The ideal spring weather that greeted Keeneland's under-tack preview show on Thursday could not have been more appropriate considering the circumstances.
After months of dreary results in the Thoroughbred auction arena, the 2-year-old marketplace has provided the business with some needed stability and, just as important, some bright spots.
A year after suffering across-the-board double-digit declines, Keeneland's April 2-year-olds in training sale takes place Monday with a decidedly more upbeat mood surrounding it.
Several of this year's major juvenile auctions — including the Fasig-Tipton Florida Select sale and the OBS March exercise — posted gains in average and median, signs that suggest a recovery might be on the horizon for the market.
As consignors and buyers watched many of the catalogued 2-year-olds go through their presale workouts last week, there was hope the broad base of buyers who have buoyed the juvenile market would continue to show up at Keeneland.
"What we saw at OBS was certainly encouraging for the market," said consignor Niall Brennan. "There was a good, solid buyer base, not just at the top end but in the middle, and those $50,000- to $100,000-range horses were moving.
"That's the real price range in today's economy, where a guy can make a living selling his horse, but the people buying them can also have a good shot. They're not having to overpay for horses, and that's a good thing. Hopefully, it will carry over into this sale."
That sales participants as a whole have adjusted to the reality of the marketplace is part of the reason the 2-year-old arena has seen more success than some of the yearling and breeding-stock auctions last season.
While buyer confidence has improved, some say the overall prices have finally dropped to a point where even conservative spenders feel comfortable bidding.
"The product has fallen in value so far that it's now in line with what the economy dictates people will spend," consignor Jerry Bailey said. "That's what it seems like to me. And you have smaller sales, so supply and demand is a factor. Hopefully, we'll slowly build from here. I don't expect it to be overnight. It's going to be a long, slow grind like everything is."
Keeneland is among those offering a compact catalog, with 181 horses initially entered for Monday's sale. But as of Sunday afternoon, 53 horses had been withdrawn from the auction.
"We tend to see (a lot of scratches) every year here," Brennan said. "Myself, I think it's possibly because (entries) for the sale are closed so early (in January) that we're forced to enter these horses a long way out.
"I think a lot of horses are double entered in sales ... and this sale was a backup plan. But I think, if this sale was held open longer, it would be possible to have a real number."
There might not be as many horses, but the quality of the Keeneland catalog has earned praise as one of the strongest books this season.
Last year's sale included champion Lookin At Lucky, and many hope this year's auction produces momentum as well as future racing standouts.
"I don't know if I'd call it a recovery, but I think we've probably stopped the free fall momentarily, hopefully," Bailey said. "Things look a little better. We've seen at the 2-year-old sales this year that a lot of people look for the better-bred horses, so hopefully that will carry over, and we'll have a decent sale."
The Keeneland sale begins at 4 p.m. Monday.