September Snapshot of Stallion Scene

Quality Road | Lane's End photos

by Chris McGrath & Stefanie Grimm

It's all the trees I feel guilty about. That, and the postman's lumbago. But while many people nowadays complacently compress the world's biggest yearling auction onto a digital device, a stubborn few of us will always prefer scribbling notes on the dog-eared pages of a paper catalog.

Whichever your preference, of course, you will do well to avoid wearing out the soles of your shoes during the Keeneland September Sale–not to mention other reserves, in morale or finances. Before you start appraising individual hips, however, it might be worth attempting a wider panorama of the sale.

Because their relative representation, across what is unarguably the most comprehensive of all marketplaces, provides an interesting measure of the current balance of power among Kentucky stallions.

We've divided the sale into three sectors: Book 1, for the elite tier; Books 2 and 3, for a version of that elusive “middle market”; and Books 4, 5 and 6. Pretty crude, clearly. Many horses in Book 2 will have far more in common with their Book 1 peers than with anything in Book 3; and some in Book 4, equally, will be different class from Book 6. But, look, it's just one snapshot; a picture drawn in clumsy brushstrokes, not a draughtsman's pencil. We'll just demarcate stallion representation across the two weeks, and see what–if anything–turns up.

The first thing to remember is that catalog distribution is never a simple, scrupulously neutral assessment of merit. The sales company has to work with consignors, and consignors with their clients. The freshman, for instance, needs to be given his now-or-never platform. Same with the proven elite: bury a six-figure cover in Book 6, and you might as well send the creature in towing a plow.

There are some consignors, equally, who remain adamant that a certain type of yearling will do better if relegated to stand out from the crowd at a lower level. Whether or not that strategy is justified, it obviously backfires in an exercise like this one.

Besides, the market will nearly always end up more or less obeying the cover fee. That's certainly true of spending, especially on new sires, no matter how loudly agents claim simply to be assessing the flesh and blood in front of them. Much the same can be expected, then, when inspectors and consignors try to anticipate the market. Even so, perhaps we can find one or two stallions that deserve an extra rosette.

Quality Tells in Book 1

There's an immediate caveat here, in that some of the best yearlings of the crop have already gone under the hammer at Saratoga. As we've already stressed, however, this is just one moment in time and by no means definitive. It was tempting, indeed, to combine Book 1 with Fasig-Tipton's Select catalog. But Book I does at least give an undiluted elite flavor.

The table below is ranked according to the percentage of stallions' September entries to have gained admission to Book 1, down to a ratio of one-in-10.

There's an unsurprising correlation between Book 1 footprint and fee. But the six-figure club has internal competition all of its own and, while the proportion of his Book I stock is only a scintilla higher than that of Into Mischief, there's no mistaking the statement made here by Quality Road.

Because this is a very important stage in the career of a stallion now in his prime at 16. This crop was conceived during his single season at $200,000, in 2020, a second consecutive hike after he had been catapulted from $70,000 to $150,000 the previous year. City Of Light had driven the initial rise before joining his sire at Lane's End in 2019, his swansong success in the Pegasus being promptly followed that year by other Grade I scores for Dunbar Road, Roadster and Bellafina.

Their sire has since reverted to $150,000, but it's obviously a great sign that he has managed to get very nearly half his September stock into the two showcase sessions. His first six-figure covers, in 2018, resulted in a spectacular juvenile, Corniche, and if that colt has since proved a source only of frustration, then the gap was helpfully filled this summer by a graduate of the previous crop, Bleecker Street, in the GI New York S. at Belmont.

Quality Road has already sold a $1.8-million filly this summer at Saratoga, where his four other hips reached $700,000, $350,000, $205,000 and $575,000 (RNA). Having worked his way up from a base of $25,000, it was vitally important for Quality Road to match his billing once promoted to the top echelon. So far as the Keeneland inspectorate and the consignors are concerned, at any rate, that seems to be pretty much what he's doing.

Nowadays, of course, Into Mischief stands alone in terms of his fee and, having exponentially advanced his record with the quality of his books, he accommodates no fewer than 90 of his 92 September entries in the first three of the six books. Tapit and Curlin, long established at this level, also house over 40 percent of their September stock in Book 1, and the phenomenal young sire Gun Runner has now also tipped that mark.

Having had 11 in Book 1 last year, the Three Chimneys champion is now up to 26. He has, moreover, already sold a couple of standouts from his third crop at Saratoga: a colt bought by White Birch Farm and M.V. Magnier topped the whole sale, at $2.3 million, while the latter gentleman also signed for another at $1.4 million. And remember that Gun Runner was only elevated to the six-figure bracket this spring.

The star of the next intake, Justify, has also consolidated well; while we should remember that Constitution remained no more than $40,000 when conceiving the 16 yearlings (of a whopping 105 in the catalog) that have made the elite book.

Beach Making Waves on Debut

Among the debutants at the sale, Omaha Beach stands apart with an impressive Book 1 ratio of one-in-eight. With two-in-three then surfacing in Books 2 and 3, moreover, he looks well positioned to maintain his early momentum as top rookie.

He dominates the table below which is restricted to Kentucky rookies with more than 15 yearlings in the September Sale.

Having processed 10 of 13 so far offered at other auctions, at an average $268,882, Omaha Beach has jumped pretty flamboyantly through every hoop so far. Even on the top fee of the intake, he looked fair value at his introductory fee and Spendthrift have meanwhile been characteristically aggressive in keeping him in the game.

Audible managed to get four into Book I, having already sent seven yearlings to Saratoga. He has punched weight with a significantly bigger proportion in Books 2 and 3 than all bar Omaha Beach.

