By Brian DiDonato
With thousands of horses on offer from the top of the market and on down, Keeneland September is unlike any other yearling sale and requires serious hard work and focus to shop effectively. We've caught up with several prominent buyers to find out how they attack the auction from pre-sale preparations and into the two weeks of selling.
This first installment features trainer Ken McPeek, whose prowess at finding top athletes for value–often with less fashionable pedigrees–is well documented. Among McPeek's long list of KEESEP finds are Hall of Famer and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin (Smart Strike, $57,000 in 2005); last year's champion 3-year-old filly Swiss Skydiver (Daredevil, $35,000); and unbeaten juvenile filly Behave Virginia (Unified), a $115,000 buy 12 months ago who upped her record to two-for-two in the Debutante S. at Churchill Downs in June. McPeek was listed buyer on 24 yearlings at the 2020 September sale for a total of $2,348,000.
This year's sale will be held from Sept. 13 to Sept. 24. Visit theworldsyearlingsale.com for more information.
TDN: What's the first thing you do when the September catalog comes out? How much pedigree work do you do before the sale?
KM: I don't do anything. I look at the horses–every one of them. I've been working with Dominic Brennan for years, and we turn over every stone.
TDN: Do you do many pre-sale farm visits?
KM: I'll do a few, but not many. I've got some key outfits that I go see. I'll go see some Three Chimneys horses and probably some Runnymede horses, and I've been invited to some others, but more than likely I'll probably just wait for the auction. I like to see them at the sales.
TDN: Are you an iPad guy or do you still use the physical catalog?
KM: I'm still a catalog guy (chuckles). I haven't migrated to the iPad yet. I guess it's just old school and a matter of habit. There are a lot of people who tell me that I ought to try it, and I've got the Equineline app on an iPad and we use it to create our short list and forward it to our clients, but day-to-day I still like using the catalog.
TDN: What do you look at first when a horse comes out?
KM: General presence. I'll usually look at a side view and check their angles. Then I'll do a down and back. Usually, I'll go on a lot of instinct in the beginning. I'll put a circle around a horse that I want to come back and see again, and then for the ones I don't like I'll put a line through and I won't make any notes on those ones, but I will on the ones I do like.
I try to cull each session down to the percentage of stakes winners it historically produces and then try to pinpoint the horses who I think fit that mold.
TDN: What attributes do you like to see in a yearling prospect?
KM: I'm real big on the hind leg. Horses come in all shapes and sizes, but I've never seen a horse who had a real terrible hind leg and they usually have a great hip. I probably select more distance types horses than sprinters, too.
TDN: How do you determine which owners end up on which horses?
KM: We send our short list to all our clients and go from there. It all just depends on who's interested. If I send a short list to a certain client and they react and say they're interested in this one or that one, then usually I'll let them look at the pedigree side of it. Or if a client says they're interested in one and wants to know the price range, then we'll dig a little deeper, do the vet exams, check the reserve prices and try to get a ballpark on what we think the horse is going to bring. Then I'll recommend where I think the value line stops.
TDN: How do you balance overseeing your racing stable with shopping the two-week September sale?
KM: Early in the morning, before 8:00, I can address the training side of it. I usually have horses at Keeneland, so I can go check on horses there early if I need to. Then I'll delegate what schedules I want for everybody. We usually have all that pretty well laid out during the sale, and my staff knows where my head's at. It's certainly not unusual for me to be on multiple phone calls with my team.
TDN: What do you remember about Behave Virginia when you bought her out of Book 4 last year?
KM: I remember that she was a beautiful filly and [pinhooker] Julie Davies was mad that I outbid her. That filly was a real standout later in the sale. We're getting ready to get her going again real soon–she got a little break, and should be ready for the fall.
TDN: Anything still unraced from last year's September purchases that you're really excited about?
KM: It's just a good group overall. I anticipate having a good fall with them as a whole.
TDN: You bought yearlings by nine different first-crop sires at the Fasig-Tipton July sale. Is there any freshman you're following particularly closely?
KM: Well, last year I was interested in the Unifieds and the Gun Runners. This year, there are some nice stallions out there, but I'm much more focused on the physical conformation than I am who they're by. I'm actually real big on the broodmare sire, though–I think broodmare sires are a big deal… I love the Deputy Minister line (Curlin is out of a Deputy Minister mare). You've got sires who had more strength coming from the female side. You have to look at the page–the Thoroughbred's a hybrid and when you're looking at a horse, you've got to grasp what you're looking at. Am I looking at the top line or the bottom line? Is there something coming through from the female side that makes this horse look the way that it does? I do a lot of that. And I don't get enamored with the high-priced stallions.
TDN: Any trends you're looking for or market expectations heading into September?
KM: No. I'm just going to do the work, and offer my list to the people who I work for. We go in optimistic every year. We never really have a plan or expectations going in. We just do the work and let the rest of it unfold.