By Brian DiDonato
While there were bright spots and plenty of successes, Keeneland's bellweather September Yearling Sale saw significant drop-offs in trade from last year's strong renewal as the Thoroughbred industry and world at large reel from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conducted over 12 days this year compared to 13 last term and with strict safety protocols in place, the 2020 September sale grossed $238,454,300 from 2,346 head sold. The gross 12 months ago was $359,789,700 from 2,850 sellers. This year's average dipped 19.49% from $126,242 to $101,643; the median dropped 18.68% from $45,500 to $37,000.
The buy-back rate was 29.29% this year and 24.24% in 2019. Outs were higher this time as well from a smaller catalog (954, or 22.3% of the catalog vs. 882, 19%).
“The September Sale can be measured as a success given that in these uncertain times, the market proved there is still tremendous interest and money for quality racehorses at all levels,” Keeneland President and CEO Bill Thomason said.
Keeneland President-Elect and Interim Head of Sales Shannon Arvin added, “Everyone who participated should be applauded for their unprecedented efforts to make this market a reality. Keeneland is fortunate, in the midst of a pandemic, to be able to not only hold the September Sale but do so on its originally scheduled dates. I'm so proud of the Keeneland team who, immediately after the Spring Meet was canceled and the lockdown in Kentucky was announced in mid-March, began collaborating with state and local health officials, breeders, consignors, buyers and others in the Thoroughbred industry, to plan for the September Sale even as the landscape changed almost daily. The success of this sale is a testament to the cooperation among everyone involved and the resiliency of our industry.”
The sale topper was a $2-million Tapit colt out of GISW and 'TDN Rising Star' Tara's Tango (Unbridled's Song) purchased during Book 1 last Monday for $2 million by a powerful partnership consisting of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Bob LaPenta, Gainesway Farm and Winchell Thoroughbreds. He was consigned as hip 435 by Eaton Sales on behalf of Barbara Banke's Stonestreet Bred & Raised, which sold 30 horses for $9,911,000 through a variety of consignors.
Among the positive 2020 takeaways was that the 15 million-plus sellers were bought by 14 different, mostly domestic entities, including some relatively new top-of-the market players who stepped in to fill the void left by the absence of Godolphin and relative quietness of Shadwell and the Coolmore contingent.
After a digital sale next week, Keeneland will shift its focus to its fall meet, then hosting a no-fans Breeders' Cup Nov. 6 and 7, immediately followed by its November Breeding Stock Sale beginning Nov. 9.
“Given what we know today, we would anticipate that we will still be working under those same protocols [in November] that we've been working under in September,” Arvin noted.
Keeneland's Director of Sales Operations Geoffrey Russell added, “The November sale will be 10 days–it has been reduced by about a book this year, which we had anticipated going in. The difference between the September sale and the November sale is that the September sale [offerings are] the crop, and the November sale [offerings are] the factory. Breeders can retain their mares and weanlings and hope that 2021 will be a better market to offer that weanling as a yearling.”
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Partnerships Step in As International Players Quiet
While Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin and Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Estate Company, Ltd. were first and second-leading buyers at the 2018 and 2019 September sales, the 2020 renewal saw different entities–and particularly partnerships–making the largest expenditures. Godolphin did not make a single purchase this September (vs. 10 buys for $16 million 12 months ago), and Shadwell spent $5,420,000 on nine buys compared to $11,070,000 on twice as many head in 2019.
“There were certain major players that weren't playing in the market this year, and obviously that had a huge impact on Book 1,” Russell said. “We had been given an indication prior to the sale that Godolphin wouldn't be playing at the level that they had been playing at last year.”
Meanwhile, “The Avengers”–the stallion-making group consisting of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables and others–made the most purchases of any one entity, with 28 for a gross of $11.25 million. The conglomerate was responsible for purchasing GI Kentucky Derby winner Authentic (Into Mischief) for $350,000 at the 2018 September sale.
