first week.
"Our goal in the (new) format was to create excitement and momentum, and I think we succeeded very well in that," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales operations. "I think there's enthusiasm anyway in the market for horses. The Thoroughbred industry is doing very well, but with this sale being the barometer of it, we're seeing depth at all levels of the market that we haven't seen in a while."
The sales company reported 2,555 horses were sold during the 12-day auction for at total of $307,845,400, an average price of $120,487, and a $57,000 median. With 4,138 head cataloged, 722 yearlings were withdrawn and the remaining 861 went unsold for an RNA rate of 25.2%.
The gross, average, and median represented gains of 12.8%, 23.2%, and 42.5%, respectively, from the 13-day sale in 2016, when 2,792 horses changed hands for $272,890,500, an average of $97,740 and a $40,000 median. Last year's buy-back rate was 26.5%.
This year's total represents the highest gross since the 15-day September sale in 2008, when 3,605 horses sold for $327,999,100. The previous September record average of $112,427 was set in 2006 and the previous record median of $50,000 came each year from 2013-15.
"The September sale exceeded expectations in every aspect," said Keeneland vice president of racing and sales Bob Elliston. "The sale grounds were electric from day one and that enthusiasm to buy racehorses never waned, even into the final days of the sale."
Topped by a Tapit filly acquired for $2.7 million by M.V. Magnier of Coolmore Stud from the VanMeter/Gentry Sales Agency, there were 13 horses sold for $1 million or more this year, compared to nine last year.
Reflecting a broad, diverse buying bench, Keeneland said 75 unique buyers spent more than $1 million during the auction and foreign buyers made more than $80 million in purchases. There were 119 yearlings sold for $500,000 or more, compared with 93 a year ago.
"The consignors brought us a very good product this year," Russell said. "The quality of the horses was good and buyers reacted to it. Outside forces are also very positive. The economic aspect of it, and demand and interest in Thoroughbreds, and having quality horses fuels higher prices."
"When you have good horses and the stock market is good, you're going to have a good sale," said Duncan Taylor, whose family's Taylor Made Sales Agency was leading consignor. "We were very pleased."
Indicative of the depth of the market was the large number of buyers still vying for yearlings during the Saturday finale that was topped by a Take Charge Indy colt purchased by Shortleaf Stable for $85,000. Consigned as Hip 4123 by Heaven Trees, agent, the colt is out of the Indian Charlie mare Croon.
Keeneland sold 135 horses for $1,467,800, an average of $10,873 and a median of $7,000, during the final session. The 11 horses that went unsold represented 7.5% of the total through the ring.
Ned Toffey, Spendthrift Farm's general manager, said two yearlings sold during the final session by Small Batch Sales on behalf of Spendthrift, were indicative of how buyers were still competing, even during the waning hours. Hip 3899, a filly from the first crop of Itsmyluckyday sold for $55,000 and a Liaison filly (Hip 3873) brought a final bid of $42,000.
"For this late in the sale, this is great activity," Toffey said. "We sold two yearlings extremely well. We had very minimal reserves on them. That was every bit the market. You can pretty well count on the upper part of the market to be good, but when there's this much depth at this level, it's indicative of a healthy market."
"Usually on this day it's a ghost town," said Matt Lyons of Woodford Thoroughbreds, one of the final day's consignors. "Pinhookers (buying yearlings to offer as 2-year-olds) I talked to this morning were saying they had only gotten one horse, or had only bought two, and they had come here for five or six. People who normally would have gone home several days ago are still here working and that is encouraging for the state of the industry and for the upcoming sales."
The strong September sale could bode well for the upcoming fall breeding stock sales, Russell said.
"When you have a good September sale, it generally helps November," the executive noted. "Pinhookers (who buy weanlings to re-sell as yearlings) will come back and reinvest, and the breeders who have had a good (yearling) sale will come back and upgrade their mares."
The September sale also launched Keeneland's September sale bonus program, a two-tiered initiative that offers cash rewards to sale graduates who win graded or group stakes. The Book 1 bonus targets grade/group 1 stakes winners sold as yearlings and the seller bonus offers rewards to all eligible graded/group stakes winners sold at any time during the September sale.
"Keeneland will offer approximately $2 million per year in incentives, beginning with the 2017 September sale graduates," Elliston said. "The bonuses added interest to the excitement; gave buyers a reason to stretch and make that next bid, (and) go that extra step to get that horse."