There were moments during the last two weeks when the Thoroughbred market bore striking resemblance to the heyday of five years ago, as a multitude of seven-figure mares passed through the ring bringing final bids well above expectations.
Just below the high-powered top end, however, came results more based in reality. As the Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale concluded Friday, an overall look at the market showed that while the results were encouraging, they were also polarized.
Strength at the top and a breadth of international buyers helped balance out some soft spots in the Thoroughbred sales area as the 11-session Keeneland November exercise wrapped up a solid edition of the 2012 auction season.
Since last year's November sale featured the lucrative dispersals from Edward P. Evans and Chanteclair Farm — which accounted for a combined 16 seven-figure horses and more than $72.7 million in gross — it's challenging to make direct comparisons between this year's sale and last year's in major categories.
With seven mares breaking the million-dollar barrier, including Grade I winner Pure Clan, who sold to Borges Torrealba Holdings for a sale-topping $4.5 million, the overall gross of $143,025,600 from 2,414 horses sold was down from the $208,511,200 generated by 2,554 sold last year, including the dispersals.
This year's overall average of $59,248 and median of $22,000 were down from $81,641 and $24,000 in 2011, respectively.
However, when gross sales from the two dispersals are excluded from 2011 totals, this season's gross is up 5.36 percent compared with 2011; the average was up 2.74 percent; and the median was up 10 percent.
"Obviously, the top end of the market was very good, outstanding really, and I think the high middle market was good," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales, which led all consignors with $20,071,700 in sales from 207 horses sold. "But if you get to where you're over the cliff, there's a fine line between $50,000 and $5,000.
"The top end was going up, the bottom end is going down and the middle is kind of middling along doing OK."
A trend from the September yearling auction that carried over in both the Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton November sales was strong buyer participation from more than just the usual big-name suspects.
On the domestic side, Mandy Pope's Whisper Hill Farm operation made a splash by purchasing 2011 Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty for $4.2 million during Keeneland's opening session.
However, Nicolas de Watrigant's France-based Mandore International Agency shopped the hardest, taking back five horses for $10,235,000, including the regally bred Changing Skies for $4.2 million.
Japanese buyers also continued to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate and their success with American bloodlines. Katsumi Yoshida and Shadai Farm were both major players on top offerings.
"I'm most encouraged now that there is a buyer for almost every horse," said Headley Bell of Mill Ridge Farm. "That tier just right below the top is hard to fill but there is demand throughout."
While a relatively small supply of desirable mares helped stabilize the broodmare side of the equation, a greater influx of weanlings resulted in tougher going with the babies.
Still, those who did buy weanlings could be in line to enjoy a favorable yearling season in 2013, considering the shrinking foal crop means there will be less of that product on the market.