Agent Donato Lanni, representative for the Avengers and known for his close association with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, signed for a total of 33 purchases for $12,732,000.
While the bulk of purchases by the Avengers will eventually be heading to Baffert in California, an East Coast counterpart emerged this year, as Todd Pletcher clients Repole Stables and St Elias Stable took home 15 head for $6,380,000.
“For that group of sought-after horses that several people might land on, I thought it was very strong. Just like any sale in the past, if you brought a really nice horse, you got rewarded,” said agent Conor Foley, whose Oracle Bloodstock was involved in 24 purchases for $3,673,500, ranging from $1.1 million down to $1,500. “It felt competitive–it probably would've been an unbelievable, off-the-charts sale if foreign buyers had been allowed. I thought it was competitive all the way through. I think that shows strength and belief in our industry, as 2020 has changed everything.”
Taylor Made Top Consignor Once Again
Taylor Made Sales Agency took up its usual spot as the leading September consignor by gross, selling 252 horses for $29,783,400 at an average of $118,188. Unsurprisingly, its overall numbers followed the same trends as the market at large. Last September, Taylor Made sold 307 head for $42,650,900.
When reached for comment midday Friday, breeder and consignor Carrie Brogden–formerly of Select Sales and selling for the first September under her family's Machmer Hall banner–admitted that, despite some solid results for her own offerings including a $1.025 million Into Mischief filly (hip 405), it was difficult not to be somewhat discouraged by the statistics and current industry landscape. She specifically cited the front page of Friday's TDN, which featured Sid Fernando's Taking Stock column on the left (see Keeneland Numbers are Troubling) and Kentucky Supreme Court Ruling Could Put End to Historical Racing on the right.
“Our farm was really lucky–we had some homebreds who hit all the targets,” she said. “But, of the homebreds I had who didn't hit the target, they sold. If I didn't want to go through the 2-year-old sale or bring them home to race, I put them through with no reserve… When I'm putting these yearlings through with no reserve, it's because in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'Okay, from the September sale to the 2-year-old sale in April–as long as I still have them–it's going to run about $30,000. Do I want to put that much more into this horse to find out if he's fast or slow or sound or unsound?' If I have questions myself, I'm probably going to let someone else find out.”
Brogden said she expects more of the same heading into the final yearling sales of the season and the breeding stock auctions beginning in November.
“It's a domino effect,” she said. “The 2-year-old pinhookers got crucified [in the spring], then it's the [weanling to yearling] pinhookers who got crucified. Then it's the breeders. Then, it's coupled with the fact that we have no unity in our industry–it's a perfect storm. The foal crop [will be down 7.3% for 2021], and it's going do be down another 20% in record time. Until we get together and have a unified voice, it's going to be more of the same… Our sport is being fractured left and right, and then when you put the economic part on to a fractured organization, it just slowly chips away at everything. People always say the same thing–everyone fights over the same shrinking piece of pie–and that's exactly right.”
Into Mischief in Huge Demand
Spendthrift super sire Into Mischief has been responsible for plenty of high-dollar yearlings and 2-year-olds in the past, but 2020 has seen demand for his progeny reach another stratosphere. The nation's leading sire, represented by the likes of aforementioned Derby winner Authentic and brilliant MGISW sophomore filly Gamine, started off yearling season with 17 sellers at the Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearlings Showcase grossing $6,745,000 ($396,745 average). His 57 yearlings to sell at Keeneland racked up receipts of $25,401,000–more than double the next sire–and his average of $445,632 was behind only that of Medaglia d'Oro (18 sold for $10,795,000 at an average of $599,722).
Online Bidding and Other Protocols Deemed Successful
Keeneland, in conjunction with Fasig-Tipton, introduced a series of protocols and policies for the September sale to increase safety and promote social distancing, including limiting attendance, adding bid spotters in the show barn, increased capacity for phone bids and the offering online bidding.
