It has never been the job of Keeneland's January Horses of All Ages Sale to serve as a market bellwether, given the variances in the breeding industry and relative blue-collar nature of its catalog.
But more than one industry participant wouldn't mind if Monday's opening session set some trends that hold up for the long haul, since even optimistic expectations were surpassed during the first of five days of selling.
Highlighted by the sale of Grade I winner Nereid for $1.3 million, "better than expected" seemed to be the mantra in the sales pavilion as buyers again found themselves in protracted battles for the best offerings.
With 14 horses bringing $300,000 or more during the opening session, the gross of $15,331,400 from 201 head bettered last year's total by 10.04 percent, while the average of $76,276 was a 14.42 percent increase from 2012. The median of $30,000 declined by 6.25 percent from the corresponding session last year.
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Because the financial landscape remains largely unchanged, the vigor that spurred Monday's results was a pleasant surprise for some — but one they'll take.
"It's been quite a bit stronger than I had expected. There is more activity than I expected after how I felt Keeneland November went, which wasn't well," said Guinness McFadden, sales director for Three Chimneys, which sold graded stakes winner Potesta to Stonestreet Farm for $800,000, the second-highest price of the session.
"I don't know whether people feel better now knowing where the economy is going whereas before there were question marks; that's the only explanation I can really come up with," he said. "But I'm pleased. There is plenty of trade."
The 5-year-old Nereid, consigned by Don Robinson's Winter Quarter Farm, was purchased by Lane Seliger as Baumann Stables. Representatives of Dr. and Mrs. Naoya Yoshida's Winchester Farm were seated with the buyers, but all declined to comment.
Nereid and Cambina finished in a dead heat to win the 2011 edition of the Grade I American Oaks, and Nereid was second in the Grade I Rodeo Drive Stakes in September in her final career start. The dark bay daughter of Rock Hard Ten, out of Belong to Me mare Dowry, retired with three wins in 11 career starts and $303,800 in earnings.
"She had more presence than anything I've had in a couple of years," Robinson said. "She was the star of the show. She really stuck out here; she was extraordinary in this sale. I expected her to bring a very nice number, and she did. I felt pretty good about it."
While strength at the top end remained, polarization still came through as 104 horses failed to meet their minimum bids, resulting in a not-sold rate of 34.10 percent, up from 27.68 percent in 2012.
The market also was soft in spots for newly turned yearlings, with a chestnut son of Distorted Humor being the highest priced baby of the day at $300,000.
With four days of the sale remaining, the pace could continue to be brisk.
"I think it's a continuation from November, and November was a very good horse sale," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "When you're dealing with broodmares, there are very strict guidelines that people have ..., and having a mare like Nereid in the sale helps dramatically. A lot of people haven't fulfilled their orders, and that's a good thing for us."
Sales sessions start at 10 a.m. through Friday.