Among the many by-products of the Thoroughbred industry's contraction in recent years is that it has made top-quality horses that much easier to distinguish.
By conducting its select session as a best-of-the-best showcase on one night, rather than the usual two, the Keene land September yearling sale succeeded in having its most outstanding individuals kick-start the marketplace's bellwether exercise.
The compact gathering of boutique offerings lived up to its hopeful billing. Paced by a late surge of spending, including a session-topping $1.65 million for a bay colt by Distorted Humor that was the second-to-last horse through the ring, the auction registered double-digit gains in average and median under its new format.
There were 132 yearlings catalogued for Monday night's session, and 75 were sold. During two sessions last year, 129 horses were sold. Gross was down — as expected — by 33.57 percent, to $30,290,000, but the average of $403,867 and median of $350,000 jumped 14.25 and 16.67 percent, respectively.
"I think it made it easier for horse trainers to get here after they raced in the stakes over the weekend," Walt Robertson, vice president of sales for Keeneland, said of the single session. "This was a good start. We're up pretty near in every category. The sample is smaller, but the quality was greater. For a nice horse, there is a market at the top."
Confidence in the top end's strength seemed a bit shaky at first as the world's largest auction of its kind got off to a tepid start, peppered with a number of horses that failed to meet their reserves, or minimum prices.
As the evening progressed, the most exceptional yearlings came to the forefront with a wave a momentum behind each. Five ended up hitting the seven-figure mark — one fewer than the number that sold for $1 million or more during the entire 2011 sale — with the Distorted Humor colt trumping all with his pedigree and striking physical presence.
Consigned by Eaton Sales, the colt is the first foal out of Grade I winner Mushka, a daughter of Empire Maker, who captured the 2009 edition of the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keene land. With the board creeping up in $100,000 and $50,000 increments, the bay stunner ultimately landed in the hands of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum's Shadwell Estate operation.
"Good pedigree, nice conformation and fit well into the program," Rick Nichols, general manager of Shadwell Farm, said of the purchase.
"In this market, any time you crack a million dollars, you're doing well," said Reiley McDonald of Eaton Sales. "He had the profile that everybody is looking for nowadays, that neck set, beautiful long shoulder, long back and a great hip. He just had a great attitude through the whole thing."
One thing the market has remained very clear on as it recovers from a four-year correction is that it has little tolerance for significant dings in quality.
That discriminating mind-set showed itself as 39 horses failed to meet their reserves, resulting in a buyback rate of 34.21 percent — up 5.39 percentage points from the select sessions of 2011.
"I think it's very specific. If you have the right horse by the right sire and everything lined up right, those horses are expensive," said Hill 'n' Dale Farm's John Sikura, who bought a half-sister to Grade I winner Bodemeister for $1.3 million Monday. "But the others ... have a pretty dramatic drop-off, and the people want just what they want."
With the Book 2 section of the catalog set for Tuesday through Friday — sessions start at 11 a.m. — one thing that could keep the positive results coming is a strong presence of international buyers and the fact that some of the biggest spending operations have yet to make several purchases.
"I think for the right horse the money's here and I think this can grow. I really do," Claiborne Farm's Dell Hancock said after selling a half-brother to Grade I winner Contested for $1.05 million. "I admire Keeneland for stepping up like this (with the one select session) and I think it can go on from here."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com.