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Keeneland auction: Grim, or full of bargains?

When the Thoroughbred marketplace reached the end of the 2008 season, it did so bearing the fresh wounds inflicted by the harshest correction the industry had seen in decades.

With the 2009 auction season getting under way, many think the scars are going to get even deeper before any real healing can begin.

Just weeks removed from the disheartening results of its November breeding stock sale, more hardships are expected when Keeneland's January Horses of All Ages sale begins its six-day run Monday.

As the bottom has dropped out in the national and global economies, so it also has in the Thoroughbred auction arena. The Keeneland November sale saw its gross decline by 45.5 percent, while the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. winter mixed sale this month in Florida had its gross fall by nearly 60 percent.

Considering the January auction is generally seen as an extension of its sister November exercise, there wasn't a whole lot of sugarcoating to be found on the sales grounds regarding the expectations for the upcoming week.

"You'd have to think (it will be more of the same)," said Craig Bandoroff of Denali Stud. "The world is not a pretty place at the moment and we're not insulated. I think trade will take place. ... But none of us have seen an economy like we're in right now. It's hard to imagine people will come in and be aggressive."

Added Meg Levy of Bluewater Sales, "The economy hasn't changed a whole lot so we're just trying to keep on going. I feel lucky we at least have some quality to offer because the other ones, you just can't find homes for right now."

The November auction saw more than 1,500 horses withdrawn as many sellers chose to try to wait out the softening market rather than take their losses. That trend appears to be continuing as more than 120 horses already have been pulled from Monday's opening session.

Considering that most sellers are having to set extremely reasonable reserves for the horses they do leave in, some feel this is actually a prime opportunity for new players to get into the game.

"Now is the time you can raise the level of your portfolio because you can get a lot more horse for a lot less money than you were paying in previous years," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Sales Agency, the leading consignor at the January auction for the last eight years. "There are nice mares in the $75,000-$200,000 range that last year would have cost you twice that. There are some key customers we've been talking to saying, 'Hey now is your time.'"

Regardless what the sale's end result is, there are almost certain to be some fireworks during its opening day.

Champion Azeri, one of only six fillies ever to win Horse of the Year honors, is scheduled to sell Monday as hip No. 301. The 11-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter is in foal to 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and will be consigned by Hill 'n' Dale Sales on behalf of the Allen E. Paulson Living Trust.

The presence of Azeri is notable for more than just her obvious class. During the 2008 Keeneland September yearling sale, her first foal, Vallenzeri, earned a dubious place in history when he failed to meet his reserve despite bringing a bid of $7.7 million.

Although the current economic climate is admittedly not the best for getting maximum value, John Sikura of Hill 'n' Dale said that Michael Paulson, manager of the trust, did not bring the 2002 Horse of the Year onto the grounds just for show.

"We're very confident the mare is going to be sold," said Sikura, who added that Vallenzeri is scheduled to be entered in Keeneland's April 2-year-olds in training sale this spring. "We discussed prior to entry and upon arrival that the reason to have the mare in the sale was to sell her and if the expectations were such that they were different than market, then it would be expensive and a waste of time to come over here.

"If there is (a reserve) it will be very reasonable," Sikura continued. "There could be some people who still have reluctance (about what happened in September) but once they see the mare sell and they say 'Gosh, I would have paid that,' they've been forewarned."