Standout familial ties were the driving force behind Monday's opening session of the Keeneland September yearling sale as a pair of regally bred fillies became the first to sell for seven figures at this year's auction.
An athletic daughter of Bernardini and a bay filly by Curlin sold for $1.2 million and $1.1 million, respectively. During last year's opening session, four horses sold for $1 million or more.
Overall, Monday's gross of $33,165,000 from sales of 120 head was down 4.52 percent from last year, but the average rose 3.44 percent, to $276,375, with the median jumping 22.50 percent, to $245,000.
"I think the first day started off very well with some strong competitive bidding and a good cross-section of buyers and prices," said Geoffrey Russell, Keene land's director of sales. "It just showed the strength of the day's sale that we are so close to last year's gross with 10 less horses sold."
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In a scene that has played out countless times at the Keeneland sales pavilion, John Ferguson, agent for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai, found himself surrounded by media after signing the ticket for the session topper.
Ferguson, the leading buyer 11 times at Keeneland in September, secured the Bernardini filly, out of the Grade I-winning Empire Maker mare Mushka, with a bid of $1.2 million.
The price continued a tradition of distinction for the filly's family in the sales arena.
Mushka has sold for seven figures twice at public auction, bringing $1.6 million at the 2006 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale and $2.4 million at the 2008 Keeneland November Breeding stock sale. Her colt by Distorted Humor sold for $1.65 million to Shadwell Stud at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale.
"It's one of the best pedigrees in the book," Ferguson said of the Bernardini filly. "Mushka was a beautiful looking yearling, and I believe we were underbidders on her. This one looks very much like her, but not only that, it goes back to a lovely family."
Added Reiley McDonald of Eaton Sales, which consigned the filly, "It's always a great sales pitch to have a horse who looks exactly like its mother who is a Grade I winner. But in this case, this was Muskha. She had her head type, her neck. She was shown 250 times ... and she never got tired."
The Curlin filly, consigned by Fred and Nancy Mitchell's Clarkland Farm, was sold to George Isaacs of Bridlewood Farm for $1.1 million. Out of stakes-winning mare Leslie's Lady, the filly is a half-sister to champion Beholder and Grade I winner Into Mischief.
The filly was the first seven-figure horse Clarkland has sold.
"To raise good horses that come off your farm is really what is it all about," said Marty Buckner, Nancy's daughter and yearling manager for Clarkland. "It's exciting and just a great blessing when a family comes to life like that. (To sell a seven-figure horse) is not really in our wheelhouse, that's not really in our realm. We didn't predict that, but we were hoping she would present herself well, which she did."
Lingering spottiness in the market brought the rate of horses not sold to 27.71 percent, down from 30.48 percent at last year's first session.
Were it not for one offering in particular that didn't not reach its reserve price, overall gross would have been on the upside. A War Front colt out of Group I winner Meridiana, bred by Jon and Sarah Kelly, looked to be the sales topper when it was hammered down for $1.95 million, but that bid wasn't high enough.
"I think he's a super horse," said Michael Hernon of Gainesway, which consigned the colt and did not disclose the reserve price. "In the auction arena, everyone has their own opinion and evaluation which they are certainly entitled to. This was a case in point."
The select Book One portion of the sale continues through Thursday, starting daily at noon. Sales then resume Saturday and continue through Sept. 21, with daily sessions at 10 a.m.