There's a hint of optimism about Keeneland sales

If the Thoroughbred marketplace had an adage in 2009, it was that which did not kill it would make it stronger.

After enduring one of its most painful corrections in decades and having some of its longest-running ills fully exposed, there is now cautious optimism the auction arena has put the worst of its suffering behind it and can start plotting a path to recovery.

Undoubtably, the 2009 auction season will go down in infamy in the Thoroughbred industry as global economic downturns combined with overproduction and inflated stud fees prompted many buyers to scale back drastically in their equine purchases, resulting in hundreds of millions of lost revenue.

The one upshot to having results turn out as bleak as predicted, however, was that it prompted changes in both practices and perspectives.

Thus, as the Keeneland January horses of all ages sale prepares to kick off the 2010 sales season with its five-day run starting Monday, many of its participants believe the market boasts less uncertainty than it did a year ago and that its players are better prepared to handle the challenges that still lay ahead.

"Oh, we're going to fix ourselves. You get hit in the head enough times with a hammer you're going to finally figure out it hurts," said Mark Toothaker of Legacy Bloodstock on Saturday morning. "People have realized the market has adjusted downward but quality still sells and I think anything of quality here will be tough to buy.

"We swung the pendulum way too far one way in overproduction but, the way it's going now, we're going to swing back the other way ... because so many people aren't breeding mares right now. We just have to hang in there, survive it and get through it. And I look at this thing to bounce back."

Supply and demand is one of the most basic premises for economic success, and the January sale is already better positioned on that front that it was a year ago.

This year's catalog offers 1,753 lots, down from the 2,379 horses cataloged in 2009, and more than 100 horses have already been declared out of Monday's session alone.

Another point of encouragement for participants is the fact the Keeneland November sale — of which the January auction is typically considered an extension — showed some resiliency as it was down just 13.92 percent compared to its 2008 results.

Weanlings in particular sold well in November, a factor that bodes well for the newly-turned yearlings that were actively being shown on the sales grounds this past weekend.

"Instead of (November) being down 40 percent it was down (less than) 15 percent which I think showed that we were bottoming out a little bit," said Doug Cauthen, president of WinStar Farm. "This sale seems like you're typical January sale, not a huge catalog but there are some selected high quality mares and 'short' yearlings that have come in here that will sell well."

Though the January sale is not historically considered a barometer for which to judge the upcoming sale season, the results of the next five days could be a further indication of just how much buyer confidence has returned.

"I think people have more information now than they did a year ago or even six months ago," said Andrew Cary, general manager of Select Sales Agency. "The economy seems to be doing better, the European sales are doing pretty good.

"I think everyone thinks the worst is over but we're not out of the woods yet either. It's not like we're going to go straight back to how things were two to three years ago. There are still going to be some hard times, there still needs to be a bit of a reduction in supply but...I think people will start to see a turnaround this year and hopefully this sale can kick it off."