By Jessica Martini
Even the most optimistic observer would have been hard-pressed to predict that the 2023 Keeneland September Yearling Sale would live up to its blockbuster 2022 renewal, but when the dust had settled Saturday afternoon, the auction's 12-day run produced numbers largely in line with last year's record setter.
“Coming into this year, we had to have a little bit of caution just because of the economic climate and some negativity in the sport,” admitted Keeneland Vice President of Sales Tony Lacy. “I think we have to be extremely happy with the way the sale has gone. I know we go on about the energy and the enthusiasm, but I think it was actually amplified this year. It was great to see the pavilion packed, especially on the first day. The biggest issue we had was a lack of seating, which I don't think we've had in the past very often. I think the sellers felt very encouraged by the traffic, by the amount of vetting that they had before the sale. So overall, I think the table was set. The numbers were very similar to last year–which was a record year–so we've got to be very pleased.”
At the close of business Saturday, 2,754 yearlings had grossed $394,127,900, third highest in sale history. The average of $143,111 just ticked up from last year's record-setting figure of $142,429, while the median of $67,000 was down 4.29% from last year's record of $70,000. The buy-back rate was 20.22%. It was 18.24% last year.
Additionally, 130 horses that did not meet their reserve price in the ring were sold privately for a total of $13,927,000 to push total gross sales to $408,054,900 as of the close of the Sept. 23 session.
The September gross topped $400 million for the first time in 2022 when 2,847 horses sold for $405,495,700.
Thirty horses topped $1 million this year, including the $3-million sale-topping son of Into Mischief purchased by the partnership of Chuck Sonson, Woodford and West Point Thoroughbreds. That matches the number to hit that threshold from 2022 and doubled the number from the 2021 auction. There were 168 horses who sold for $500,000 or more this year, compared to 162 in 2022.
“The 30 seven-figure horses in Books 1 and 2 was the same as last year and we've actually exceeded the number of $500,000 sales compared to last year,” said Keeneland Director of Sales Operations Cormac Breathnach. “It's been a very healthy market with a lot of participation from many countries and many domestic buyers.”
Depth in the Buying Bench
The Keeneland September sale attracted another deep and diverse buying bench with strong domestic participation bolstered by a wide array of international buyers.
“One day, the top 15 horses were from 13 different entities and most of those were domestic,” Lacy said of the buying bench. “There were some international buyers that were participating at the high level as well and they were critically important and always have been in the market.”
The stallion-making partnership of SF Racing, Starlight Racing and Madaket Stables was the auction's leading buyer, acquiring 20 yearlings for $12,590,000. A year ago, the partnership was the second leading buyer with 21 purchased for $12,825,000.
Mike Repole's Repole Stable and St. Elias Stables partnered up to be last year's leading buyer, with 31 purchased for $12,840,000. While the two operations did not purchase together this year, Repole was the auction's second leading buyer with 35 yearlings purchased for $11,835,000. He purchased a further eight horses in partnership with Spendthrift for $4.185 million.
Alone or in various partnership, St. Elias bought 12 head for $4.645 million.
“You see an emphasis on partnerships and syndicates,” Lacy said. “I think with the purse structure right now and the possibility to have a lot of fun and a return on your investment, it makes a lot of sense for people spending considerable amounts of money. Mike Repole has been a critical part of that and with one or two horses, he has paid for the whole package. So this makes sense. It's playing at the big table, but again it pays off in the long run.”
The domestic buying bench at the top end also included Jim and Dana Bernhard, who purchased the historic Pin Oak Stud last year and recently added land from the former Adena Springs. The Bernhards acquired 19 yearlings for $8,835,000. Newcomer John Stewart also made a splash at the auction, purchasing 13 head–including a $2.5-million filly by Uncle Mo–for $8,425,000, while Robert Clay's Grandview Equine purchased nine yearlings for $3,530,000.
“I think purse structure is really what's promoting, or permitting, the domestic buyers to be so strong,” Breathnach said. “We had tremendous international participation at this sale, but they were evident on the grounds at some points more than on the results sheets because the American buyer base is very powerful right now. The vast majority of the top 20, 30, 40 yearlings sold in this sale are staying in the U.S., even the ones purchased by Sheikha Hissa.”
The Shadwell stable of the late Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum was largely absent from the September sales results in recent years, but made a big return this year with his daughter, Sheikha Hissa on the grounds at Keeneland. The operation purchased the session topper on the sale's first day, going to $2.3 million for a filly by Into Mischief. It also acquired a daughter of Medaglia d'Oro for $1.1 million. In all, Shadwell purchased four yearlings for $4,850,000.
