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Slow Keeneland sale limps to finish

It began with all indicators predicting its demise and, in the midst of its run, it found itself having to battle one of the most volatile economic climates in recent history.

The correction that has been threatening to hit the Thoroughbred marketplace the last two years showed itself during this year's September yearling sale, as gross, average and median all suffered double-digit declines compared to their 2007 numbers.

The overall gross of $327,999,100 was down 14.8 percent from a year ago — the biggest drop since the 17.1 percent decline in 2002. And the average ($90,984) and median ($37,000) were down 10.2 and 11.9 percent, respectively.

Given the current state of the economy and the overall softening of the marketplace, few expected anything but a downturn for the September sale, spread over 15 sessions.

But when turbulence broke out on Wall Street a week ago, it surprised some that the Keeneland results didn't bottom out with it. Despite the economic hardships, the overall gross still came in as the fourth-highest in sale history.

"Going into the sale my predictions just for our consignment was that we would be down 10 to 15 percent, and it's turned out we're down about 18 percent," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales, which led all consignors by gross for a fifth straight year. "When I was making those predictions I obviously didn't know what was going to unfold with the financial crisis the way it did. So to come out of here only a couple points out is somewhat encouraging really.

"It shows there are still people out there willing to buy horses."

Unfortunately for Keene land, even those with the deepest pockets were cloaked in restraint the last two weeks. The sale-topping price of $3.1 million paid for an A.P. Indy filly is the lowest since the 2002 sale, when The Mighty Tiger sold for $2.5 million to lead the action.

John Ferguson, agent for Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, led all buyers for the ninth time in 10 years by spending $18,185,000.

But the powerhouse Coolmore Stud contingent pulled back sharply, buying just six horses for $3,240,000, one year after leading all buyers with 13 purchases for $17,920,000.

"I think you've got to remember we're in a bad economy and it doesn't matter how much money you have ... for most people there is a considerable psychological impact," said international bloodstock advisor Lincoln Collins. "They just don't want to bring big money and they don't want to pay big money for horses."

The rate of horses not sold rose slightly from 22.5 percent in 2007 to 24.8 percent this year, including the fiasco of the $7.7 million RNA (reserve not attained) of Vallen zeri, the first foal out of champion Azeri.

Although consignors adjusted their reserves to get horses sold, they often had to let them go for little or no profit — an issue that continues to loom because of overproduction and lofty stud fees.

"The fact is there are horses being put on the commercial market that should never be put on the commercial market," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "If you want to breed to race, there is no problem with that. But it's the people who breed to sell, and then when they don't sell well, what are you going to do."

Added Taylor: "Most of these horses going through here (on Tuesday) are out of mares that really shouldn't be getting bred."

The going might not have always been pretty during the September sale, but there were positive signs to be found.

Although not as fiery in their spending as in years past, international buyers were a solid presence, especially during the middle and later parts of the sale.

"This correction would have been a lot greater without those emerging markets," Russell said. "We saw especially strong representation from countries whose economies are doing well ... such as the Russian republics, Latin America and Scandinavia."

The current correction taking place certainly had been expected, but the question now is how long will it last.

A continued influx of non-commercial mares is expected to take its toll on the upcoming Keeneland November breeding stock sale.

Still, there is a sense that if the marketplace can survive its latest hardship, the light at the end of the tunnel may not be far off.

"Even with everything going on, this is still the fourth-largest yearling sale we've ever put on. That can't be lost in all of this," Russell said. "The Thoroughbred industry survives everything. I mean, our first sale was during World War II.

"What changes is the value. There are going to be a lot of major decisions that are going to have to be made by breeders because ... the profitability has gone way down."

Tuesday's Same session This year's Last year's sessions a year ago cumulative cumulative

Number sold149 172 3,605 3,799

Number not sold30 58 1,190 1,102

Gross sales (mil)$1.1 $1.6 $328$385

Average price$7,621 $9,020 $90,984 $101,347

Median price$5,000 $5,750 $37,000 $42,000

Yesterday's top price: $50,000

Name: Dark bay or brown colt

Sire: Chapel Royal Dam: McConnell Springs Dam's sire: Deputy Minister Sold by: Eaton Sales, agent for Overbrook Farm Bought by: Diamond G Ranch Inc.