The only other newcomers to break into Book I, with one apiece, are Catholic Boy, Vino Rosso and Preservationist. I'm a huge fan of the latter, who was launched against a fairly steep commercial slope, so he deserves congratulation for getting hip 179 into the premier book off a $10,000 cover. This colt must be pretty special, in the circumstances, so y'all get down to Barn 12 and take a look! The dam is a half-sister to a Grade II winner/Grade I runner-up and has already contrived graded stakes winners by Creative Cause and, wait for it, Haynesfield.

Don't be alarmed by how many of these freshmen will be doing the bulk of their trade in the second half of the sale. That's pretty standard for many established sires, and we all know how vital sheer volume is to the launch of these fellows. And it can't be reiterated enough that this is just one fleeting glimpse of one market, however big. Budget stallion Flameaway, for instance, hit one out of the park at Saratoga at $425,000.

All these horses have to do now is run.

Grass is Greener

One real paradox is the deference the U.S. market will show to turf stallions based in Europe, while giving so little commercial oxygen even to the most eligible imports to Kentucky.

A number of European stallions surface in this catalog, mostly with a single shot. Given American activity at the breeding stock sales in recent times, most of these yearlings were presumably imported in utero with their dams. And, curiously, they have all been given a ticker-tape reception.

Galileo (Ire), Frankel (GB) and Kingman (GB) unsurprisingly get the Book 1 limelight for their respective samples. No Nay Never, as a thriving son of Scat Daddy, fields four–one in Book 1, the rest in Book 2. But even stallions that maybe aren't so well known in Lexington get full respect: Bated Breath (GB), Calyx (GB), Study Of Man (Ire) and Wootton Bassett (GB) all field their solitary offerings in Book 2. Caravaggio, himself since imported to Kentucky, has been followed over the water by four from his last European crop and all but one are accommodated in Book 2.

Stoking the Embers

When a stallion is pensioned, or sold abroad, or lost prematurely, vendors always anxious about his residual stock being ruthlessly abandoned to fend for themselves. With the marketing teams no longer putting their shoulders to the wheel, these hapless animals tend to be left to fend for themselves. It's a tribute to pure quality, then, if they retain prominence in the catalog–as, for instance, when Arrogate sells three-in-four of his final crop in the first half of the sale.

They are all collector's items, after all, but the same is true of just three yearlings salvaged here from the final crop of Tiznow. Surely it would be rash to leave town on Friday without at least checking out this trio of colts. Hip 1195 is out of a mare whose son by Tiz Wonderful won a Belmont maiden and the GIII Sanford S. on his only two starts; and the second dam is half to a French Classic winner. Hip 2011 demands a look regardless, simply because you must never miss a visit to Crestwood's consignment. And hip 2090 is out of a Storm Cat mare (herself daughter of a Grade I winner) that has previously produced a multiple graded stakes-placed Listed winner by Tonalist.

Noble Mission (GB), meanwhile, sadly proved too well named, having failed to prise open the eyes of myopic Kentucky breeders before the Japanese cannily rehomed Frankel's brother. Predictably enough, 10 yearlings from his final Kentucky crop have been dumped towards the end of the second week, but I shouldn't be at all surprised if there was a gem or two lurking there.

Among those sires still persevering against neglect, you'll find some chastening names with a bare handful coming under the hammer. Several haven't been given anything like an adequate chance, but they're in trouble enough as it is and we won't make things worse by drawing attention to specific examples.

But it's too poignant to pass over the fact that the pair responsible for the first and third past the post in last year's Kentucky Derby, Protonico and Oxbow, can, respectively, muster just two yearlings and one. Let's hope both earned some renewed attention this spring, and might yet return from the brink.

Oxbow must obviously share the plaudits for Hot Rod Charlie with the dam of that heart-warming racehorse: Indian Miss, after all, had already produced Mitole by Eskendereya. Yet Oxbow would surely be amazed to learn that even $1.6 million was insufficient to get her latest colt, by Into Mischief, to his reserve at Saratoga!

Hats off the Middle Men

Here's a club you can be proud to join; one that shows you have done what it takes to achieve a viable niche in Kentucky.

The table below probes the very marrow of the market. It excludes the absolute elite, which for present purposes we'll define as those (featured in Table A) whose Book 1 footprint represents 10% or better of their September stock. It also leaves out the freshmen, who are a case apart and duly treated as such in Table B. And it cuts off at 40% representation in Books 2 and 3. Believe me, that's a true badge of distinction.

You may well think it depressing that even some of these rock-solid operators must sell half their September stock in the second half of the sale. But all you have to do is think of your favorite stallion that might be eligible for this table, only he's nowhere to be seen. A quick, back-of-the-catalog calculation on his distribution will teach you due respect for these guys.

And, above all, for Ghostzapper. What an unbelievable shape we find to the distribution of his yearlings in this sale: just three in Book 1, but just four in Books 4, 5 and 6. And 33 crammed into Books 2 and 3! That is what I call a stallion you can set your clock by.

There are quite a few other veterans in this group, the odd pensioner, and indeed sadly a couple that have left us altogether. Conversely there are also one or two younger guns, notably Not This Time, who are laying strong foundations for the leap into that one-in-10 Book I echelon as the ageing sires in that group fade.

True, some of these are still riding that initial commercial wave, their longevity at this level contingent on the deeds of stock now venturing onto the racetrack. But I tip my hat to anyone who can keep less than 25% of his trade out of Books 4 through 6, as has Munnings in maintaining his model rise.

If only the “middle market” truly represented the middle of the road! Wherever you find yourself this September, mind the traffic–and good luck.

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