“It was great to see Sheikha Hissa return to the market here at Keeneland,” Breathnach said. “That was really rewarding for us that she was here and she had a great time. That's important to us in terms of the future of the game here and the international market as well.”
Strength Follows Strength
While Keeneland's elite Books 1 and 2 attracted plenty of competitive bidding, there was concern demand might drop off in the auction's later books, but the results remained strong.
“We were more concerned about the last book or two,” Lacy said. “The conversations we had with a lot of potential buyers during the summer on our travels, whether it was domestic or international, they were very much engaged with coming to Keeneland. So I think we felt pretty confident that [demand] would go to Book 4, but we are incredibly happy with the way Book 5 started off and the clearance rate. [Friday] we had a clearance rate of almost 90%, which I think has got to be very positive from the perspective of breeders who are able to get their horses moved on into the system and they can reinvest in the next crop.”
Phil Hager signed for 18 yearlings for $2,507,000 in the name of his Taproot Bloodstock and he was involved in the purchase of several other head during the 12-day auction.
“Going into the sale, I was expecting the first week was going to be really tough to buy and then it would drop of pretty significantly shortly after that,” Hager said. “And I felt like it was definitely tough that first week, but there was pretty spirited bidding all the way through, really. Those first few days were really tough, but after that, I felt like we started to get a few more bought. It seemed like the transition to the second week, there was one day that felt like it was light and then it picked right back up again and got pretty active. It was a little stronger at the end than I thought it would be.”
Still, Hager said Keeneland's emphasis on putting strong physicals up front in the sale may have led to some bargains early on.
“I thought Book 1 was really strong in terms of physicals,” Hager said. “You could tell that Keeneland was trying to put some of the better physicals into Book 1 and there were maybe some horses in Book 1 that could have brought more if they were in Book 2 or 3. And I felt like there were some good opportunities there, but sometimes it's hard to talk owners into looking into Book 1 because you get used to vetting them and then getting blown out of the water. But just looking back on it, it seems like maybe there were a few opportunities–and I'm not talking under $100,000, it was the $200,000 to $400,000–but maybe horses that were decently bought in those first two days.”
He continued, “If you wanted a really good physical and some pedigree, then, yes, it did cost a lot. At times probably more than you would have thought going in. Luckily, a few of my clients were willing to pay a little more to get that horse. There were a few that we bought that I thought could have brought more. But overall, I thought it was pretty fair.”
Finding Value in Fillies
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners was active in the September market, purchasing–alone or in partnership–18 yearlings for $5,385,000.
“It's a very healthy market,” said Eclipse's Aron Wellman. “It has been for several years, especially in the upper echelon of the market, which is where we try to play. There has been no clearly defined middle market for quite some time, but we do our best to try to seek out value and carve out a middle market of our own, so to speak.”
With the current proliferation of colt-buying partnerships, Eclipse Thoroughbreds has sought to find value in buying fillies–just five of its September yearlings were colts.
“It's a strategy that has proven fortuitous for our program and our partners,” Wellman said. “There is just such an insatiable appetite for what buyers perceive to be stallion prospects and the premium being paid for those individuals that sometimes when we are able to place more of an emphasis on fillies, we feel as though we get a little bit better value for our money.”
Eclipse did purchase a colt by Into Mischief for $850,000 and a son of Good Magic for $725,000.
“Those were two our swinging for the fences type plays and then after that we were back in our sweet spot, back in the $150,000-$250,000 range,” Wellman said.
Wellman sees the buying power of the colt partnerships expanding into even later sessions.
“The conglomerates that have been put together to purchase high-profile colts with stallion physique and pedigree have made that a very competitive niche market that is expanding,” he said. “You are seeing guys in sessions six and seven paying high six figures for colts right now. So it's not confined to Book 1 or even Books 2 or 3. When there is that perception that there is a potential stallion prospect, with those traits and characteristics, there is no ceiling as to what those horses might bring.”
Wellman, sounding like a man just coming out of war, said the competition ran straight through the sale.
“We shopped all of the way through Book 5,” he said. “There is an incredible buying bench headed up by great bloodstock agents right now and I think they are supported by fantastic capital–just when you think the money is going to run dry, there is no such as thing as sneaking one past anyone anymore. There is such an incredible desire for owners to have horses that they envision being capable of competing at the highest level. So they are willing to pay premiums if they believe those horses possess those tools. And you've got to go into the pavilion every time thinking you are going to war. There is no letting down at any point in this sale. It's a war, it's a marathon, it's a battle of attrition. And you've got to be equally mentally and physically focused because it is challenging on every front. You go into battle mode for a couple of weeks and you hope to come out with as many healthy soldiers as you can find.”