For the sale, Keeneland received 1,857 bids on the internet and sold 126 horses electronically for gross receipts of $12,165,900. The top-priced horse to sell online was an $825,000 Tapit–Stopchargingmaria colt (hip 410) purchased by Japan's Yuji Hasegawa out of the Gainesway draft.
“Any time you try something new–we held our breath a little bit to be sure the technology would work,” Arvin said. “We really were very happy with our technology partner on that, Xcira, it felt like all of that went just as smoothly as we could ever have hoped. The participation was really significant.”
Russell added, “The whole experience we had through these last two weeks with having three different bidding areas on the sales grounds; having telephone bidding; having internet bidding, we threw everything at it. It was very well received by everybody. Having three bidding sections here, and on the internet, probably slowed down the sale a little bit more than we would probably like, but the buyers were happy to stay [later] and buy, and that's what we're here for.”
Among the buyers active on the internet was the Green family's D.J. Stable, which signed for 12 head for $1,975,000.
“I thought the bidding process was relatively seamless,” said D.J.'s Jon Green, who placed his bids at home in New Jersey while relying on agents on the grounds for physical inspections. “Certainly, when we were interested in bidding on a horses, the bid was accepted and I won't say it was exactly like being in the pavilion–there's a certain energy you miss out on by being 1000 miles away, online–but as far as the process of bidding, having the bid accepted and ultimately buying horse, it was as close to buying the horse in person as it could be.”
D.J. bought five horses who RNA'd in the ring.
“For the most part, once a horse went through the ring and didn't bring the reserve–especially earlier in the sale–I think the consignors and sellers were much more readily interested in negotiating and working out a sale,” Green noted. “I think as the sale went on, consignors and sellers did a much better job of reacting to the marketplace and lowering reserves.”
Cupid Colt Tops Final Session
A colt from the first crop of GISW Cupid topped Friday's final KEESEP session on a winning bid of $45,000 from Scott Gelnger, agent. The son of MGSP turfer Long Approach (Broad Brush) was consigned to the sale by his breeder, Stonehaven Steadings, as hip 4116.
A total of 167 yearlings changed hands on the sale's final day for $1,163,400 in gross receipts at an average of $6,884 and median of $4,500. The RNA rate was 11.5%.
What They're Saying
“I'm just happy that the sale was able to be completed. I'm blown away day by day by the amazing horsemanship of the grooms and the show men and show women–it's inspiring. Without them, the sale wouldn't go on.” —Conor Foley, Oracle Bloodstock
“It's a really good crop of yearlings, by some young and exciting stallions. For the pinhookers, they have no choice–they have to play in Books 3, 4 and 5 [and look for] good physicals, by commercially viable stallions that look to have bright futures… They probably weren't so comfortable in Books 1 and 2 as they have been in years past just because of how tough it was at the 2-year-old sales this year.” —Keeneland Director of Sales Development Mark Maronde
“Because of COVID, there was a lot of uncertainty–not just in the Thoroughbred market, but in everything. After COVID really took hold in April, we adjusted our projections on what we thought our yearlings would bring. Fortunately, we had a great sale. We've not only exceeded our revised projections but we've exceeded our original projections.” —Tom Hinkle, Hinkle Farms
“I think that there's definitely value in the older stallions. People get very excited about the newest sires and the top freshmen. Personally, I was surprised that so many new sires were producing higher-than-average sales when there were very viable, proven stallions like Bernardini and Hard Spun–basically every older stallion besides Into Mischief–where you could find value in their yearlings… There was a value play for the tried-and-true sires who had 40 or 50 horses in the sale and you could pick up some of them at a much more reasonable price.” —Jon Green, D.J. Stable
“I definitely think with the vetting, sesamoiditis was viewed even more harshly than it ever has been. But, the buyers are getting very sophisticated now, where they're doing scanning a lot more scanning of sesamoiditis. I think that they're learning that that is a good way to identify a horse who's either going to have a problem or not have a problem.” –Carrie Brogden, Machmer Hall