The juvenile marketplace has long been among the most polarizing in the Thoroughbred sales ring, understandable considering its performance-driven roots.
Heading into Monday's April 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale at Keene land, the success of this season's other juvenile auctions has raised hopes that buyers will tamp down such highly selective tendencies.
Like the breeding stock sales that came before it, this year's juvenile exercises have maintained the momentum that has edged its way back into the market.
Boutique sales at OBS, Barretts and Fasig-Tipton Florida all posted gains in key categories. The Keeneland April sale, the season's last major select sale of 2-year-olds, has little reason not to follow the trend given the quality of offerings and the strong attendance at Thursday's under-tack show.
Last year's Keeneland April sale saw a slight annual increase in the average price although median and gross declined as 59 horses were sold compared with 70 in 2011.
With 46 horses from the 137 cataloged listed as outs as of Sunday, there should be plenty of competition at the top end and — sellers hope — a trickle down of urgency from buyers who are running out of time to fill orders.
"The one thing we've seen with the select sales is it's shopped very intensely, it's become boutiquish," said Niall Brennan after a Dixie Union filly from his consignment recorded the fastest breeze during the under-tack show, covering 1⁄8 mile in 94⁄5 seconds. "The horses that kind of jump through all the hoops, so to speak, are the ones who get the job done.
"And because there are a small number of horses, people can really be almost too critical on their approach because they can get all the horses looked at so easily. But I think we've seen the later in the year the sale, the more active people are. It seems the closer (the juveniles) get to running, the more people are wanting them."
The small number of offerings lends itself to buyers targeting the same top few horses, which typically leads to a high rate of horses not sold.
But some of the sale's more notable graduates include middle-market scores such as 2012 Travers Stakes winner Golden Ticket (purchased for $100,000 in 2011), a fact officials hope will encourage buyers to be more expansive in their shopping.
"The 2-year-old market has always been a very polarized market, and performance adds an extra factor to it," said Geoffrey Russell, Keene land's director of sales. "The horses who perform well always tend to sell very well but ... we hope to find a little more depth to the market here. Some of those horses who have been very successful have come in that middle-market range ... so we're hoping those horses will encourage people in the middle market to come here."
Even though one of Brennan's offerings was a star of the under-tack show, he would like to see buyers focus less on the horses' times over the course of a furlong and more on the mechanics of how they move and the potential in their physical being and bloodlines.
"Unfortunately, the buyers do gravitate toward the speed, toward the clock," Brennan said. "And I'd like to think as a seller and as a horseman the buyers will focus on the horse and how they move and what they're bred to do. We don't race over one furlong, so it's kind of a paradox that they're judged on that. But that's the way the game is played. But we try to develop the horses at their own rate and let them do what they can do themselves."
The Keeneland sale begins at 4 p.m. Monday.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: Horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.