One bright spot as the Thoroughbred marketplace battles the economic downturn is that new buyers have had a chance to get into the game.
Benjamin Leon is among those who jumped at that chance, and on Tuesday the noted owner and breeder of Paso Fino horses once again showed how serious he is about becoming a prominent player in the Thoroughbred industry.
One year after buying the sale-topping $4.2 million colt at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling auction, Leon made another splashy purchase when he took home a dark bay filly by Bernardini for $1.2 million in the name of his Besilu Stables during Tuesday's third session.
The filly, consigned by Catherine Parke's Valkyre Stud, is the fourth horse to sell for $1 million or more during the first three days of the September sale, surpassing last year's total of three.
Since getting into the Thoroughbred business a few years ago, Leon has focused on building a small, quality band of horses, especially now that top stock are selling for less, since the bottom dropped out in 2008.
The Bernardini filly is out of the Smart Strike mare Silk n' Sapphire and is a half sister to 2010 Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Shared Account.
"She's one of those fillies who has very good racing potential and definitely a very good broodmare for the farm in the future," said Leon, the leading buyer at the September auction with nine horses purchased for more than $5.9 million. He said the goal is to build a foundation for "what hopefully in the future will be a pretty good breeding program.
"When the economy improves ... the prices and value of Thoroughbreds will change back up," he said. "Maybe not to what they were at one point, but they certainly are going to go back up."
The first Book 2 session Tuesday provided encouragement that the momentum gathered by the two select sessions could carry over.
The overall gross of $78,356,500 is up 9.44 percent through the first three days, and the average of $238,166 is a 10.11 percent improvement from 2010. The median continues to hold strong at $200,000, up from $150,000 last season.
"An old adage ... is good horses always sell," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "The comments we've received on the grounds is Book 1 and 2 had good horses in it, and I think the results reflected it. I also think the number (of horses) has come down to meet the demand."
How the sale fares as it gets deeper into the middle market will be the truest indication of the industry's health. Although the quality of the pedigrees will decline during coming days, buyers have shown they are willing to take a chance on less flashy bloodlines if the horse is an outstanding physical specimen.
"You have to have pedigree, but I think the pendulum is swinging more toward the horse that everybody thinks looks like a racehorse," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who on Tuesday bought a son of Awesome Again for $510,000 on behalf of Brad Kelly's Bluegrass Hall. "If he has a great page, he blows the roof off the place, but if he has a good page he still brings a lot of money. But a horse with a defect will surprise you with how little he'll bring."