The final impression the Thoroughbred marketplace made in 2013 was its most encouraging in years. Taking the reins from the surging juvenile and yearling results that preceded it, the breeding stock auctions produced boffo results.
Such momentum almost always spills over to the first major mixed sale of the calendar year, hence the strong expectations for the Keene land Horses of All Ages Sale as it begins its four-day run Monday.
If 2012 marked the year the Thoroughbred sales arena regained some of the swagger it lost with the economic crisis of 2008, confidence on all levels was flowing last year.
The decline in inventory that has resulted from a dwindling foal crop has led to heated competition for desirable offerings, resulting in many buyers getting outbid during the Keeneland November breeding stock sale that produced double-digit gains in all key categories, including a record-tying median.
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While the influx of buyers at the top end created a trickle-down effect, more shoppers in general have been shaking off their hesitations and joining the fray.
"At any given time in our industry, there are always people on the sidelines watching that aren't participating because they're not comfortable with where the values are, or they perceive that they can't participate at the level they want to," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales, which has been the January sale's leading consignor by gross 11 times since 2001. "I just think ... in 2013 they finally were like, 'I'm tired of sitting on my money, I'm not getting any interest on it at the bank and the stock market is good, I have more confidence.'
"That combined with this new foreign investments, farms being bought here in Lexington, and the foal crop being reduced ... it was like those three factors all came together and I think we're going to see more of that" in 2014.
A total of 1,590 horses has been cataloged for the January sale, down 16 percent from a year ago.
Because many lesser-quality mares have gone out of production due to the market correction in recent years, there theoretically are horses of better quality showing up now, particularly at the bottom level.
If there is a concern related to the market resurgence, however, it's that breeders might be lured into putting noncommercial horses back into play in hopes of capitalizing on the market.
"I think the bottom end is better than it was because a lot of bad mares that shouldn't have been bred were taken out of the breeding programs," said Guinness McFadden, sales director for Three Chimneys. "That's definitely a concern of mine, that other people are going to feel, 'We can just breed a rat to a rat and we're going to get $40,000 for it now like we did 10 years ago.' That's just not the case, and I don't know that it will be for the immediate future. There is still an extreme amount of uncertainty with regard to the economy."
While many buyers might be seeking to fill holes in their broodmare bands, the demand for foals is expected to be stout among those seeking a quicker return on their investments.
"I think people are looking at it as a short-term turnaround on their money rather than waiting two years to go through the breeding project and not knowing what you're going to get," said Meg Levy of Bluewater Sales. "At least when a yearling is standing in front of you, you know what you have physically ... and that's what sells, the good physicals.
"I do think the demand will come over from November, and we're hoping it's going to make (this sale) even stronger."
The Keeneland January sale runs through Thursday; sessions start at 10 a.m.