By Katie Ritz
In just five weeks, the annual Keeneland September Yearling Sale will be underway. Despite unprecedented challenges and ongoing uncertainty, it will mark the start of a marathon of events for Keeneland and its future President and CEO Shannon Arvin.
“We've got a long fall,” said Arvin, who now serves as Interim Head of Sales and will be officially named President-elect on September 1. “We've got the September Sale, the October race meet, the Breeders' Cup that we're so excited about and then we've got the November Breeding Stock sale to follow that. So we're trying really hard to do everything in our power to continue to be able to host all of those events that are so important to the market and to the industry.”
On July 29, Arvin issued a racing and sales update that offered a glimpse into some of the protocols that would be in place next month once the yearlings enter the sales ground. She explained that Keeneland has been working closely with state and federal government officials, including representatives from Senator Mitch McConnell and Congressman Andy Barr, to seek allowance for international travelers. They've also been coordinating with Fasig-Tipton to ensure consistent protocols between the two sales organizations.
In addition, it was announced that anyone entering the sales ground will be required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test completed within the last five days.
Many questions and concerns have been circling throughout the industry on the logistics of this protocol, but Arvin said that Keeneland has partnered with Wild Health to facilitate on-site testing and that she has full confidence in the company's ability to offer efficient and accurate testing.
“We're working really closely with Wild Health, which is based in Lexington,” said Arvin. “We've got the ability to test in a way that I don't know of many other geographic locations that have that available to them. In fact, Wild Health has gone to California and other states where testing is not available and they were able to provide testing. So through that relationship, we are confident in the testing that they are providing. I think it's really important for people to know that this is not arbitrary.”
Arvin noted that if someone is able to receive testing from other sources, they will be welcome to use those methods if more convenient. She also said that Wild Health is prepared to accommodate anyone who requires on-site testing, regardless of the number of attendees who will be taking advantage of its use.
“We have access to a sufficient number of test. Nobody will be denied entry to the sale because they can't get access to a test,” Arvin said.
For anyone that may test positive for COVID-19, they will be required to undergo a 10-day isolation period before they can be tested again.
Arvin said, “We know the ramifications of that and we know how that could cause a lot of anxiety for people who say, 'well, what happens if it's a false positive?' We are confident the tests we have are sophisticated enough. Even if somebody is asymptomatic, if they're spreading the virus, that just heightens the chances of us ultimately being told by government officials that we're not going to be able to continue to host the sales, the races, and the Breeders' Cup in November. So we'll work with people, certainly, but we've got to set those rules so that we can act responsibly in the marketplace and continue to stay open.”
For all attendees, masks will be required and bidding locations will be offered in several remote parts of the sales ground in an effort to increase social distancing capabilities.
“I'm not wild about wearing a mask,” said Arvin. “But it seems like it's a small price to pay to be able to go back to business and conduct the marketplace. It's not political to me, it's just polite. However you feel about the virus, the virus is making decisions for us. So we just have to react in the way that has the greatest chance of getting us the result we want, which is to get back to the real world and get back to business.”
Although COVID-19 best-practice responses are subject to change in the coming weeks, Keeneland is continuing to develop protocols in conjunction with Fasig-Tipton, and Arvin said that more detailed plans are to be revealed later this week.
For buyers who are unable to attend this year's September sale, bidding will be available online and via phone.
Keeneland will be conducting a walking video program for this year's yearling sale. Consignors will be able to use Keeneland's broadcast services to film Book 1 and 2 yearlings.
Arvin has been conversing with buyers to find out how they can best utilize these services.
“I've heard a lot of people say that they're not comfortable buying horses off a video,” she said. “I've heard some people say that the video is what got them interested in the horse, then they called someone that was physically there that could inspect the horse in person to get that extra confidence you might not have in a video.”
The Keeneland sale's team is putting together a list of agents who can serve as a source to physically inspect horses for buyers who are not able to attend.
“We certainly understand that videos don't replace a physical inspection, but in light of where we are, it's a really good enhancement and an opportunity for people to inspect horses.”
Arvin's optimistic outlook remains unscathed as the calendar closes in on September.
“Back in March when all this started before my current role, I was, like a lot of people, having trouble sleeping and I was concerned. There was fear. And then at some point I think you just have to wake up and say, 'you know what, we've got what we've got and we're going to make the very best of it.' It's going to be tough, but we're making good decisions. We are strong, we are intelligent and it's going to be okay.”
And still, the annual anticipation of seeing that first top-class yearling enter the sales ring remains the same.
“You know, I've heard so many people say what a great crop it is this year,” Arvin said. “So we're really excited about it. We are going to do everything physically and intellectually possible to facilitate a really strong marketplace.”