Historically, the quality of the Keeneland September yearling auction is supposed to dwindle the deeper it gets into its massive catalog.
Five days into the 2011 edition of the 13-day exercise, the largest auction of its kind continues to defy trends.
Thursday's Book 2 action could have doubled as one of the select sessions as two youngsters surpassed $1 million to spearhead another day of bullish gains.
Moments after Ben Leon bought a gray daughter of Unbridled's Song for $1.3 million, Frank Stronach's Adena Springs went to $1.35 million for a colt by Awesome Again.
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Only two horses had broken the seven-figure mark in the fifth session previously, and none has since 2007. Thursday's pair were the second and third highest-priced horses of the sale, behind an A.P. Indy colt that sold for $1.4 million Sunday. They give the auction six $1 million yearlings, up from three in 2010.
"The fact we had two million-dollar-plus horses at this point in the sale speaks volumes," said Walt Robertson, Keeneland's vice president of sales. "Add to it those horses rank second and third among the top-priced horses so far is phenomenal."
Just as the overall number of horses cataloged was decreased this year, so too was the upper middle market portion of the sale. Instead of spreading it over four days as it did in 2010, Keeneland reduced Book 2 to three days.
The results have been hard to dispute when overall numbers are far outpacing last year's despite the still-shaky global economy. With better quality to chose from, reasonable reserves to work with and renewed confidence from buyers, bidding remains highly competitive for horses that offer the proverbial total package.
"I think the new format is responsible for some of it," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales. "You have less horses in Book 2, and by and large should have more of a consistent group of conformed horses. Last year we had a fourth day so you probably had more horses scattered through there that were more Book 3 quality."
Few will argue it is still a challenge for breeders to sell horses for a profit. The key part of the equation, however, is they are getting them sold.
The overall gross of $145,216,500 generated by 753 horses is 22.35 percent ahead of 2010 heading into the sale's off day on Friday. The average of $192,851 is up 17.64 percent, with the median of $150,000 representing a 36.36 percent increase.
"The reserves the consignors have put in have for the most part been reasonable, so ... confidence is being put in there that horses can be bought," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "They want to sell these horses and move them along. And they've been rewarded by the competitive bidding."
The fact that Adena Springs stands Awesome Again — who is recovering from colic surgery — was part of the reason Stronach's representatives had their eyes on the colt Thursday. Consigned by Bill and Carole McAlpin's Greenwood Lodge Farm, the bay yearling boasted a strong female family, being out of the Unbridled mare Legs Lawlor, a half-sister to 1997 Horse of the Year Favorite Trick.
"I thought he was probably the nicest horse I've seen at this sale," said Mark Roberts of Adena Springs South, who signed the ticket after being on the phone with Stronach.
The colt was the highest-priced horse the McAlpins have ever sold at public auction.
"He was a very, very nice horse, but obviously we're going to be surprised at that result," said Bill McAlpin.
The sale continues Saturday with the first Book 3 session starting at 10 a.m.