'Can't Miss' Keeneland September Sale Starts Monday

Keeneland sales grounds | Keeneland photo

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LEXINGTON, KY- The 79th renewal of the Keeneland September Yearling Sale opens its 12-day run Monday with the first of two Book 1 sessions beginning at 1 p.m. Consignors started showing Book 1 yearlings Friday and an international cast of shoppers were getting second looks at those elite youngsters on a misty Sunday morning in the Bluegrass, while also getting a head start on Book 2 horses who will start selling Wednesday.

“I think the activity is very good, particularly for Book 1,” said Peter O'Callaghan, whose Woods Edge Farm will warm up with  four yearlings during the first two days of the sale before offering 11 head in Book 2. “I think we did 83 all-shows on Friday and we did 116 yesterday, maybe not all-shows, but we had a full day's showing. We are showing the next group already today and we've had quite a busy morning for the Sunday morning up there. I think the signs are good.”

The first three days of showing featured an eclectic mix of buyers from around the world, according to Legacy Bloodstock's Tommy Eastham, who expects momentum to build on from a strong group of Book 1 offerings.

“Traffic has been really encouraging, not just volume-wise, but quality of shows,” Eastham said. “Keeneland has done a good job of bringing every accent in the world here. And I think they've done a really good job of picking out the horses. [Keeneland Vice President of Sales] Tony [Lacy] and [Keeneland Director of Sales Operations] Cormac [Breathnach] have done a really great job of putting some quality horses up front here. It's always been difficult for us in Book 1, if we started the sale with a little bit of a thud, then it takes to Book 2 for everyone to get confident in where they are. But the buyers keep mentioning what a great group of horses is here and I think there is a great deal of excitement.”

Consignors expect to see a continuation of familiar marketplace conditions over the next two weeks at Keeneland, with strong demand at the top and a polarization between the perceived quality offerings and those less-fancied horses.

“I am sure it will be a strong sale, but selective as every sale has been this year and for past years,” said Hill 'n' Dale Sales Agency's John Sikura. “There is plenty of money here and all of the right people. There is great pre-sale activity. They will do their scrutiny and they will land on the horses they like physically and the ones that vet to their satisfaction. Hopefully, we will have several that appeal to the elite buyers.”

Sikura continued, “I think [the polarization] is here to stay. You have a shrinking foal crop combined with a shrinking number of racetracks. So people are going to buy what they like and there probably isn't a buyer for every horse. You are rewarded on the ones that meet the scrutiny of multiple buyers and they make extra and then there are the ones that don't quite make it. There are savvy people who sometimes bid under the crazed market and then there are people who want exactly what they want and those cost more.”

Foreign buyers come to Keeneland this year while facing uncertain economic conditions in Europe and less-than-favorable exchange rates across the globe.

“Every year you are hoping you have a global market and that people from all marketplaces are here,” Sikura said. “You can't change the economic environment in various nations. That's sort of beyond your control. You just make the horses as good as you can make them and bring your best product to sale.”

Sikura added that economic conditions are less likely to impact top-end buyers.

“I think there is a lot of insulation of very wealthy people and in tough times they are still in a position to buy what they like,” he said. “Everything is cyclical to a degree. But I don't think inflation and potential economic slowdown has a lot of impact on our marketplace. A global recession would, but I don't think the vagaries of marketplaces in different countries would make that much difference because in every environment when things are tough for one sector, they are good for another. If you are in the oil and gas business, it's probably been good, but the stock market hasn't been as good, but it was good before. I think there is an ebb and a flow.”

After years in which overseas interests dominated the buying sheets, the domestic buying bench stepped up at the last two September sales to fill the void left by major buyers Godolphin and Shadwell, with partnership groups leading the way. Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola's St. Elias Stables teamed up to buy 43 yearlings at last year's September sale for a leading $16,045,000. They were followed by the SF Bloodstock/Starlight/Madaket partnership which purchased 24 head for $10,590,000. The powerhouse partnership buyers also included the BSW/Crow Colts Group which purchased 20 horses for $6,805,000.

Representatives from all three groups were out in force at the Keeneland barns ahead of Monday's first session.

“This sale has been very successful without Sheikh Mohammed the last couple of years and no Sheikh Hamdan last year,” O'Callaghan said. “The domestic buyers are very strong. I think it's given the high-end domestic buyers more confidence that they can buy these horses now. For years, I think they thought when they were bidding against the Maktoum families they had no chance. Since COVID, the domestic buyers have really stepped in and gotten in early and been great supporters of the sales. And then there are all the new buying groups–they've just been an absolute gift to the game. Whether it's the SF group or the Liz Crow group, Todd [Pletcher] last year, the way they are working it this year, they are working it very hard. All these guys are very committed–as they should be because racing is strong at the moment.”

Book 1 horses have had to deal with a perception problem in recent years with consignors seemingly happier to be a big fish in a Book 2 pond than overshadowed in Book 1. The Keeneland sales team has made a point of countering that image (Keeneland's Premier Book in Every Way).

“Keeneland has done a good job getting more people in early,” O'Callaghan said. “I think that ad they ran highlighting the success of the first 20 hips was a good ad and they need to sell that message. It's important that people can have confidence to bid on the early horses, because year after year, it's where the value is.”

The Keeneland September sale is often considered a bellwether for the marketplace as a whole and the auction comes in the midst of a series of strong yearling sales throughout the country, giving consignors the optimism that demand for horses will remain beyond the auction's opening books.

“The market has been really strong,” said Eastham. “I think it's been fair. I think horses are bringing what they are worth. We always worry about what happens when we go past these select horses but, just me as a consignor, the Iowa sale was up almost twice as much, the New Mexico sale and the Texas sale were up. I think that mid-market horse, we are going to be fine there. I think there is still going to be enthusiasm for that market.”

In an effort to create a festive atmosphere to the pavilion on sales days, Keeneland added live music, as well as passed hors d'oeuvres and cocktails a year ago. Those amenities, plus facility upgrades, will return this year.

“The success of September Sale graduates combined with the availability of quality yearlings at all price levels make the September Sale a can't-miss event for horsemen from around the world,” Lacy said. “This year, we are excited to share our latest capital improvements and facilities around the grounds–from renovated barns to the Saddling Paddock Chalet here for the Breeders' Cup World Championships–and we are continuing to elevate the September sale atmosphere with fun touches and elements that enhance the experience.”

The Keeneland September sale opens with Book 1 sessions on Monday and Tuesday beginning at 1 p.m., while Book 2 sessions on Wednesday and Thursday begin at 11 a.m. Following a dark day Friday, the auction resumes Saturday and continues through Sept. 24 with sessions beginning daily at 10 a.m.

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