At the conclusion of a spree that saw him spend $22.4 million on nine horses at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, Ben Leon summed up what can happen in extraordinary circumstances.
"All the stars aligned and the opportunity was here," the Florida-based owner said.
Leon's comments came after he bought Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic winner Royal Delta for a sale-topping $8.5 million, but they could be applied to the entire 11-day sale.
The fire created by the correction that hit the Thoroughbred marketplace three years ago hasn't gone out, but Keeneland's November auction provided more evidence that the smoke is beginning to clear.
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The combination of having two boutique dispersals in its catalog as buyer confidence is on the upswing resulted in a sale that posted across-the-board double-digit gains compared to 2010. That included gross receipts of $208,511,200, which soared by 41.47 percent.
With the juvenile market holding steady and yearling sales producing positive numbers, there was decided optimism heading into the breeding stock sale, and it was fueled by Fasig-Tipton's November auction that produced huge numbers the night before Keeneland began its run.
In addition to shortening its sale by two days, Keene land had the advantage of the dispersals of the estates of Edward P. Evans, owner of Spring Hill Farm, and Prince Saud bin Khaled. The two dispersals accounted for $72,759,000 in gross receipts and 16 of the 23 horses that reached $1 million, including Royal Delta, the third-highest priced horse ever to sell at the November sale. She was consigned by Prince Khaled's Chanteclair Farm.
Keeneland surpassed its 2010 gross on the fourth day of selling this year and posted its best overall figures since 2007. The average of $81,641 improved 62.24 percent from 2010, and the median jumped 41.18 percent, to $24,000.
"I haven't seen anything like it in a number of years," said Jane Lyon of Summerwind Farm, which bought two horses for a total of $3.6 million. "I suspect (the dispersals) had a huge impact. It's sad that a deceased dispersal would help to pump up the market so much, but hopefully it will carry on to the yearlings."
Combined with the 50 yearlings it sold in the Keeneland September sale, the Evans dispersal generated $62,347,000, breaking the American record of $46,988,000, set by the Newstead Farm dispersal in November 1985 at Fasig-Tipton.
Lane's End Farm, which consigned the Evans dispersal, also established a record gross for any Keeneland consignor by selling 371 horses for $66,220,500.
Participation from international buyers looking to take advantage of the exchange rate remained strong. However, this Keeneland auction was dominated by two domestic operations, Leon's Besilu Stables and Frank Stronach's Adena Springs.
Emulating the battles of old between Irish-based Coolmore Stud and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, Leon — who led all buyers — and Stronach combined to spend more than $33 million. Although bidding slowed in the latter sessions, those who got shut out in the first couple days stuck around, and the weanling market in particular remained strong even toward the end.
"I think there are still some soft spots in the market, but overall, it was incredible," said Andrew Cary of Select Sales, which sold a half-sister to champion Zenyatta for $1.5 million. "I think it's optimism about the future. New York finally getting its act straightened out (by getting slots) was huge. When you have a major center of racing going the direction everyone hoped it would, that has a huge trickle-down effect."
Another catalyst driving the Thoroughbred marketplace is that fewer low-end horses are going through the ring.
"In the years past, the laws of supply and demand were our enemy," said Walt Robertson, vice president of sales for Keeneland. "But as the foal crop shrinks and the mares who are not commercially viable are not making it to the marketplace ... all of a sudden, supply and demand is becoming our friend. The numbers (of horses) are down, and they're down at the bottom, and that's been a big help."