Virginia Kraft Payson’s conviction has won more battles than any list of her achievements can do justice to, whether it documenting outdoor exploits as a journalist for Sports Illustrated or crafting bloodlines as one of Thoroughbred racing’s most noted owner/breeders.
Some emotional inspiration brought her to the Keeneland sales pavilion Monday for the first session of the five-day January Horses of All Ages Sale. In typical fashion, it was her passion that repeatedly prevailed.
A couple of notable legacies collided in bittersweet fashion during another steady but polarizing exercise. Payson purchased three of the day’s highest-priced horses — including Grade I-placed Summer Solo for $700,000 — all from of the dispersal of the estate of Sarah Jane Leigh, to pace an opening session that featured across-the-board gains in gross, average and median.
Payson, who counts Irish Derby winner St. Jovite, 1984 Travers hero Carr de Naskra and Grade I winner Rutherienne among her top runners, attempted to scale back her participation in racing a few years ago, even putting her renowned Payson Park Training Center on the market in 2013.
She couldn’t fully walk away, however, and her desire to own good families remains as stout as ever. Having raced against Gerald Leigh, father of Sarah Leigh, years ago, Payson always admired the operation responsible for breeding such champions as European Horse of the Year Barathea.
Sarah Leigh’s death in August cut short her plans to carry on the legacy of top bloodstock her father established. Payson aims to pick up that mantle; she also purchased Summer Sweet, a 2-year-old half-sister to Summer Solo, for $550,000 and a filly by Arch out of Seeking Atlantis for $450,000 from the dispersal.
“I really wanted to have one of (Leigh’s) families,” Payson said after doing the bidding herself in all three protracted battles. “I haven’t bid on a horse myself in years, probably 30 years, and I always had a friend of mine bid on the horse. But I didn’t have anyone and I kept going.
“I have the family.”
Consigned by Denali Stud, Summer Solo was bred by Sarah Leigh and is out of one of Gerald Leigh’s most accomplished mares, Summer Solstice. The 5-year-old daughter of Arch sold in foal to Adena Springs stallion Ghostzapper and made Payson have to dig in a few times after opening with a bid of $50,000.
“I have four broodmares but they’re all the same bloodlines and I needed some diversification,” Payson said. “The 2-year-old (Summer Sweet) will go to (trainer) Christophe Clement immediately, and the short yearling and the mare (Summer Solo) will go to Stone Farm.”
Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland’s director of sales, said Gerald Leigh “was a great supporter of Keeneland, and Sarah afterwards too. While we’re happy the market reacted very favorably to the quality of their horses, it’s sad to see the end of an era.”
Though there was a heavy dose of nostalgia in the pavilion thanks to Payson, it was same old, same old where the market is concerned coming off of 2015.
While there was plenty of money for the best offerings, buyers remained extremely selective in their shopping. Five horses sold for $400,000 or more, including a War Front colt that went to Cromwell Bloodstock for $450,000. The overall gross of $13,631,200 from 182 head was up 8.12 percent from the $12,607,200 generated by 204 head last year.
The average of $74,897 jumped 21.19 percent, and the median of $39,500 was up 12.86 percent from 2015.
The rate of horses not sold declined 11.88 percent compared to last year but still came in at 32.84 percent.
The market “is very particular. The ones they want, you’re going to get paid for. And the ones they don’t … ,” said Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud, which handled the six-horse Leigh dispersal as part of its consignment. “It’s chicken or feathers as the old saying goes. Fortunately we’ve had a few chickens today.”
The Keeneland January sale runs through Friday. Sessions start at 10 a.m.