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Stability reigns at 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale

The mantras uttered by participants in the Thoroughbred sales arena have taken on a broken-record tone: Good horses will bring the good money. Selectively still reigns. To get the very best of the best, one's wallet is going to have to stretch.

It is a tribute to market stability that such refrains haven't altered much in recent years. With the Keeneland September yearling sale concluding its 12-day run Saturday, the above sentiments held strong while producing substantial returns that will likely ensure similar expectations heading into the upcoming breeding stock sales.

Diverse buying power on the domestic and international fronts once again emerged to drive the Thoroughbred industry's bellwether auction. The September sale yielded positive key indicators across the board. That included its highest cumulative gross since 2008.

Selling 2,745 horses this year, fewer than the 2,819 sold over 13 days in 2014, the gross receipts came in at $281,496,100, up from last year's figure of $279,960,500. The average of $102,549 was up 3.26 percent over the previous year's total, with the median coming in at a record-tying $50,000 for a third consecutive year.

"Last year we wanted to create stability in the market. That was very important, having had such a volatile time (with the economic crash in 2008) and then we had two good years in a row," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "We need good solid sales and stability in this market, and I think we accomplished that last year, and we accomplished that again this year.

"Our whole goal is we want everyone to get a piece of the pie. You want the stallion master to get a good return on his investment, you want the breeder to get a good return on their investment, we want the purchaser to get a good racehorse that can perform at whatever level the person wants to buy for. The last couple years, everyone seems to be getting that."

Though some sessions — most notably the start of the Book 3 portion of the catalog — took on a feast-or-famine feel, competition was energetic. Several buyers noted that it has become particularly tough to get those horses everyone lands on.

Eleven horses sold for $1 million or more, compared with 13 that hit that level last season; this year's sales topper was a son of Tapit bought for $2.1 million by Mandy Pope. A total of 123 horses sold for $400,000 or more and spanned Books 1-4, versus 121 horses in the same range sold in Books 1-2 in 2014.

A trickle-down effect produced some breakout prices at middle-market levels. During the second Book 3 session, a Curlin filly sold for $975,000, the highest price recorded in Book 3 since the sale of a Johannesburg colt for $1 million in 2007.

"I think it was good to see the money spread around," said Ned Toffey, general manger of Spendthrift Farm, which bought seven horses for a total of $2,302,000. "Sunday (of Book 3) ... that looks like the only day that I felt like we had some good solid horses that we didn't get any significant money on. Otherwise I think it's been a really solid, fair market."

The discriminatory nature of shoppers is one reason they all end up fighting over the same product. The rate of horses not sold finished at 24.3 percent, up from 21.8 percent in 2014, though it was tracking at over 30 percent at the end of the select Book 1 portion of the catalog.

Though the foal crop has started trending slightly upward from where it was when the current yearlings were bred, a healthy marketplace can be sustainable as long as realism remains.

"I think that market stability is encouraging, but it's not such a dramatic uptick that it would encourage a lot of additional breeding or additional upward movement in stallion fees," said Tom Thornbury, Keeneland's associate director of sales.

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