Record-Setting Keeneland September Sale Concludes

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Keeneland walking ring | Keeneland photo

By Jessica Martini

The Keeneland September Yearling Sale proved more than able to live up to its record-setting 2017 edition, concluding Sunday in Lexington with a record average and the fourth-highest gross in sale history.

“We were optimistic that it was going to be a terrific sale,” Keeneland’s Vice President of Racing and Sales Bob Elliston said Sunday. “But to be $70-million plus over the gross of last year and to have 27 millionaires, versus 13 last year, and to see the strength of the market carrying on through Book 5, quite honestly, exceeded our expectations.”

Through 13 sessions, Keeneland sold 2,916 horses for a total of $377,140,400. The average was $129,335, up 7.3% from its 2017 record of $120,487. The median was $50,000–down 12.3% from last year’s record mark of $57,000.

The 2018 gross sales exceeded last year’s 12-day auction total of $307,845,400 on the seventh day of selling and final receipts of $377,130,400 rose 22.51% over last year. It was sale’s highest gross since the 14-day September Sale in 2005 when 3,545 yearlings sold for $384,349,900. This year 2,916 horses sold, compared to 2,555 in 2017.

For the third straight year, Coolmore’s M.V. Magnier made the highest bid of the September sale. Magnier went to $2.4 million to acquire a colt by War Front (hip 458) from the Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency consignment. The yearling was one of three to break the $2-million plateau during the auction. Godolphin–the sale’s leading buyer by gross–purchased a colt from the first crop of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (hip 91) for $2.2 million from the Woods Edge Farm consignment and Phoenix Thoroughbreds purchased a son of Medaglia d’Oro (hip 899) for $2.1 million from the Taylor Made Sales Agency consignment.

“I thought it was a really good sale,” said Duncan Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency, which was the auction’s leading consignor. “I thought there was a lot of participation from a lot of people and then you had Sheikh Mohammed [of Godolphin] get back in stronger than he has been, so that just added more heat to the bidding. It’s still a tough game if you’re breeding horses for the market because, if you breed 10 horses and you breed three or four of them people really want, you’re lucky. But it’s still a good market. It picked up some even from last year.”

Bidding was fast and furious throughout the four Book 1 sessions of the auction’s first week, setting up strong competition throughout the auction.

“Most of the buyers told us they were struggling to get orders filled up front, that prices that they had expected horses to bring were being blown out of the water,” Elliston said. “While there was great trade up there with that audience, it just pushed people back further into Book 2. And Book 2 was outstanding, pushing them into three and so on. We were looking at 30 to 35% increase in the average for every single session even in the middle market.”

A strong group of international buyers helped drive the competition throughout the 13-day sale, with buyers from across North America and more than 20 foreign countries representing Europe, the Middle East, Asia, South America and Central America.

“Week one sets the table and then the second week follows,” Keeneland’s Director of Sales Operations Geoffrey Russell said. “We are able to recruit buyers from South America, Korea and Russia to buy in Books 3 through 6. They like the American-bred speed dirt horse and know they are going to get good quality when they come here regardless of the price.”

The buy-back rate, which was as low as 20.8% for the second session, concluded at 23.7%–another sign of the sale’s success, according to Elliston.

“You want to get trade done,” he said. “You want a good strong average, but you don’t want to take 35% of your horses back either. When we were seeing 18%, 19%, 20% buy-back rate versus 25% and 26% in prior years, that was also rewarding because these horses were fetching good prices and so many of them were finding good homes.”

Gatewood Bell’s Cromwell Bloodstock was active throughout the sale, buying yearlings from every price range starting at $10,000 and going up to $625,000.

“Like everyone [will say], the obvious ones you had to pay for,” Bell said. “We got outbid on a lot more than we bought, but we were very pleased with what we got. It was a really good group to be able to select from. That was the beauty of it. You had so many people with a lot of money and all these [horses] are finding new homes. There was something for everybody.”

10 years On

The 2018 Keeneland September Sale marked 10 years since the bottom fell out of the Thoroughbred market with the world-wide economic crash of 2008.

“We had the fourth highest grossing sale in history and the three previous were in ’05, ’06, ’07, right before the crash,” Elliston said. “So I think we’ve made a lot of gains back [since 2008]. There is a lot of optimism in the breeding industry right now.

Elliston continued, “There is some enthusiasm at the racetrack on big race days, purses are growing and so, while not everything is perfect, there are reasons to be optimistic and hopefully that this will continue. The economy drives a great deal of it. We all probably wonder when this economy is due for a slow down–it’s been 10 years since it hit bottom. That may temper our optimism because you’ve got to believe that some of the fire is going to come out of the economy, but right now it looks pretty positive.”

Taylor Made Sales Agency recorded its highest grossing sale since 2008, with 300 head grossing $47,317,400. In 2008, the company sold 369 yearlings for $48,502,900. Duncan Taylor thinks a broader buying bench has produced a stronger market a decade after the crash.

