Among the heralded aspects of the current Thoroughbred marketplace is that it no longer depends on the buying power of a deep-pocketed few, drawing strength instead from a broad base of shoppers pursuing stock at all levels.
Even with a catalog more blue-collar than boutique, the competition for desirable horseflesh at Monday's opening session of the Keeneland Horses of All Ages Sale provided heat on a day when temperatures sat in the single digits.
Buyers seemed to come into the first major auction of the year with the same confidence that drove the 2013 sales season to its best levels since 2008.
Multiple graded stakes producer Life Happened topped Monday's session, selling for $750,000 to agents Alex Solis II and Jason Litt on behalf of LNJ Foxwoods, and mid-range mares continued to bring final bids that easily surpassed their reserve, or minimum, prices.
The overall gross of $13,714,900, from the sales of 232 head, was down 10.54 percent from 2013, although last year's corresponding session was spurred by the sale of Nereid for $1.3 million.
The lack of a seven-figure offering resulted in an average of $59,116, a decline of 22.5 percent from a year ago. But the median of $35,000 represented a 16.67 percent improvement.
"It might be cold outside, but it's hot in here," bloodstock agent David Ingordo said after signing the ticket on a Kitten's Joy colt that sold for $235,000. "It's not a great catalog, but the nice horses are selling for a premium, so if you want to buy something you've got to step up.
"Right before the market kind of turned, the middle market mares were selling really well when they were worth nothing, and now they're back to selling OK again. It's good because we've all got mares like that that we need to turn into cash, and it's nice there is a market for those horses again."
With many bidders stymied during the November breeding stock sale, a carryover effect was expected for the four-day January exercise. The decreased supply of bloodstock remains the key catalyst pushing everything forward, with particular interest in mares with strong pedigrees and produce records.
"This sale is strong as hell," said Carrie Brogden of Select Sales, which consigned Life Happened. "It seems like most of these mares, what I would have appraised them last year, they're bringing 40 to 50 percent more for the middle of the market. The top-end mares seem to be right, but I think a lot of the middle-range mares are bringing way more than I thought. And there is a huge shortage of pregnant mares."
Purchased by Brogden's Machmer Hall Farm for $4,500 at the 2008 Keene land November mixed sale, 13-year-old Life Happened has gone on to produce graded stakes winners Vyjack and Tepin. The chestnut daughter of Stravinsky is in foal to the Harlan's Holiday, who was euthanized Nov. 1 after becoming ill, and is a half-sister to multiple graded stakes winner Disco Rico.
"We really thought she would bring a bit more. I was here just in case, so we're pretty pleased," said Litt, who signed the ticket. "It was still a good amount of money, but at the end of the day you don't see too many mares that have this kind of production and potential."
The 2013 edition of the January sale was also helped by the high-profile dispersal of stock from Fares Farm. This year's catalog might lack potential fireworks, but the percentage of horses not sold — 23.93 percent compared to 34.10 last year — showed that consignors who set reasonable reserves often will be met with an ambitious buying audience.
"The clearance rate is the big thing; that is very positive," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "These consignors understand the market very well. You will see consignors during the day gauging the market so they can place the reserve in the right spot."
The January sale continues through Thursday with sessions starting at 10 a.m.