'Incredibly Positive' Vibe: Keeneland September Sale Starts Monday

Keeneland sales grounds | Keeneland

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LEXINGTON, KY – The Keeneland September Yearling Sale, which produced gangbuster results in 2022, returns for its 2023 renewal Monday in Lexington. Perennially a bellwether of the industry's sales market, the 12-day auction opens with a pair of elite Book 1 sessions beginning at 1 p.m. and, with the Keeneland barns awash with activity Sunday, both sales officials and consignors were heading into the sale with plenty of optimism.

“The traffic has been incredibly positive,” said Keeneland Vice President of Sales Tony Lacy. “There are quite a few buyers here. It's probably as positive as I've seen it since pre-COVID. The feedback that we are getting is that it's a very good group of horses. The buyers are very satisfied. The sellers are very positive about the feedback they are getting on the stock they have here overall. So, in general, I am cautiously optimistic.”

Standing outside his Candy Meadows Sales consignment at Barn 11, Matt Lyons smiled when asked about his expectations for the week.

“I suppose we are eternally hopeful as consignors, aren't we?” Lyons said. “Traffic has been pretty good so far. And we are seeing all of the main players and the main syndicates that people are expecting to see. There are quite a few groups from Japan, it looks like, on the grounds and they are looking hard. So we are hopeful.”

The 2023 Keeneland September sale has a tough act to follow. Last year's auction surpassed $400-million in gross sales for the first time in its history, while also setting records for average and median for the second year in a row. A year ago 2,847 yearlings grossed $405,495,700–to better the previous record set in 2006–for an average of $142,429 and a median of $70,000.

“The market has been good, we've had a bull run for the last 15 years, so I don't expect any dramatic changes,” said Brad Weisbord, whose Elite Sales makes its Keeneland September debut this week. “The colts groups seems to have their money together, so they will probably be the high end. The middle market has struggled for a couple of years. The pinhookers have been strong. They made money the last couple of years–which is nice to see–so I don't expect many changes. But we will know at the end of the sale. This sale determines what the yearling market is throughout the whole year, so at the end of this marathon we will really understand how the market is.”

While Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin and his late brother Sheikh Hamdan dominated the top of the Keeneland September market for many years, the decreased participation of those two Dubai-based entities in the last three years has been largely filled by American-based partnerships focused mainly on purchasing colts with Classic potential.

Leading the way in the last two years was the team of Mike Repole and Vinnie Viola, who purchased 31 yearlings for $12,840,000 in 2022. Repole is expected once again to be on site during the first four days of the Keeneland sale as his agent Jacob West and advisor Eddie Rosen were on the grounds Sunday. Chasing them for the leading buyer title last year was the stallion-making partnership of SF Racing, Starlight Racing and Madaket Stables, as well as BSW/Crow Colts Group.

The Keeneland September sale annually attracts buyers from around the world and the buying bench's international flavor should be strong in the coming week, according to Lacy.

“We have been very pleased with the support we have been getting from the international market and especially Japan,” Lacy said. “We have had more Japanese visitors this week and they are staying longer. I think they are finding that we have certain sire lines and pedigrees that have worked internationally for them. We are becoming more affordable and very relevant for their program.”

Among the Japanese shoppers on the sales grounds Sunday was Hideyuki Mori, whose five yearling purchases a year ago were led by a $1.2-million son of Curlin.

The international buying bench is also strengthened by new overseas opportunities like the Goffs Dubai Breeze-Up Sale, which was topped this past March by a son of Gun Runner who sold for $583,520 after bringing $160,000 at last year's Keeneland September sale.

“The Dubai sale that Goffs run in the spring every year has proven to be a very profitable endeavor for a lot of the pinhookers from Europe coming over here to source stock,” Lacy said. “That has really been a great addition to the diversity of what people are looking for.”

Lacy continued, “We have Australians here, I think we will have a lot of South Americans here and people from all over the world. From the Middle East, we have buyers from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai. We've put a lot of work travelling around the world over the last couple of years to reach out to our clients at every stage and provide a level of customer service that they would expect anywhere else. Those efforts have started to pay off as we start to look at the diversity through the sales grounds and the excitement about the quality of stock that the U.S. is producing, which is really encouraging.”

Shadwell Farm, which had long been one of the leading buyers at the Keeneland September sale before the death of its founder Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum in 2021, made four purchases last year and could be a resurgent presence at this year's auction. Sheikha Hissa, now at the helm of her late father's operation, was at the Keeneland sales grounds Sunday.

“Sheikha Hissa came for Malathaat's race in the Doubledogdare S. last year,” Lacy said. “So she got the experience of coming here. She very much wants to have the same experience that her dad did, so we've been working diligently so that we have the same people working with her as worked with her dad.”

Keeneland has settled into a format for its September sale, which for the third year features Book 1 sessions Monday and Tuesday with 383 yearlings, followed by Book 2 sessions Wednesday and Thursday with 728 yearlings a before a dark day Friday.

“[This format] allows the higher-end buyers to be able to look at these horses in a relaxed manner without being rushed and also have the opportunity to go and look at Book 2 horses before the first horse walks through the ring,” Lacy explained. “So there is good idea of what the quality is out there. We put a lot of effort into making sure we have good physicals up front that have pedigree, that have commercial appeal, knowing what the marketplace is looking for.”

He continued, “I see this year people are in a more relaxed mode and they are able to give these horses the consideration that they deserve and I think they feel comfortable with that.”

Following its Book 1 and 2 sections, Keeneland will hope for demand to continue into what has seemed to be a weakening middle market.

“I think, looking at the yearling sales that have already happened this year, you have to be positive that [demand] will carry through to at least the middle of the sale,” Lacy said. “I think it could carry through right to the end.”

After buying in a bullish yearling sale a year ago, pinhookers faced a tougher market to sell in this spring, but Weisbord expects they will still be a strong presence at Keeneland.

“Listen, that's their business,” Weisbord said. “They buy yearlings to sell 2-year-olds. So I expect them to be strong from $75,000 to $275,000. After that, it becomes a very difficult pinhook, but I think that market for them will still be strong.”

The Keeneland September Book 1 sessions Monday and Tuesday will begin at 1 p.m. Book 2 sessions Wednesday and Thursday begin at 11 a.m. Following Friday's dark day, the auction continues through Sept. 23 with sessions beginning daily at 10 a.m.

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