“I think the market is going to be better because the money is more spread out over more horses,” Taylor said. “It seems like [bidding] was tapering off at the $2.5-million mark now, but there are more of them being sold.”

Godolphin Leads All Buyers

Sheikh Mohammed was in attendance at the September sale for the first time in nearly a decade and his Godolphin was the auction’s leading buyer, purchasing 27 yearlings for $19,960,000, including three of the seven-figure yearlings. It was the highest amount for a single buying entity at the sale since 2006. In 2017, the operation was the third leading buyer, with 17 purchased for $8,065,000.

“We were pleased to welcome Sheikh Mohammed and his wife, Princess Haya, to Keeneland for the first time in a number of years,” Elliston said. “His presence and the participation of his brother, Sheikh Hamdan, and the Coolmore contingent change the atmosphere of the sale. It creates an excitement that reverberates around the sales grounds.”

Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Estate Company purchased 19 yearlings for $12,345,000, including three seven-figure offerings.

The auction’s 27 million-plus yearlings were purchased by 12 separate buying interests, with 13 purchased by domestic buyers and 14 by international interests.

“Sheikh Mohammed loves the auction business, he loves the racing business and the breeding business, so when he is here, it is very rewarding for us,” Elliston said. “But it also gets everybody else excited and enthusiastic about what is going on. Godolphin drove it at the top and it was rewarding, but we had a large number of high-grossing buyers.”

Perennial Leader Taylor Made Tops Again

Taylor Made Sales Agency was the September sale’s leading consignor for the fourth consecutive time and for the 20th time since 1988, selling 300 horses for $47,317,400. The company sold three seven-figure yearlings, including a $2.1-million son of Medaglia d’Oro.

“Our customers continue to support us and we can’t thank them enough,” Duncan Taylor said. “They really provide us with the product. They keep raising good horses that run well, so it just continues to feed each other. We hope that we’re doing a good job and other people are seeing that and we are attracting new customers, too. It’s a real blessing and we feel very privileged that the people choose us to sell their horses. We keep trying to make sure they believe that is the right choice.”

Sire Power

Uncle Mo was the sale’s leading sire by gross, with 65 yearlings sold for $22,392,000, including three million-dollar horses. Medaglia d’Oro ranked second, represented by 34 yearlings sold for $20,075,000 and five seven-figure offerings.

War Front was the sale’s leading sire by average, with 18 sold for an average of $782,500, followed by Tapit with 25 sold for an average of $611,200.

The 27 million-dollar yearlings were by 11 different sires: American Pharoah, Curlin, Empire Maker (with his first yearlings since returning to the U.S.), Ghostzapper, Into Mischief, Medaglia d’Oro, Pioneerof the Nile, Quality Road, Tapit, Uncle Mo and War Front.

The hype over the first crop of yearlings by American Pharoah continued to live up to billing, with 47 yearlings selling for $19,585,000, for an average of $416,702, and including three million-dollar horses.

New Year, New Format

For the last few years, Keeneland has been tinkering with the format of its mammoth September sale. In 2017, the sale started out with a super select one-session Book 1 and was followed by three Book 2 sessions. This year, Book 1 was held over four days and Book 2 was two sessions. The format had buyers stretched out covering ground all the way from barn 1 to barn 49 and heavy rains on the Sunday before the sale started forced Keeneland to delay the start time of its four Book 1 sessions by two hours. But, for Elliston, the success of the format was in the sale’s final numbers.

“If outcomes are any indication, it’s pretty positive when you’re going to be $70-million plus north of where you were last year,” Elliston said of the new format. “We heard a lot of good things. We’ll always listen to our customers and try to find the right format that fits. But this one certainly worked well. I think some of the stabling issues that we are faced with, it may have been a bit inconvenient for some of the buyers to have to travel all the way from barn 1 to barn 48, but the quality stock was worth it. That’s what they told us. This crop really seemed to be an outstanding crop of horses. So they couldn’t just spend time in one part of the barn area, they had to go see them all and fortunately they did and we had some exceptional trade.”

For Duncan Taylor, the longer Book 1 meant watered down quality.

“I think it’s good to have consistency,” he said. “I think it’s better for everybody if we concentrate on getting the very highest caliber in Book 1 and the ones that aren’t, have them be part of Book 2. I think we should weed out some of the horses that were in Book 1, instead of forcing them up there.”

Court Vision Colt Tops September Finale

A colt by Court Vision topped Sunday’s final session of the Keeneland September sale when selling for $70,000 to Ken and Sarah Ramsey. The yearling (hip 4435) is out of Baytree (Forestry) and is a full-brother to graded stakes placed Hammers Vision and a half to stakes-placed First Goal (First Defence). He was consigned by Vinery Sales as agent for Haymarket Farm.

During Sunday’s session, 183 yearlings sold for $1,334,200 at an average of $7,291 and a median of $4,000.

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