By Christie DeBernardis
LEXINGTON, KY–The Keeneland September Yearling Sale starts its 11-day run Monday with the first of two Book 1 sessions, beginning at 1 p.m. The five-book catalogue offers a total of 4,032 yearlings by a variety of stallions, such as Triple Crown heroes American Pharoah and Justify; the red-hot Into Mischief; perennial leading sire Tapit; stalwarts like Medaglia d'Oro, War Front and Candy Ride (Arg); and top freshman sire Gun Runner.
“I think when you get this volume of horses and there are a lot of really nice horses, there is opportunity for the buyers,” said Taylor Made's Mark Taylor. “I think buyers need to realize there are opportunities to find really good horses at good prices from Book 1 all the way to the end of the sale. There is quality from start to finish, maybe even more now than in recent memory.”
The barns were buzzing with activity over the weekend as buyers made their way through Book 1 and 2 offerings. Todd Pletcher, Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert and Jonathan Thomas were among the trainers seen inspecting yearlings. Of course, bloodstock agents could be seen left and right, such as Steve Young, Jacob West, Donato Lanni, Kerri Radcliffe, Justin Casse, China Horse Club's Michael Wallace and Mike Ryan. The teams from Coolmore, WinStar, Spendthrift and Summer Wind Farm were spotted on the grounds checking on their offerings as well as shopping for new stock. Pinhookers were also out in full force, such as Niall Brennan, Steve Venosa, Ciaran Dunne, Lynne Boutte, Randy Hartley and Brandon and Ali Rice.
“We are very optimistic. The traffic is very good,” said Tony Lacy, Keeneland's Vice President of Sales. “The reception of the quality of horses has been excellent. There is a good, diverse group of horses for a varied marketplace, whether it is domestic or international. It is great to see so many international participants here, even in a challenging travel year. Credit applications are coming in at a higher rate than in recent years. I think the outlook is quite promising. We always have to be cautious about what the market will be at the end of the day, but, quite honestly, at this point the indicators are very good.”
The yearling market was strong all the way through at the three previous major yearling sales this year–Fasig Tipton's July, Saratoga Select and New York-Bred sales–and sellers are confident that trend will continue at Keeneland.
“The first three sales of the year are really three domestic sales,” said Denali Stud's Conrad Bandoroff. “The domestic market has been very strong with a lot of diverse competition across the board. There has been a strong level of interest and activity in the middle market as well as the top. That will carry over. I know Keeneland has been working very hard to ensure that all of the international buyers and agents will be able to come in and be here for the sale. You have to expect we will have a strong market in September and see more of what we have seen in the first three yearling sales.”
The Keeneland team worked diligently with local and national government agencies last year to bring international buyers in for the sale despite travel restrictions and bans across the globe. The sales company brought in as many foreign buyers as possible and others relied on their U.S.-based teams or took advantage of the phone or online bidding.
Lacy said this year it was even more difficult to acquire travel waivers for European buyers. However, Japanese agents had no issue entering the U.S. as their country only requires a negative COVID-19 test for travel back and forth to America, according to Lacy.
“We've got a number of buyers here from England and Ireland and some from France,” Lacy said. “We've had to go through different procedures this year. Last year, we worked with the Department of Homeland Security and this year we had to go through the State Department. Waivers had to be processed. Unfortunately, with Afghanistan, the State Department has been overloaded and it has pushed some of our applicants further down the line. But, we have been persistent and had a lot of help from our local representatives in [Washington] D.C. We have been able to get a number of people in [to the U.S.] and some of the waivers from last year were still current, so buyers were able to travel on those as well. We would love to have gotten more people in, but under present circumstances, it has been very restrictive. It was a lot more difficult this year than last year. But, we've got a good number of people here, which is very positive.”
In 2020, Keeneland put a number of protocols in place to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Only buyers and sellers were allowed to attend and had to submit a recent negative COVID-19 test to be approved for a pass. Capacity inside the pavilion was limited to 40% and all attendees were required to wear face masks on the grounds. The auction house also added online and phone bidding and an additional bidding spot in the back show ring. With the rise of vaccinations, the protocols will not be quite as strict this year, but Keeneland is still doing its best to provide a safe environment for all those in attendance.
“The bidding in the back show ring was last year and we don't have it this year,” Lacy said. “We are encouraging people to go into the pavilion more. There have been less people in the pavilion over the past few years and there is plenty of room for spacing in there. It is a more comfortable environment with less chance of congregating. I think out in the back ring can certainly be a congested area at times. We also have internet and phone bidding, so there are a lot of different ways people can partake in the sale.”
The 2020 September Sale went on as scheduled despite many of the year's previous auctions being canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It ran back-to-back with the Fasig-Tipton Yearling Showcase, which was a combination of that auction house's July, Saratoga and New York-Bred Sales held across town.
After a record-setting 2019 renewal of KEESEP, the economic and travel impacts of the virus were seen at the 2020 auction, but it still held its own. A total of 2,481 yearlings grossed $248,978,700 with 15 of them bringing seven figures. The average was $100,354 and the median was $37,000. The sale was topped by a $2-million Tapit colt out of GISW Tara's Tango (Unbridled's Song)
“I would certainly expect it to be more of a normal year,” said Lacy. “Again, 2019 was a very strong year, so I think it would be unfair to compare 2020 completely with 2019. But, in comparison to last year, I think it will be a more stable year in 2021, especially in Books 1 and 2. I feel there is more activity. People are learning to live with COVID in certain ways. We have tried to create a lot of spaces around the grounds where people can social distance. We have created an environment that allows people to be as safe as possible and remain as close to normal as possible.”
Keeneland has continued to adjust the sale format over the years. In 2019, Book 1 was three days and it was cut down to two for 2020. It will be two days once again for 2021, but with a new feature. Any horse that RNAs during the first session can be sent back through the ring again at the conclusion of day two's 200-horse session. A total of 399 horses are catalogued in Book 1, which will be followed by a two-day Book 2 comprised of 698 yearlings. The lone dark day of the auction follows Book 2 on Friday, Sept. 17. Book 3 picks up Sept. 18 and the sale runs straight through Sept. 24.
“We wanted a consistent format,” Lacy said. “That is one thing that everybody wants. We originally wanted a three-day Book 1 this year, but as the entries came in it became more apparent that we were better suited to having a two-day Book 1 and a two-day Book 2. So, we had to pivot. With the cooperation of the CBA and a lot of our breeders and clients, we were able to make a two-day Book 1 very viable. You want it to be representative of Book 1 horses and have good, solid quality with plenty of diversity.”
He continued, “Having been able to have almost 1,100 horses on the grounds at one time, it gives buyers the opportunity to inspect a large number of horses over four days. With the new format, they are able to get two days of showing for Book 3. You have a lot of good Book 3 horses as well, and this way they are not getting overlooked or rushed. It worked out logistically quite well and was well received by both buyers and sellers. Being able to showcase each individual in the proper manner is very important. If this format works well, it may be something we consider in the future.”