There is an unshakable weightiness that accompanies the start of Keeneland September yearling sale each season.
As the world’s largest auction of its kind, the September exercise is where the global Thoroughbred marketplace gathers to throw its concerns and aspirations onto the wall and then looks to the two-week event to determine what is going to stick for the foreseeable future.
With the 73rd edition of the September sale set to begin on Monday, increased polarization between the top end and the middle to lower markets has been the dominant topic coming out of the early returns in the yearling ranks. Whether that worry is seen as a manageable one or an indicator of even rougher sledding ahead will be revealed over the 13-session exposé that is the bellwether exercise.
With this year’s juvenile sales producing spotty results, the yearling exercises have been a mixed bag to say the least. While the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale produced across-the-board declines, most heavily marked by a hefty buyback rate of 37.5 percent, its boutique Saratoga select exercise held its own with a gross that fell off by just 3 percent from 2015.
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The OBS August sale yielded more troubling results with both its open and select sessions posting heavy declines and buyback rates well above 30 percent. Given that the Keeneland September sale provides the broadest base of both domestic and international buyers, there is hope that once the catalog moves beyond the select Book 1 portion and gets into its second week, some previously unearthed strength could help level things out.
“I think the market is polarized and that is what we’ve seen,” said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales, the leading consignor at Keeneland September for 10 of the last 12 years. “You have one end is doing great and the other end of the spectrum is getting clobbered. And you know, I think we’ll see more and more of that but I do hold out more optimism that the middle market will have more stability here because there are just a lot more buyers.
“If the market is going to have a chance to have any buoyancy to it and lift to it, it’s going to be here because it’s people all over the world, it’s one-stop shopping. This is really the big circle on the calendar where if people are going to buy yearlings, this is where they’re going to get it done. I do have some optimism that it will be better in the second week than we’ve seen in other parts of the market, but it’s not going to be easy. If you’re a breeder, you better be realistic and know what you have. Either that or you’re going to be (taking them home and) racing them.”
This year’s Keeneland September sale will run one day longer than last year’s successful 12-session run and features a total of 4,479 horses cataloged, up from the 4,164 cataloged in 2015. With the cost of maintaining and racing horses as lofty as ever, many people’s filters are also getting that much finer considering they would have invest as much into a $5,000 purchase as they would a high-dollar prospect.
“We had a clearing out (after the market crash of 2008), and then we followed it right back with a ramping up full of a lot of programs that … created a lot of animals that weren’t necessarily being demanded by the marketplace,” said Kerry Cauthen of Four Star Sales. “So we’re growing, and we don’t have that many more buyers and we might actually have fewer buyers. So those adjustments will always happen back and forth over time.
“There is the other aspect that it costs a lot to operate the factory that is a racehorse, probably somewhere between $20,000-$50,000 a year depending on who is training and how they’re being trained. That is a pretty significant investment for a year, and a lot of people want to feel like the factory they are operating is a really nice factory.”
One thing the current market conditions have created is an opportunity for buyers to get pretty good value, particularly in the lower and middle markets. With Keeneland September sale graduates producing 38 Grade/Group I winners around the world this year to date, there is confidence that shoppers will still respond accordingly once the sale gets into Books 2-6.
“All I can look to is the success of our graduates on the racetrack this year,” said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales. “I think buyers tend to gravitate towards sales that provide results and this sale has out performed all combined sales in North America in graded stakes winners this year in all levels of the market.”
Keeneland September yearling sale
When: September 12-25 with a dark day on September 15.
Monday-Wednesday, Sept. 12-14. Book 1 sessions begin at 11 a.m. ET
Friday-Saturday, Sept. 16-17. Book 2 sessions begin at 10 a.m.
Sunday-Sunday, Sept. 18-25. Book 3-6 sessions begin at 10 a.m.
Watch: All sessions will be live streamed at Keeneland.com.