If there is anything that could buffer the Keene land September yearling sale against the major declines that have permeated the Thoroughbred marketplace this season, many thought the strength of its opening sessions was it.
But, instead of gaining a cushion over its first two days, the marathon auction once again finds itself in need of a remarkable comeback.
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For the second consecutive year, the top end of the market did not supply the kind of barn-burner results sales officials were hoping for as gross and median took a hit during Tuesday's second session.
The overall gross of $113,357,000 for the first two days was down 22 percent from a year ago while the average dropped 12.4 percent from $431,386 in 2007 to $377,857 this year.
The overall median of $300,000 is equal to that of a year ago in part because of a high rate of horses not sold — 30.6 percent for the first two sessions this year.
"I think the world today is a lot different than this time last year," said Geoffrey Russell, Keeneland's director of sales. "You have credit crunch, you have lack of easy financing. All those things play into lack of discretionary income to spend on Thoroughbreds."
The September 2007 sale also struggled the first two days only to post gains during subsequent sessions.
Considering the middle market is the area that has felt the biggest economic crunch this year, such a surge would not appear to be in the cards this time around.
"I would think this weekend things would start going downhill pretty rapidly," said Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."
Although a dozen horses reached the seven-figure mark on Tuesday, up from five on Monday, the numbers were far off last year's levels when a total of 30 horses sold for $1 million or more during the first two sessions.
"I think there is some restraint by everybody," said Doug Cauthen, president of WinStar Farm, which bought a bay son of Distorted Humor for $1.2 million Tuesday in the name of Maverick Racing. "It's a function of the market and a function of the economy. I think everyone is being a little price sensitive."
Even when the bidding did reach seven figures Tuesday, the wallets seemed to tighten as soon as the board flashed that coveted $1 million.
A bay colt by A.P. Indy out of the Halo mare Taegu topped the session when it sold to Rick Nichols on behalf of Shadwell Estate for $1.5 million. That relatively routine figure ended up being the third-highest price for a horse in the first two days.
"He's a very nice A.P. Indy," Nichols said of the colt that was consigned by Mount Brilliant Farm and is a half brother to graded-stakes winner Classic Elegance.
Like many marquee auctions, the September sale has relied on its top buyers — Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and his rivals from Coolmore Stud — to pump out the most funds. Both parties, however, have so far been less aggressive in their spending.
John Ferguson, agent for Sheikh Mohammed, has bought 19 horses for $15,655,000, down slightly from the $16,230,000 he paid for 15 horses during the first two days a year ago. However, the real pullback has come from Coolmore Stud agent Demi O'Byrne who spent just $2,865,000 on five horses the first two days one year after doling out $16,850,000 for 11 horses to lead all buyers in the select sessions.
"I think for (Coolmore) you look at the catalog and the high-end sire lines are predominantly North American which doesn't help them to buy horses for overseas," Russell said.
Added Ferguson, "Those are things you notice more than we do," he said when asked about the reduction in spending. "We will buy the horses that we find ... to suit the program. We will value those horses.
"It's not like we come in saying we're going to buy 20 or 30 or that we're cutting our budget."
For the second consecutive session, a horse who didn't sell stole some of the auction's thunder.
A day after Vallenzeri, the first foal out of champion Azeri, failed to meet his reserve despite bringing a bid of $7.7 million, one of the sale's expected stars, a bay colt by Storm Cat out of multiple Grade I winner Tranquility Lake, was withdrawn shortly after Tuesday's session started.
The colt, a full brother to Grade I winner After Market and Jalil, who sold for $9.7 million at the 2005 Keeneland September sale, was supposed to be consigned by Lane's End on behalf of Pam and Martin Wygod, but the Wygods have decided to keep the colt.
"The horse is fine, it hasn't been sold," said William S. Farish of Lane's End. Wygod "is going to keep it. He loves this colt, he loves After Market and he's very important to him and just decided to withdraw him."
The September sale continues Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Yesterday's Same session This year's Last year's sessions a year ago cumulative cumulative
Number sold146 166 300 337
Number not sold69 55 132 109
Gross sales (mil)$57.3 $78 $113.4 $145.4
Average price$392,534 $469,771 $377,857 $431,386
Median price$300,000 $332,500 $300,000 $300,000
Yesterday's top price: $1.5 million
Name: Hip No. 318, a bay colt
Sire: A.P. Indy Dam: Taegu Dam's sire: Halo
Sold by: Mt. Brilliant Farm LLC
Bought by: Shadwell Estate Company, Ltd.