Format Formally a Success
For the third year in a row, the Keeneland September sale was presented with two-session Books 1 and 2, followed by a dark day. Sales officials continued to be pleased with the results of the format.
“When we start breaking the $400-million mark two years in a row, I think that illustrates stability,” Lacy said. “The one thing our buyers and our clients want is consistency. They want familiarity. We put our necks on the line with this format, but it was something that needed to happen. I think the consignors and the breeders are starting to understand what we are trying to do and what we are achieving. So we have a huge amount of buy-in right now. I think we are seeing that stability in the numbers. Even in some challenging economic times, we are still able to maintain some really, really good numbers.”
Demand at the top of the market during week one fueled gross sales of $234 million, on par with last year's $236 million for the corresponding period. The average price of $367,818 rose 3.8% while the median climbed 9% to $300,000.
“With a consistent format and with the focus on getting good physicals into the early books, we feel like we have a formula that works with the buyer base and that's an important part of the equation,” Breathnach said. “If we have approximately 400 in Book 1 and 700 in Book 2, that format allows us to have a critical mass of horses on the grounds at effectively the same time. So we can start at 1 p.m. with 200 horses a session in Book 1 and we can start at 11 a.m. in Book 2 and those are critical extra hours in the morning for the buyers to get their vet work done and get second looks and to stay ahead in looking at horses in the upcoming sessions. When we have the dark day, it gives people that opportunity to keep pace with the sale.”
The push of quality to the front of the auction has produced the desired results, according to Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency.
“Keeneland has done a good job in Book 1 of getting better physical horses pushed forward, and the market responded to that,” said Taylor. “We sold horses in Book 1 for a lot of money by freshman sires and by non-traditional Book 1 sires. Keeneland's ongoing push to get breeders and consignors to support Book 1 with really good physicals by a diverse group of stallions is paying dividends.”
Plenty of Mischief at Keeneland September
Of the 30 horses to bring seven figures during the September sale, 12 were by Into Mischief and five were by Uncle Mo. The two stallions were responsible for nine of the auction's top 10 prices. Gun Runner had three million-dollar sales, Not This Time, Curlin and Tapit had two each and Constitution, Medaglia d'Oro, McKinzie and Volatile one.
Into Mischief was the sale's leading sire by average with 53 yearlings averaging $698,019.
While first-crop sires McKinzie and Volatile produced million-dollar yearlings at Keeneland, it was Authentic who led all sires in that category by average. The GI Kentucky Derby winner had 67 yearlings sell for an average of $270,358.
Gainesway Leads All Consignors
Gainesway ended Taylor Made Sales Agency's eight-year reign as the September sale's leading consignor. Antony Beck's operation sold 137 yearlings for a gross of $43,573,000. Gainesway got the auction off with a bang, selling nine million-dollar yearlings, and didn't slow down throughout, leading the consignor's list at every session in which they sold horses.
“I would describe it as a lifetime achievement,” Gainesway General Manager Brian Graves said of the title. “I'm just so grateful to our clients for giving us such a quality product to put us in a position to be the leading consignor. We knew we had a really nice physical draft of horses, especially with the addition of Mandy [Pope]'s horses and top pedigrees, and the feedback from Keeneland was very positive. They had asked us to put more horses into Book 1 and move more horses from Book 3 to Book 2, so that was a good sign we had a strong and really deep group of horses. Then the results turned out good.”
Taylor Made was the auction's second-leading consignor with 268 head grossing $39,387,000.
Silent Name Colt Tops Keeneland Finale
A colt by Silent Name (Jpn) (hip 4037) topped the final day of the Keeneland September sale when selling for $185,000 from the partnership of X-Men Racing, Madaket Stable and SF Racing. Consigned by Grovendale Sales, the yearling is out of Holy Cargo (Holy Bull), a half-sister to GI Preakness S. winner Red Bullet (Unbridled). He was bred in Ontario by BHMFR, LLC, which purchased the mare with the colt in utero for $10,000 at the 2021 Keeneland November sale.
Alone or in partnership, X-Men Racing, the Canadian partnership assembled by bloodstock agent Donato Lanni, purchased 13 yearlings for $1.366 million during the 12-day auction.